Sunday, April 25, 2010

He likes me!

This past Saturday Ronald and I headed out to the mountains to take a look at an irrigation project the local farmers would like to get going. We drove motorbikes about 4 miles up a rocky trail before walking another mile down to a small river. I wasn’t sure quite what we were getting into when I set out the day. But anytime the initiative for a project comes from a Haitian I feel like we’re half way to hitting a home run. It turns out this particular home run would have to clear the big green monster at Fenway Park to be successful.

The river has plenty of water, the fields down the way are dry and parched and the local economy could really use the project. But building an irrigation canal the 6 miles through the Haitian countryside I was now looking at would be a serious engineering victory if it ever happened. We started by measuring the flow of the river. Then I sent the boys surveying down the valley to get a feel for the lay of the land.

I fell back and started snapping photos. I went climbing up a bluff to get a better view when I saw these 3 naked little boys leave the river and follow me. The bluff was at least 200 feet above the river, accessed by a steep, slippery trail. The smallest boy could barely make it up the trail, lets call him Johnny. He looked to be about 3 years old but was probably 5 or 6 with malnutrition figured in. He finally made it up to the top of the bluff where I’d snapped a photo of his friends.

When I started back down the trail to the river, little Johnny followed too.

I was going a bit quicker than Johnny and he soon started to cry, and loud. I asked, why is he going back down, doesn’t he live up here? They said he only climbed the bluff to meet you. And he was now crying because I was going to fast for him. I was shocked. Usually the 3 year olds start crying and run away when they see a white guy. So I ran back up the trail and picked up little Johnny, who by the way is wearing nothing but a little necklace with a cross on it. The other kids erupted in laughter.

I took my little buddy to the bottom of the hill and put him on solid ground with not a peep from the little guy. I’m not sure if we’ll be able to solve the big engineering problems facing the irrigation project. But I feel like I won today in the eyes of little Johnny.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Today was so crazy I’ve just got to get it off my chest, so here goes. It actually started last night, I had worked until midnight to put together a proposal for a new project. A priest near Hinche contacted us and said he has funding to drill some wells. But he wants them to have our community management model to go along with the new wells. I have been writing proposals for larger donors these past few weeks and trying to teach our local staff how to do it as well. Well this was a good opportunity to do it with a small project. I got the proposal about 80 percent done last night.

This morning I walked into the kitchen and the cook reminded me that I promised to show her how I make French toast. So I spent the next 45 minutes making French toast, which was a hit. I made 15 slices, the 5 guests at the house ate 7 of them. But when I asked for 2 more for my friend Henry they said they were all gone. Apparently when you pay someone to cook for you in Haiti you also feed them, their family and the neighbors.

Then I walked to the office and started putting the finishing touches on the proposal. A guy came to me and asked for the results of some water testing that I had done for him. I went to the lab and was explaining to him the results when another guy showed up, lets call him Ronald. I’ve been advertising for a student engineer to work with me the last 2 months without any luck. So here was Ronald willing and able to do the job. I told him to come back at 1 PM for a test and interview. Then back to the proposal.

Results of bacteria testing of a water sample. Yellow means negative, black means positive.

About 10 minutes later another guy, Abdias came to me and said some white guy is working on our water project in Pignon. I called the guy, his name is Jim and asked what is up. He said he doesn’t want to follow the plan we had worked out with the community and has just decided to do it his way. Our staff was in a panic, Jim was undermining all the hard work they had done for the past year. So they drafted a letter and hand delivered it to the mayor. Then back to the proposal.

A few minutes later Arronce beckons. The office is so full of people he’s taken a desk and set himself up in the garage area. Arronce is the guy I went to Leogane with a week ago to teach how to disinfect wells. He had the lab results with him for tests taken after the wells were disinfected. We used a lab that a German NGO had been operating as part of disaster relief. And it was great news! All 5 wells we disinfected had bacteria too numerous to count before our work and were completely clean a week after we disinfected them. I was so happy that it actually worked, I was on cloud nine for about 10 minutes.

The guy I was writing the proposal for, Roger then plants himself and his laptop down right next to me. Roger is the head of our community development team. He’s a great guy and really smart. But he takes awhile to understand new concepts. I spent the next 2 hours explaining for the 5th time how to estimate the cost of his employees time for a proposal. I think he’s finally getting it.

Then about noon this other guy, Samuel who just got married on Saturday comes to me and says he would like to take my motorcycle into town to get some medicine. PS he used to come to work in jeans and a t-shirt but today he’s wearing all black polyester and a gold chain necklace, he looks like a pimp. Apparently he’s still on his honeymoon. Back to the events of the day, I don’t just lend my motorbike out to anyone so I said I would give him a ride. It turns out his new wife wants him to come home for lunch every day instead of eating at the restaurant right in front of our office. (The restaurant is cheaper than the taxi would cost to go home for lunch). But I sympathized for this newlywed and agreed to take him home anyway. I dropped Samuel off and went over to talk to Jim working on the water system.

Jim was friendly enough. I’ve been trying to win him over with kindness. I’m always an optimist and I hope we can work this out and just work together. We all want water in town, we just have to communicate or we’ll be defeating each others work. After I saw Jim, this guy Ati saw me on the street and asked if he could borrow my shovel. I said I’d bring it into town after work. Then I went and got Samuel and we went back to the office. Ten minutes on the proposal and it was 1 PM, Ronald was here for his interview. I took him over to the guest house and found him a quiet spot to take his test. I talked to him about the job and gave him a bit of direction what I was looking for on the test. I grabbed a quick bite to eat, then back to the proposal.

Oh yeah, the proposal needs to be done by the end of the day so Roger can meet with the client tomorrow. (Roger just told me about the project and requested the proposal last Friday afternoon.) So I sat down with our financial secretary and hashed out a new form that Roger can use to give clients to estimate the cost of his community development staff. The form required a phone call to the priest in Hinche, which I had to get Henry to do because I didn’t have the patience at the time to bother with my Kreyol over the phone with someone I’d never met.
Every half hour or so I headed over to check on Ronald. He seemed to be doing great. I gave him 90 minutes and he finished the test. I’ve given the test to 4 other people and nobody has finished it yet, so things are looking up. I organized three of our top Haitian staff to conduct the interview for me. We all sat down and 20 minutes later poor Ronald was about shaking in his boots. Our guys are pretty into the water business and were talking over his head quite a bit. I had to keep saying, don’t worry man, we’ll teach you what you need to know. But this guy was sharp.

Ronald got the best score on the test of anybody who has taken it and he has the least education. He’s fresh out of high school and the other guys all had engineering degrees from universities in Port au Prince. Ronald also speaks the best English of any Haitian I’ve met.

Back to the mad scramble to finish the proposal. We got enough put together for Roger to talk intelligently about. But we’ll have to do more work before we submit a final copy. Finally it was 5 pm and most everybody headed off for home. I cleaned up after some tests in the water lab and called it a day. But not before strapping my shovel to my motorbike and running it into town for Ati to use. He’s digging a hole for a latrine. I told him he can use it for a week and then I’ll be back for it. If you don’t give a Haitian a timeline like this you might not ever see your shovel again.

I’ve been working like this most of the past 2 months. The demands on my time have been increasing as the staff get to know me better. Some days the victories outweigh the defeats and others it’s the other way around.

Henry said he’s going to Cap Haitien tomorrow to pick up the mail. I’ve been promised the gaskets I need to fix the pumps on the Pignon Water system are on that shipment. I ordered them on March 2 and I’m still waiting. Every time I go to work on the water system it seems everybody thinks I’m the guy to get the water going. I sure hope those gaskets finally arrive and that they’re the answer. I’ll be waiting on the tarmac tomorrow for that plane.

I’ve got a million things I could work on tomorrow instead of going on a trip with Henry. But I need a break and there’s a rumor they have ice cream in Cap. I’ll let you know…

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Future for Haiti

Look at this picture.

What comes to your mind. Do you think, 1) what a cute smile, and go on about your day, 2) This boy looks sick, let’s put together a care package and send it to Haiti, or 3) how can I bring about change to prevent this from happening to the next generation?

All 3 reactions are ok in my book. I think the first reaction happens in people who can’t relate well enough to a picture. But if they met this boy in person I think they would join one of the next two groups. The second group has the needs of this boy in mind. He’s sick and they want to make him well. And that’s ok too because this boy deserves to live a long and healthy life.

The third reaction I can tell you is a long and difficult road. Many people can’t imagine where to start so they take to the second group. Others start out on this path and eventually encounter enough obstacles that they return to the second path. But a few, despite the obstacles, persevere on the third path. They are the dreamers, the optimists. They see a day when Haiti will stand on its own, even when the Haitian people don’t see it.

Haiti is flooded with aid in all forms. There are churches, hospitals, clinics, schools, orphanages, youth homes and feeding and reforestation programs. There’s the World Bank building roads all over Haiti right now. And it’s almost all a donation. Every one of these programs seems to have their own ideas on how to “fix” Haiti. Most are in it to meet immediate needs. But a few are trying to give the Haitian people a chance to change their future.

To date I’ve had a pretty skeptical opinion of orphanages in Haiti. To me they seem pointless other than as a ploy to get money from the States. It’s an integral part of Haitian culture to send children from families that don’t have enough to provide to those who do. And it’s worked for generations. Until white guys showed up and decided they could do it better. But the other day I decided to go and see for myself exactly what they do.

I went to the most reputalbe orphanage around, the Cambels, on the other side of Pignon. They started 7 years ago with only a handful of kids and are now housing 47 children. Most of the children they take on would have died from malnutrition were it not for their intervention. They run a feeding program for area families and are going to start a temporary housing program to teach mothers to care for their malnourished children.

One of my friends here in Haiti is very pro-orphanage and was excited to hear what I had to say after my visit. I said I was very impressed. If I were to run an orphanage, that’s how I’d do it. But where does it end? How did those children get so malnourished and what can we do to prevent it? For every child that showed up at the orphanage and was saved perhaps there is another who didn’t make it. What about those that didn’t make it, who’s working for them?

Here’s what we know. The leading cause of death in Haiti is intestinal disease caused by drinking dirty water or poor sanitation. Worms or germs from feces make into people by eating with dirty hands, flies landing on feces and then on uncovered food, or drinking contaminated water. The solution is to educate people to wash their hands, use a toilet, cook food well, cover food and protect or treat drinking water.

Sadly, here's what intestinal disease looks like.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” But how many really believe this and have the foresight to follow through. I’m not saying to ignore the immediate needs of the child who is malnourished. We need people to meet those needs. But we need an army of people to look beyond the immediate needs and work toward a Haiti that can stand on its own.

To do this involves not only education but changing behaviors. This is not an easy task and not something that happens overnight. I use the analogy of smoking in the United States. Look at the PR campaign and the amount of time that it has taken to change this one behavior in a country that has an educated government with the needs of the people in mind (usually). The government in Haiti has very few resources and is full of corruption. The road here is only that much longer and steeper.

The logo for Haiti Outreach states, “Working Together, Building Communities”. That’s what we do here every day. And it makes my head ache. I’m exhausted and despite a heart overflowing with pride at the few small victories I’ve had I’ll be happy to be back on American soil in one more month.
Those of us who have a special place in our hearts for Haiti are hoping that the earthquake will be an opportunity for a new beginning. I hope it changes the course for Haiti. I hope that the government decides to put the needs of the people before their own selfish needs. I hope those of us working in Haiti, before embarking on a project ask ourselves the question, “How does this end, how do we as aid workers work ourselves out of a job”. And most of all I hope the Haitian people never forget the earthquake. I hope they start thinking about their future, shoot for the stars and perhaps get the moon.

Monday, April 12, 2010


On Thursday noon Naton and I set off on our motorbikes for a journey I’ll not soon forget. It’s a 4 hour tumble down the busted dirty roads from Pignon to Port au Prince. Naton was on one motorbike and I on another. We stopped for repairs in Hench and photos at the lake in Peligree.

We spent Thursday night at the Nazarene compound in Port au Prince before heading out to Leogane Friday morning. Our mission: meet up with Arronce and disinfect 5 wells that have been confirmed contaminated with bacteria. It’s another 2 hours of bumpy driving through mud puddles from PAP to Leogane. We finally arrived, met up with Arronce and were off to our first well.

In addition to disinfecting wells, my mission was to teach the guys to look out for contamination sources and educate the community to eliminate them. Also, to increase everyone’s understanding I had Naton collect a water sample before disinfection and run a bacteria test on it. Here’s Naton in one of his makeshift field laboratories.
And here's Naton explaining bacteria to the ladies... he's got definite engineer potential.
The first well had such a strong undercurrent that any chlorine we put in it was whisked away before we could pump it to the surface. We had to leave telling the community that they will need to treat their water for drinking in their homes with chlorine tablets, available locally here.

The second well was damaged by the earthquake. The well casing had cracked and the well was pumping sand. There was also a latrine just upstream of the well that was the likely source of contamination.

Two more wells on this day and two on Saturday were full of teachable opportunities for me and the guys. But it was the night between that was a learning experience for me. Leogane was the epicenter of the earthquake. I’d estimate that nearly 90 percent of buildings either collapsed or had serious structural damage.

The people are all living in makeshift shacks like these:
And this was my shack for the night, the one in the middle:

We dined on goat head stew, took a bucket shower in the crumbling ruins of a nearby house and laid our heads on the dirtiest, stinkiest mattresses I’ve ever slept on. I wasn’t planning on spending the night so I didn’t bring my own sheet. I had to wrap up with the fitted sheet on the bed, more for fear of mosquitoes than anything else. Leogane has some of the nastiest mosquito borne diseases on earth. Flariasis and all the worst forms of malaria claim many lives in this area each year.

Everyone has been wondering what the people will do when the rainy season starts. Their shacks are not at all built to keep out the elements. Well, on Friday night I learned just how porous one of these shacks can be. The rain started as a light sprinkle on the tin roof. Then soon it was a downpour both outside and inside our shack. Not only did the rain pour through the cracks in the walls but it also rained down through nail holes in the recycled tin roof.

All told I probably managed 3 or 4 hours of sleep. The rain finally quit after midnight, but not before playing a Chinese torture on my body. The roof dripped from so many places I gave up trying to avoid them. I just fell asleep with the drips going pitter-patter on my red hat. I woke up at 3 AM and wanted it to be over, then again at 4 but no luck. Then finally little rays of sunshine shone through all those little holes in the roof and cracks in the walls. I went for a walk.

Saturday afternoon I zipped back to PAP for a quick cheeseburger and fries before heading up the mountain to visit my host family from my time in the Peace Corps. Near the top of the mountain I stopped at the Baptist Haiti Mission to chat with the missionaries there and indulge in one of their glorious banana splits at the café.

Then I was off for another 45 minutes of rambling down another really busted rocky road to Greffin. It was funny how different the road seemed from the perspective of a motorbike. During my time in the Peace Corps I’d walked this road so many times I had all the potholes memorized. I also knew many of the people who lived along the way. I stopped to chat with a few of them and was surprised that they all remembered me!

As I neared Greffin I parked my motorbike to walk the last half-mile or so along footpaths to my host family’s house. I picked up a small army of children, the real escort of kings. Surprisingly I remembered which way to go at every fork in the trail. Then, as I neared the house, all the kids just sort of melted away into the forest. It was just me walking. I passed the neighbor’s house where a group of people was sitting around a circle. I glanced over at them and thought I recognized a familiar face getting her hair done. Yes, it was my host mom! I looked at her and called her name. She was shocked that I knew her name. Then it occurred to her who I was. She cried out oooohhh my!

We did the traditional two kisses on the cheeks and then I saw her. To my left, and a little taller now… Youl! I called out. All the old ladies gasped that I remembered this little girl’s name. Tears came to my eyes when I saw her precious smile again. Youl was about 3 years old when I lived here. And every time she saw me she would come running and hug my legs or jump into my arms.

I never had a picture of Youl all these years but never forgot her smile. I always wondered if she was still alive. Children don’t always make it here in Haiti. And now there she was right in front of me. She’s a shy 9 year old girl now and didn’t come running as she used to but I saw the kindness in her eyes as greeting enough for me.

We sat on the porch and talked of the events of the past years. Many of the nearby houses collapsed in the earthquake and some people were killed. There was also a landslide at the water source down the mountain that killed 20 people and buried the water source. Now the people have to walk another kilometer down the mountain to another spring. They showed me the cracks in their own house. They are living in a makeshift shack in the front yard.

Then just before dark we snapped a few photos and I was off, my mind a tangle of thoughts from the encounter. What would happen to Youl, how would my family rebuild, when would I ever return? Only the Lord knows. Although I’ll do my best to help, they are ultimately in his hands. What a wonderful, wonderful day this has been.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Daily Life in Haiti

I often write about big projects or events that happen here in Haiti. But this post will focus on the little things that make up a day in my life in Haiti.

I’ll begin with where I lay my head most nights, the Haiti Outreach guest house. It’s got 24/7 power and hot water, compliments of the sun. AnnMarie serves up 3 meals a day and there’s rarely a complaint. She’s quite a cook. But I did have to give her a little lesson on baking chocolate chip cookies the other day.

AnnMarie usually makes the traditional Haitian spaghetti for breakfast. This is the one meal I usually pass on, I have a bowl of cereal with powdered milk. But at $5 a box I only splurge every other day.

I’m usually in the office by 6:30 most mornings to prepare for the day ahead. The guys arrive around 8 AM and then we’re off. Some days we head in to the Pignon water system to pour concrete, adjust the pumps or try to clear a blocked line. Other days I’m off to teach the guys how to disinfect a well or how to survey. Here’s a shot of some of my students learning to survey with an abney level.
And a few pictures taken along the survey trail…

Imagine for a moment that this was your house and children...

I’ve finally recruited a student that I’m working with nearly every day, Naton. Here he is learning to enter survey data into Microsoft Excel.
Naton didn’t complete high school but he’s the smartest guy around and learns quickly. Still I have to explain basic math to him. We covered the sine, cosine and tangent functions in about an hour today. I’ve taught him to keep a notebook to record all that we discuss. It’s far from a perfect system but we’re making progress and I'm happy with that.

My water lab is coming together nicely. I built a table and shelves shortly after arriving in Haiti. Since then I’ve received testing equipment to check for about 25 different contaminants. Our most common test is for bacteria contamination. Naton is my guy for running the lab and has mastered the bacteria test. I’ve also taught our well repair technician, Arronce to disinfect wells and check for chlorine residual.

My leatherman broke a few weeks ago and I asked my dad to send me a new one. And today it came in the mail, wohoo! We get all our stuff via airmail down here :) (my house, office and the airstrip are all within a stone’s throw of each other).
I haven’t been running at all here and there aren’t any golf courses in sight so my days are mostly work from dawn to after dark. But I did make time for a haircut the other day. The barber ran a clipper down the middle of my scalp before I had a chance to tell him how I wanted it cut. Let's just say I won't need a haircut for awhile.

The sun shines from 6 to 6 just about every day here. Most nights I’m in my room by 8 pm for an hour or so of reading and then it’s lights out. So far I’ve read “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck which I highly recommend and “Cold” By John Smolens, not so good. My book selection is limited to what others have left on the shelf in the office. I dug through the stack today and found a few Mark Twain books. Should be good reading the next few weeks. Goodnight all.