Thursday, July 7, 2011

The River Crossing

This week in Haiti had all the elements of a great story.  We had hope washed away by a great rain.  Then a renewed energy diverted to an angry mob, slashed tires and one in jail.  All were meek as lambs as their ring leader sat in the clink.  They worked like a well-oiled machine and beamed with pride as the last piece of concrete was cast 4 feet under the riverbed with no more than picks, shovels and a few rice bags doubling as sand bags.

Sunday night I packed a few belongings into a small backpack and hopped on the motorcycle with Raynold.  We headed to Saint Raphael where the water system we are building is nearly 40 percent complete.  Our task for the week was to bury a water pipe, cast in concrete, under a small stream.  We stayed the night at a simple missionary compound on the outskirts of town.  It was back to Peace Corps-like living conditions, a sweaty mattress, bucket showers and crackers for dinner.  I wondered how many more years my old bones will take dumping cold cups of water on my head while monster-size cockroaches crawl over my feet.

5 AM is the wake-up call.  On the road by 5:30, these guys are serious.  We had scouted the plan the night before and knew where to start.  Dig a new canal for the river to flow along one side.  Build a dam at the head of the crossing and another to hold the water out of our trench.  There were diggers everywhere, it was chaos.  Don't tell me Haitians are lazy when I see 30 of them  banging at rocks with picks and shovels at 6 AM.  But we only have room for 10 diggers at the crossing.  Raynold did his best to widdle the list to 11 men.  But there were arguements all morning from those who weren't chosen.

By mid-afternoon we had diverted the river, dug the trench and were ready to lay the pipe.  But our work was interrupted by a deluge of rain.  We had maybe 2 inches of rain in an hour.  All our meager efforts to dam and divert the water were nearly washed away.  We retreated to our homes for the night, cold, wet and discouraged.

The next morning the same scene, 30 guys fighting for now 8 positions.  Raynold again did his best to mitigate the situation.  But the arguing went on all morning, an hour of work, an hour of arguing until it finally came to a head.  A mob formed and the ring leader slashed the tires of our 4-wheeler.  I had a feeling the situation was going downhill so positioned myself well out of the rucus.  I was sitting on a hill overlooking the now vacant project site when Raynold approached rather distraught.  He said, "They cut the tires!"  What do you mean, they cut the tires?  "They cut the tires of the 4-wheeler because they are mad, but at least they didn't burn it to the ground."  I guess it could always be worse in Haiti. 

I said, first call Henry and tell them what they did to the 4-wheeler.  Then get a local mayor and a work supervisor out here to mitigate the argument.  And finally, put together a written contract that nobody can argue.  This is all our standard operating procedure but for some reason Raynold wasn't following it here.  He followed orders and soon the men were back working, the police arrived, arrested the criminal and put him in jail with orders to repay  the cost of 2 new tires.  By the end of the day we had laid pipe across half the river and cast it in concrete. 

The third day we diverted the river back over the pipe we had already laid, built our dams and dropped the new pipe into place.  It was soon cast in concrete and left to cure overnight.  The work was exhausting, always trying to stop leaky dams and digging hundred pound boulders out of our path.  By the end my clothes were torn, dirty and rancid.  My feet were wrinkled and sandals torn.  I can hardly lift my arms from all the heavy lifting.  But the challenge of laying a pipe 4 feet under a flowing river in Haiti and cast in concrete has been overcome.  We learned a lot about laying pipe through a river crossing but we also learned how important a clearly negotiated agreement is to preventing utter chaos among a Haitian work crew.    

One might think that was enough work for one week.  But Raynold scheduled 800 feet of pipe to be laid in the town distribution grid the next day.  And he did it, all 4 feet deep and pressure tested to 45 psi.  His reasoning? "I don't want to waste a good working day."  I don't know how he handles the constant barrage of complaints and requests for his time.  At 22 years old he is quite a young man, one I am very proud of and I hope learns from our lessons of the past week.

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