Sunday, March 28, 2010


Filthy, soaked and exhausted I arrived back at the shop to find my license plate missing from my motorbike. Immediately I suspected theft but I hoped it only fell off bouncing over these busted roads. It took a week to get the plate in Port au Prince so I retraced my path back through town in case it only fell off. But it was nowhere to be found.

On the way I was stopped by Johnny, a new mechanic at Haiti Outreach and asked to give him a ride home. So we bounced our way to the far side of town to his house, four mud walls and a tin roof. He insisted I stay for dinner. At the offer flashes of nights spent sitting on the toilet or vomiting passed through my mind. I decided to accept the offer despite the risks.

Under candlelight we shared a meal, me choking down as much as I could of the charred rice tasting much like it was burnt then scraped off the bottom of the pot. His family was amazing and superbly polite. Then as we neared the end of our meal perhaps the purpose for his hospitality surfaced. Johnny said his father-in-law was a pastor. I said there are a lot of churches in Pignon, he agreed, many, many. He said churches are a business and pastors the businessmen who run them. Then he asked if I would connect his father-in-law’s church with one in the States that would support them.

I explained that I believed in Christ and that the first priority of churches should be rooted in faith. I said money given to the church should largely be used to support the poor and not to build new houses and buy vehicles for pastors. I further said that my father taught me that money is the fruit of labor and should be worked for and not begged for. I tried to be respectful in my rejection of his request all the while aware of the crushing damage charity has done to Haitian mentality.

Pignon is a “ruined” community. It is on the receiving end of buckets of cash charity pouring in from the Sates every week. Whatever the intent of the money was I believe a bulk of it goes to support the lifestyles of an upper class wholly supported by charity.

Most of the residents of Pignon are hard-working lower class citizens. They don’t see hardly any of this charity. But their children watch it pour into the castles of the pastors and hospital staff. They learn that wealth is achieved through begging from white people.

The children in rural villages of Haiti are usually very polite, hard-working and fun to play with. But the children of Pignon, the ruined ones at least, are of the nastiest, most disrespectable variety I’ve ever encountered.

Today they tried to scam me, I called their bluff and they made me pay for it like a swarm of killer bees. Today we poured concrete in the base of a water tank, to replace a floor that had eroded away. Yesterday I had Haitian staff of Haiti Outreach with me to negotiate with people to help us buy and haul sand and gravel. But today was Saturday and it was just me and my three local plumbers.

As I drove up with a small pile of gravel and 4 sacks of cement in my truck I was met by 4 teenagers who offered to haul it down the hill for me. I said how much? They said 700 gourdes ($US 22). I said no way man, you hauled twice that much gravel for us yesterday for only 300 gourdes.

Then I proceeded to haul it down myself. It was a wet, rocky and muddy slope down to our worksite. I recruited Edris and another Haitian to help me. The guy I recruited hauls 5-gallon buckets of water up the hill all day for less than 2 gourdes a bucket. I offered him 100 gourdes to haul 8 buckets, more money that he would make in a whole day of work and still a fraction of what the other guys wanted. But when he arrived at the water tank with his first bucket of sand and told the other guys of his deal there was an uproar. The group of teenagers are of the “ruined” variety. They don’t see money as a reward for work but rather as something to be swindled from dumb white guys.

The three of us hauled the sand and I hauled the 95 pound sacks of cement myself. Then the group of 4 “ruined” guys proceeded to make the rest of my day a living nightmare. They assembled 20 of their buddies and stood right on top of our work all day pretending to help but all the while heckling me and making a big mess.

I’m generally a tough person to make mad but today they drove me to my breaking point. After 7 hours of exhausting labor, no lunch and incessant heckling I had a meltdown. Luckily it was only in front of Temelon and one leach of a kid when we were driving in the pickup to get a trowel. I told Temelon that I’ve had it with the disrespectful attitudes of his fellow residents. I told him I’m done working with Pignon. I’ll go to other communities that are willing to work for their water instead of belittling me with constant cries of “I’ll help you if you pay me, give me a gift, give me your gloves, give me your backpack, give me, give me!” I took Temelon back to the work site, made sure they knew what to do to finish the job that was nearly complete and retreated to my house. I spent the next hour eating and holding my head between my hands. I felt terrible that I’d lost my cool, exactly what the jerks wanted.

There have been so many good, hard-working citizens who have given me so much encouragement in the past weeks that it’s hard to turn my back just because of a few jerks. I wonder what Temelon is thinking tonight, my good friend. It’s hard to know exactly how I’ll resolve my feelings for the community of Pignon, a community ruined, not initially by Haitians, but by Americans who think they’re helping.

I think I know how I’ll resolve to continue, I’ll see one more incident of an old woman carrying water with all her might or a child malnurished and full of worms that he got from a contaminated glass of water. I’ll walk by the polluted, nasty, trash filled river where everyone goes to bathe every day and it will remind me why I came here. I’ll have to drive the memory of the hecklers to the back of my mind and put the needs of those hard-working Haitians front and center.

Thanks everyone for your prayers. Please pray that next time I’ll keep my cool and smile in the face of the hecklers knowing that I’m not working just for them but for a much more deserving kind of people.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ale Ale Un Ale!

(Go Go Get up and Go!)
The Pignon water system has been a constant battle for me since my arrival. At first it was a pair of hydraulic ram pumps that needed fixing and adjusting. A few weeks ago we got the pumps purring right along pumping record flows, until they plum ran out of water to pump. Apparently the increased flow stirred up all manner of objects setting in the pipe and brought them all down until they completely plugged the pipe.

Now I thought for awhile how I might clear a jam in an 8 inch pipe 2000 feet long. My first solution was to pig the line. That is send an object just smaller than the inside of the pipe along with water flowing behind it as the driving force. We had a wood plug made by a local craftsman, tied a rope to it and tried to launch it with a stick. It didn’t work because there wasn’t enough flow in the pipe.

Plan B: Hook an air compressor up to the pipe and “blow” the log jam up. So at the appointed hour we parked our new well drilling rig with its built-in air compressor within 600 feet of the pipe, ran a hose down the hill and prepared for a show. I crawled on top of the water tank on the downstream end of the pipe and dropped a ladder in to make the connection. But as we drained the tank and I crawled into the 3 ft wide by 4 ft long opening I could see a layer of trash and muck at the bottom of the tank.

The tank stands about 16 ft tall so by the time I crawled to the bottom I was in a pretty tight space with a tiny skylight above. I hesitated before I dropped my sandaled feet into the knee-deep muck. There could have been any number of fish, crabs or leaches but I figured it had to be done.

I began scooping up crud into a 5-gallon bucket and hoisting it up by rope to a boy standing on top to empty it over the outside edge. I dug and dug and dug, eight to 10 buckets in all of empty cans, bottles, gallon jugs, tree branches, rocks and sand. But I left the obvious obstruction in the pipe that filled the tank until the very end – for what I was afraid could turn into a mad dash for my life.

With empty bucket in hand I began pulling old tarp straps, plastic bottles and finally a large chunk of rubber out of the hole. And as the last of the trash came out so came the water. I threw the trash in the bucket and hollered for my helper to hoist it up. Ale Ale Un Ale! The water rose to my knees then to my waist in only a second. I jumped for the ladder and scrambled up right past the bucket. Within seconds the tank was full and overflowing. Everyone gave out a cheer when they saw all the water. And within only a few minutes there was a crowd gathered and bathing in the overflow.
The scene of the water tank. Notice the pile of trash in the foreground, all from the bottom of the tank.

I’ve got two local plumbers, Temelon and Edris whom I work with each time I go down to the water system. They’ve been pretty reluctant to follow my lead to date. There hasn’t been any water in the system for months and so there hasn’t been revenue to pay them. But since I crawled out of that tank all full of mud and smelling like a sewer rat, Temelon shook my hand and Edris gave me knuckles. These two guys have been working with a renewed spirit.

They repaired a door on one of the tanks where the trash had been getting into the system. Actually people have been bathing right in the water tank. Then a few thousand feet down the line people are filling water jugs to drink!

Now we’ve got a new door and a lock on that tank and Temelon started scrubbing and disinfecting the tanks as he gets them secured. A system full of water and functioning is still a long way off. But progress is being made and its progress I think we can all be proud of.Temelon and Edris..

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ninety bucks and a motorboat ... unforgettable

The day began at the Nazarene seminary compound in Port au Prince. Roger and I would be tour guides for April and Mustafa of the organization We've got a proposal in to them to fund some work we've been doing to repair wells damaged in the earthquake. We drove out to Leogane where Roger and I had scouted the previous Friday. Back to Philip’s house where a fight broke out at the well. A young guy took a girl’s bucket away from the well before it was full. She pushed him and he punched her square on the chin. It was a rude beginning to our tour with the folks.

Phillip is our local contact for the area. He introduces us to the people of influence and shows us where the wells are. Our HO technician has trained him to repair wells, a worthy skill for this 3rd year college student studying civil engineering.

The fight well had been damaged in the earthquake and repaired by a Haiti Outreach (HO) technician. We visited another well repaired by HO before heading up into the foothills, away from the chaos of the city. I’d requested a well that had not yet been repaired where we might see a situation with work potential in it.

Driving on a little rutted dirt road Phillip mentioned to a few people working on the road that we were going to visit the well. Within a few minutes of our arrival at a dry and inoperable well there was a crowd of 40-50 people. We learned that the owner of the well had become fed up with the local people not taking care of it, took the pump and threw rocks in the well so nobody could get water. It now sat as a 3 inch PVC pipe open to the sky with a busted concrete pad around it.

Nearby the well was a pile of rubble where a house once stood, destroyed by the earthquake. A hundred yards or so further was a tent city where a few hundred people now lived.

Roger, the HO lead community organizer, sang his song of how they could organize the community to prevent the social problems that caused the collapse of this well. He used little stories to get his point across. One went like this: here we started with a bag of rice. Every day you came to get a cup of rice. Then one day the bag was empty. The empty bag of rice looks much like that dry well over there. We’re going to show you how to replenish the rice as it’s used before we fix your well.

Roger would ask them: can you form a water committee to manage the well? They answered yes. He said, can you elect the committee so everyone trusts them with a bit of money given by each house every month? They said yes.

Roger said, everybody always says yes when he asks those questions. But now he stands on a soccer field ready to play ball. Will you, the community step up and play with him?

I looked into the faces of the crowd assembled before us and tears welled up in my eyes. These were hard, hard working people. They don’t need another obstacle in their lives. But yet here I stand backing a system that asks them to work just that much harder to eke out an existence on this busted island. It was hard to stand my ground and smile at them but I knew it was the right thing to do. Sometimes to show love, you have to do what hurts. This was one of these moments.

After the 3 well visits we headed back into Leogane to meet with the Mayor. The meeting started in French so Mustafa could understand but apparently it became too much of a struggle for the Haitians to explain themselves because all eventually began speaking Kreyol. I gathered most of what was being said and translated for April and Mustafa.

I was impressed with the no-nonsense attitude of the mayor’s staff. They seemed, at least in words, ready and capable of serving a people who desperately need their leadership.

After the meeting we met up with a few German guys who had been told to contact Roger by the Haitian government about the work they were doing. We called them, met at a gas station and followed them back to their compound, a collection of tents set up in a school yard.

Turns out they had a very sophisticated water testing laboratory set up and were testing all the wells in the area. They were using the GPS coordinates HO had collected to find each well. Their results were showing that about half of the wells were contaminated. I thanked them profusely for their work. It will be a great learning opportunity for me to teach the HO staff about water quality and contamination sources. Leaving the meeting, Roger was so excited he was on the phone with his technician to begin making plans to treat the wells.

By now it’s almost 3 PM and time for me to get a move on. Jean Wodle was supposed to get my motorbike insured, licensed and drive it out to me so I could take it to La Gonave for the rest of the week. But his two days already standing in lines was only enough to get the insurance paperwork done. So Neil arranged for a motorboat to take me to the island. Only I had to leave now and fast to make it before dark. Roger started driving, but at 30 mph and trying to eat his dinner while driving was enough for me to insist I should drive. I got the needle up to 50 mph and it felt as if we could go careening off the road at any moment. 90 minutes later we arrived at the port in Miraguane.
My little motorboat on the left...

Here’s where I paid the 3,600 gourdes, $US 90, to Fritzner, the boat taxi driver. At 5 PM we left the port for a supposed 30 minute journey. For some reason I had a great calmness about me. I wasn’t worried in the least, although perhaps I should have been when Fritzner asked if I was afraid of dying. I said no problem, but that was before the boat launched off one of the first great waves of the open ocean and came crashing down with such force that it made my ears ring.

Soon it was dark, we were both soaked and Fritz would occasionally stand up to see over the bow to take a bearing on who knows what. All we could ever see was a dim profile of land way off in the distance. At one point we came upon a big ship crossing our path. I though Fritz might ask for directions but he steered clear of them.

We eventually caught sight of a single light flickering amongst the island profile and Fritz looked at me with the first smile I’d seen on his face. He said “Afum” which means “we’re all good man.”

I was greeted at a small dock by one Haitian who took me up some stairs, through a house and out onto a dirt road. We walked in the pitch black darkness until we met another guy who the first guy handed me off to. One more handoff and my guides brought me to one of the only houses in town with lights, powered by a generator. And that’s when I found all my big white guy buddies. I’d brought mangos for them and they offered crackers and canned salmon in trade. Neil, Stuart, and Jim were all there with two Clemson University Engineers.

Neil, Jim and Stuart would sit in on a community meeting the next morning before heading back to the mainland. The Clemson engineering students and I would conduct a survey for a water system to serve the community of Pwent a Roquette over the next 2 days.

Today was a day for the record books. It was full of adventure, purpose and emotion. I felt like I was cradled in the palm of God’s hand all day. Love comes in many forms and today I experienced a good many.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Midnight madness

On a 200cc motocross dirtbike I stopped to give my camera and phone to the pickup following me. The river was coming up and I wanted to hit it on the fly. It was well after dark without a soul on the road. The dirt road full of ruts and potholes had been trying to rattle my jaw loose for the past 4 hours. My headlight scarcely lit the road more than 50 feet when the river was suddenly right there in front of me. I gave that motorbike all the gas it had for those last few feet but it wasn't enough. The deep water killed the engine and I jumped off into waist deep water to push it to dry land.

I was returning from Port au Prince to Pignon with a new motorbike I'll be using to get around during the next 3 months. The pickup that took me to PAP was following me, keeping me safe during the dangerous nighttime hours. The only vehicle I passed that night had the pedal to the floor and wasn't stopping for anything. The final river crossing that drenched me head to toe was luckily only a few miles from home. I was still on a high from the ride when I arrived at home to record the journey. On a high from the day's adventure but with a constant reminder that I'm still in Haiti. My stomach rumbles every time I smell food. After my second night waking up and vomiting, and living with a terible headache I've stopped eating anything but crackers and Sprite. I call this Haiti Happy.

Saturday night is when my stomach started rumbling. Sunday I hopped in the truck to head into Port au Prince. We were there most of the day, I was up and down to Petionville to get the motorbike and a few other supplies. The sight of all the collapsed houses was shocking beyond what I've read and seen on TV. There's just something about seeing building after building colapsed in front of you and thinking about the lives that were either lost or dramatically altered.

My guide was a 25 year old guy who runs errands for Haiti Outreach in PAP. He said his house colapsed and asked if I had a tent. I said no but had he tried getting one from an aid agency? He said they only give them to women with children. Many of the men steel and resell the aid supplies so the whole segment of the male population has been excluded from recieving any aid beyond a meal here and there.

I asked what his future plan for a house was. Could he demolish and start rebuilding his house? He said he only rents his house and his landlord is busy rebuilding their own home. He just wanted a tent he could set up in a small space in front of the damaged house. I told him I'd do what I could for him. But it's sad to know that there are many more like him. Good guys still working hard but not given aid because of a few bad apples.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

An African slide show and one big pipe dream

Most of the past week I've been plugging away on my computer writing a proposal to fund some work we have already started around the earthquake epicenter. I finally got the latest version off to our office in Minnesota last night around midnight. So this afternoon I had a Skype call with Dale in Minnesota to discuss some questions he had. The office is a little noisy to make the call so I ran the chord to my computer out the window and set myself up on a chair on the front veranda of the office. It wasn't long before I had a few curious kids watching me tinker on my computer while I waited for Dale to call.

As the Haitian people are largely descendants of Africa I thought it would be fun to show the kids photos from my trip to Africa this last Christmas break. I had pictures of giraffes, elephants, hyenas, lions, hippos, zebras, water buffalo, wildebeests, warthogs, leopards and about every other big game animal on the African continent from a week long safari. The kids were completely enthralled with the photos. One little boy would try to act out the noises and motions he thought each animal would make, he was hilarious.

Haiti has very few wild animals. Mostly all the people know are farm animals. Cattle, goats, donkeys, pigs and chickens are about all they can relate to. Just about every picture I put up they would call it a cow, a horse or a dog. Then when I finally started my Skype call they were fascinated by the conversation. They could see a photo on my screen of Dale and it was like they were part of the conversation. They could also pick me out of every photo I showed up in. Then the cutest little girl, about 3 years old saw the photo of me on the Skype screen and started giving it a kiss. I know it wasn't good for my computer screen but I couldn't stop her.

A pipe dream. Last week I was in a rush to finish a design of a large water system so my boss, Neil could go to the Dominican Republic to buy the pipe. He left on Thursday and thought he'd be back by Saturday. He's done this before many times but this time it was a much larger order then usual. He spent all day Friday going from store to store trying to find one that had enough materials to fill the order. Saturday was to be the day to buy everything but it turns out it was Independence Day and all stores were closed. Monday when he went to pay for the pipes all of his credit cards were denied. Neil had his wallet stolen the day before the earthquake and his new cards had not yet been approved for international purchases.

By Tuesday, one of his cards had been approved but it first would only allow a $2,000 purchase, then a $1,000 purchase. He kept being denied and charging smaller amounts until finally all $15,000 was cleared. Then the race was on to get the materials to Haiti. The store in the DR would only haul the materials to the Haitian border. So Neil arranged for a truck to drive to the border from Haiti and get the materials.

Wednesday morning they were off to the border. But the transfer of materials from one truck to the other, customs and rain delayed the process until after the border closed at 4PM. "None of this really bothered me," said Neil, "except all the bribes that my Haitian friend had to pay to get the stuff across the border." The Haitian customs officials had nobody else to attend to except Neil and his stuff. It still took them all day to determine a customs fee, $7,500.

Chew on this for a moment. He wasn't importing televisions or refrigerators. He was importing water pipe, wood and well parts that will save lives. And not just any lives, fellow countrymen of these very Haitian customs officials. On top of that, the Haitian truck driver tried to double his price for hauling after they got the materials half loaded. Neil had a few choice words for him and he came down a little but still took advantage of the situation. And the water pipe is for a water system that will serve the truck driver's house, virtually at no cost to him!

You hang around Haiti long enough and you learn not to let this stuff get to you. You just swallow it, try to limit the damages and live to fight another day.