Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Top Twenty Causes of Culture Shock

Jack and I arrived in the United States last night and compiled a short list of our first reactions:

  1. Glass windows, non-fortress like houses; the incredible amount of wealth (in everyday houses)
  2. Lawns
  3. Cars (not trucks) gliding on perfectly smooth asphalt—moving like silent car commercials versus something out of Jurassic Park.
  4. GOBS of electricity; flew in over Fort Lauderdale and freaked at how much power was being used… tried imagining how much generator fuel would be required and then freaked out some more.
  5. Water pressure; Jack and I spent several minutes giggling and marveling at the kitchen sink (note: Jack first thought the kitchen sink was broken because the water came out too quick)
  6. Jack: Urinals! And being a little frightened of them.
  7. Flushing toilets… EVERY time
  8. The amount of space and order; everything is neat and beautiful
  9. Mass organization—water, electricity, propane, city planning, etc.
  10.  Holding hands
  11.  Unlimited downloads
  12.  Cheese and roast beef.
  13.  Straight lines. Everywhere.
  14.  Shiny, straight hair
  15.  Gracious customer service
  16.  Automatic sinks, silverware dispenser (what?!), etc
  17.  Not having to worry about cleanliness at all
  18.  Silence.
  19.  A well fed cat that meows (versus continuous yowling) and is disease-free
  20.  Clean air

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Predicted Causes of Culture Shock

Jack and I will be returning to the United States next week for a series of holidays and fundraisers in addition to an agriculture conference and a family wedding. In anticipation of our trip home (after about three months in Haiti) we compiled a list of things that will likely weird us out:

1. Not having to remember which light switch to turn off when the electricity cuts off at night.
2. Not hiding flashlights in every room in anticipation of losing power.
3. Not refilling water bottles/ filter every morning.
4. Having sink stoppers that work.
5. Washing dishes without using bleach.
6. Not carefully planning what to take out of fridge each time it's opened and executing plan as quickly as possible.
7. Drinking tap water
8. Brushing our teeth with tap water.
9. Not washing produce for an hour after returning from market.
10. Speaking English.
11. Not taking emergency rations, flashlight, hand sanitizer, dictionary, and two cell phones on every excursion.
12. Amusements beyond cribbage, gin rummy, and fly hunting.
13. Electricity 24/7. Weird.
14. Not carefully planning when to plug and unplug the fridge.
15. Not needing a match to light the oven/stove.
16. Not having to ration internet use.
17. No mongrel dogs howling at the 5 am, 5:30 am, and 6 am church bells.
18. No mongrel dogs sleeping on our door mat.
19. No church bells at 5 am, 5:30 am, and 6 am.
20. Mass in English.
21. Music in English (other than Celine Dion)
22. Market (grocery store) less than an hour away
23. Eating meat in dishes other than soups or stews.
24. Not haggling over produce prices
25. Not hearing "blan!" ("whitey") wherever we go
26. Being anonymous.

27. Cars other than Toyota or Daihatsu trucks.
28. More than 5 vehicles in the area.
29. Driving.
30. Andrea wearing engagement ring.
31. Lunch without "Diak" (the deacon)
32. No Anouse! SAD!
33. Not running out of gas for generator at crucial moments
34. Not using generator power.
35. Not obsessing over ways in which solar panels, generator, and batteries are incorrectly installed.
36. Not having children break local water source weekly.
37. Not having children operate local water source.
38. Not anticipating spiders while removing items from medicine cabinet.
39. Hot water.
40. Seasons. Winter?!
41. Bitter coffee.
42. Not having rat poop on front steps.
43. Not worrying about trash disposal.
44. Dairy.
45. Mass less than 2 hours long.
46. Not eating beans and rice everyday.
47. Not wearing skirts everyday.
48. Not constantly smelling like bug spray.
49. Washer/ dryer and dishwasher.
50. No hordes of uniformed kids smiling at us on their way to school.

We're very happy to see our friends and family but unexpectedly sad to leave the place we now call "home."


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Haitian pleasantries?

So you know how difficult it is to remember somebodies name sometimes? Apparently Haitians have absolutely NO TROUBLE at all remembering the name of that one “blan” (white person) they met one time. Let me tell a story:

A couple weeks back, Andrea was sick so Anouse (the rectory’s house keeper) and I went to Trou du Nord to do some shopping. We had to get eggs, meat, limes, etc. I was pumped to see what their market was like and to get away from the normal 200 feet that I walk between our house and the computer classroom. The first thing we bought was meat. Meat is found in a little hut where you go to a walk-up window. As you approach, flies fill the air like something out of the book of Exodus. Then a woman appears behind the window with a pleasant smile and a cleaver. You buy meat by the cost so I got 100 gourdes (about $2). She proceeded to walk over to a large cow leg suspended from the ceiling and very deftly cut me some choice meat. With this secured in a black plastic bag, Anouse and I continued on our way.

Down that street I was shocked to see someone I knew. He had a very familiar face and came over to shake hands with me. “Bonjou, Jack!” All I could think was, “Oh my goodness, how in the world do I know this guy!?” Two weeks later I still don’t know. However this didn’t bother him at all. He asked how I was, how my wife was and if I liked Haiti. He then went in search of a slip of paper to write down his phone number and told me to call him. I thanked him and went on my way, convinced that I certainly would do no such thing.

Last Saturday, I heard somebody shouting my name and went outside to see what was going on. One of the kids at the rectory said a man was here to see me. Sure enough, my “buddy” from Trou du Nord had showed up again with HIS buddy. They cornered me and asked how I was, and how my wife was, and how I liked Haiti. His friend spoke English quite well. After the pleasantries were over (about 15 minutes of them), his friend (named Jovenal) asked if I could help him get a scholarship to study in the US… Recall, I still have no clue how on earth I know guy #1 (Marcellin). I said I’d be happy to help, but kept things at an email distance. However, the Haitian concept of boundaries is not quite as distinct as the US’s. Here is an excerpt from Jovenal’s first email to me:

“This is your friend Jovenel Durosier who has came to see you on 7 saturday november 09 with my friend Maslin at holysuzan.Are you doing,brother?your whole family?You know since the day i met you,i never stop thinking about you”


It’s funny thinking that behaviour we would consider wierd (guys hold hands all the time) or downright stalking at home is merely polite in Haiti.

So I sign this as Jovenal signed his letter to me:

May God bless you and recieve a shakenhand from me,


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Well Update: Giving a hand up?

I have some VERY exciting news!

As a background, please recall the previous well update wherein I had lamented that the wells broke so quickly. Although I wanted to get to fixing them, we had almost no time and were working furiously to get ready for classes and move into our new house. I also knew that Ron had promised to come back very soon to help fix them.

About two weeks ago Ron did indeed come back and with an expert hand guided us through the repairs. We had a lot of help again from Lucien and the guys and managed to fix both wells in less than 24 hours! The rest of our time was spent attempting to "fish" a pump out of the bottom of a well hole. Because the well is over a 100 feet deep, this was not an easy task. In fact, if you know how to accomplish such a thing, we'd love to hear ideas!

Unfortunately, both wells broke down by the time last Tuesday rolled around. Unlike last time, Andrea and I now have our feet on the ground here. Ron had generously said that we can use all of his specialized tools to repair the wells. These tools are VERY expensive and losing one is not acceptable.

Lucien tracked me down last week and asked when we could repair the wells. I had to teach morning and afternoon everyday but Friday, so we waited until then. On Friday, we went to work. Lucien and his crew have begun to get a handle on the common mistakes and quickly had the well disassembled and the problem (a broken pipe) diagnosed. This we replaced and had the well back together in less than 3 hours! I could not be happier.

On Monday, we had no gas for the generator and I couldn't teach my afternoon computer science course. Instead, Lucien and I went to work and soon attracted the attention of the students who had come for the course. Though I am certain they were disappointed not to have a class, they never once complained and even helped us to fix the well. Once again, a pipe had broken, which we replaced; once again, we lowered the pump back into the ground as the sun began to set. Lucien took the reins for the last ten minutes and guided the helpers through reassembling the well.

In less than one week, Haitians (Lucien specifically) took initiative and fixed the wells. True, my presence was necessary when they didn't measure pipe sections accurately and to enable the use of tools. But generally, I think this is a big step to giving the citizens of Ste. Suzanne the ability to repair their own wells!

Lucien has already mentioned trying to set up a time to repair any of the other 5 broken wells!



Friday, October 23, 2009

Our Lovely Abode!

Two weeks ago, I sleepily reached over and turned off the alarm on the night stand. Rubbing my eyes, I stumbled to the kitchen to put on a pot of water for coffee. I then took down a mixing bowl and happily started stirring water into a bowl of floury mix. Holding a lit match to the stove, I waited for the “whoosh” of a starting flame and then put a frying pan with oil on the burner. Today was pancake day!

That day also marked the first time in our marriage (nearly 3 months old) that we had eaten a meal in our own home. The unbelievable amount of growth this has brought to us defies any possible description, but I’ll take a few blog entries to recount some of the adventures that brought us to that glorious day.

When we arrived in Haiti, Andrea and I were unbelievably excited to visit our new, under construction home. We expected a ramshackle, tin roofed hovel; but we found a brightly lit, cozy flat with large windows. The carpenters were sending sawdust everywhere as they installed draws and cabinets for our room and the office. Another worker stood in the kitchen planning out where our kitchen sink would go. That whole week, we could see lights on in our house late into the night.

Although Haiti is a poor country, Haitians work incredibly hard when they get the chance. They will even work all day in tropical heat with no water and no food. Far from having a local Home Depot, the workers frequently scavenged parts that were lying around the complex. We watched the carpenter take long rough planks, cut them, then plane them down to smooth 2x4s.

After almost two weeks, the dust began to settle. The container had arrived with all of our furniture and we eagerly awaited moving into our new home. However, it took 3 weeks before we did. Let me first list what needed to be done so you can appreciate our frustration:

  1. Install gas line for oven

  2. Fix counter top

  3. Install kitchen sink and water for it

  4. Fix windows (close the six inch gap)

  5. Install screens

  6. Install a drain on the back porch (we found 2-3 inches of water in our house on multiple occasions)

From all outward appearances, this list is quite short. In fact, Andrea and I probably could have done most of it. As we waited for work to finish, we came to understand and hate three basic problems. 1) Too many “bosses,” 2) Lack of foresight and 3) Nobody “owned” the construction.

Bosses are the Haitian equivalent of a handyman. Fr. Medenel knows a boss for just about everything under the sun: “Boss Electricite,” “Boss Ceramic,” “Boss Mason,” “Boss Dlo” (for water), “Boss Carpenter” and the almighty “Engineer” (Architect-ish). Each boss brought their own skill set, but, unfortunately, not their own material. In some cases, they didn't even bring their own tools. Instead, they would come and inspect a problem, give a diagnosis and then leave Fr. Medenel with a new list of materials to purchase.

Let's take one example and see how it played out: the kitchen counters & sink.

  1. Boss Ceramic arrives and slaps down some tile to make us a counter top.

  2. The next day, after everything dries, Boss Carpenter puzzles over the sink and can't figure out how to put it in because the hole is too small. Rather than troubleshoot the problem, he simple leaves, never to be seen again.

  3. Fr. Medenel examines the sink and also discovers that the hole is too small. He assures us that “they” will fix the problem.

  4. A couple days pass and nothing happens.

  5. Water gets under the ceramic tile and separates it from the cement that is holding it down. Because we can easily pull it off with our hands, we do and show Fr. M. Andrea, on a whim, glues down some tile with a random bottle of glue that was sitting on the counter

  6. The next day Fr. M calls Boss Ceramic. He arrives and sizes up the problem. The problem turns out to be that the tile didn't stick down. Noticing that Andrea's experiment had worked, he asks for more glue. We don't have enough, nor do we have cement. He doesn't either.

  7. A couple days later, Fr. M goes to a hardware store in Cap Haitien. This involves an hour and a half drive through insanely bumpy roads in a truck that breaks down more frequently than the “Anti-Christ” from The God's Must be Crazy.

  8. A few days pass and Boss Ceramic shows up to repeat step 1.

  9. The next day, cracks again appear under the tile. Our opinion of “Boss Ceramic” plummets.

  10. 3 weeks after step one, nothing has changed and we still don't have a kitchen sink.

While at the end of this, polls regarding “Boss Ceramic” are coming in at an all time low, our opinion of Fr. Medenel could not be higher. The man worked endlessly to get our house done. Problem after problem came up and he was always there to help us. We had to remind him a few times, but I'll never forget seeing him stand in the middle of a group of bosses, talking on his cell phone with one hand and painting our kitchen cabinets with the other. (That being said, he didn't paint all of them and we spent an additional 6-8 hours on it.)

We're both glad beyond description to have a house. But it is too bad we won't see Fr. Medenel as often!

Problems #2, #3 to come in my next blog!


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My Masterful English Instruction Begins!

For those of you who don't know, I am now an English teacher in rural Haiti.

When Jack and I first contemplated working in Haiti, teaching was one of the few things we were determined not to do. Indeed, teaching was a profession I had long avoided. As a History major, one of the questions you hear time and again is, "Oh, so you'll teach then?" To this foolish and unwelcome question, I always gave a forceful, "No!" I have no idea where my aversion to teaching originated. I always thought that the profession, in the abstract, was lovely and admirable. But for my career? I couldn't be less interested, especially in the context of Haiti.

Jack also had no desire to teach. We were thus dismayed when everyone we talked to in Haiti--whether an aid worker, law student, priest, bishop, teacher, or principal--enthusiastically supported the idea. Surely, surely someone would express reservations? I helpfully mentioned our lack of knowledge and experience.  Somehow this proved no obstacle.

I thus came with some reluctance to the only logical conclusion: Jack and I were not meant to work in Haiti.

It can be attributed only to God's persistence that Jack and I now stand before Haitian students expounding upon the basics of English conversation and computer operations.

The real miracle is that I love it.

I teach 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th grade. My classes have 56, 43, 33, and 48 students respectively.  My first class was the 7th graders. They have a set English curriculum and textbooks that are all geared towards the national exam required to enter high school.  Twice a week they are instructed by the former mayor of Ste. Suzanne, once a week they practice with me. Since they had had several English classes already, I was extremely curious about their proficiency. Class began promptly at 3 o'clock. The students stood as I entered the classroom and greeted me with an enthusiastic "Good morning!"

 So... they were going to need a little help. One of the activities I had planned was a game in which  teams of students raced to write down as many English words as they could. I thought this would give me some indication of their vocabulary level. I then planned for the class to correct and pronounce the words together.

Here is one of the lists:

Good morning
Good evening
Goo nigt

Good is goude
cood mornig
How mny
Good night
Good bye
Good morning
Very well
fine thank
Just fine thank

Vey welll thank you
I am sick
not veywelle

Other honorable mentions: "Fine just fine thank you," "consonants," "God is Goad," and "small lettre."

Frustratingly, I was undermined by one of the other teachers who had arranged with the principal to act as my "interpreter." He knows a little English, but imagines that he speaks quite a bit more.  I specifically asked students to write single words yet he gave them example after example of entire phrases. He then encouraged them to use their textbooks. Grr.

Despite his evil machinations, I was able to get some idea of their vocabulary and confidence levels.

The first 7th grade class was by far my most difficult.  I had been unable to ascertain beforehand what they knew and was therefore hesitant to insult the students by teaching them rudimentary vocabulary they may have already mastered. Forty minutes into the sixty minute class, I ran out of material. Emboldened by their vocabulary lists, I taught them basic classroom vocabulary. We also practiced introductions.

Since then, teaching has been amazing. My "interpreter" has left me alone. The students are incredibly bright and enthusiastic.  The other grades have had no other English instruction and I am their sole English teacher. They're quickly learning greetings, introductions, and polite conversation. The 6th graders, after initially acting "too cool" and "mature," have played games and sang songs with the same zeal as the 4th graders. With the exception of perhaps one or two students per class, all the students are participating and I have more volunteers than class time.

More updates soon,


Friday, October 9, 2009

Quick Update

Apologies for our blog negligence! In the last week Jack and I have:

-completed our house
-moved into said house
-attended a day-long confirmation mass/ fete
-attended a funeral
-bought food in the Cap Haitian and Trou du Nord outdoor markets
-picked and cooked guava with the help of a farmer we met on the road
-begun teaching (well, I have anyway)
-made and ate a TON of guacamole

We look forward to describing these things in greater detail soon...


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Mouse Update!

I would just like to say, before you read any farther, that nothing in this post is exaggerated.

Last night Jack and I constructed the pill bottle mouse trap. We followed the instructions carefully and set the trap with some degree of confidence. I admit that Jack and I are becoming a little paranoid about the mouse. So last night when I awoke at 1 AM with a vague sense that something was in the bed, I sat up for a moment but sensing nothing, laid back down. Just as I was drifting off to sleep, a small four legged creature scurried over my legs! Jack and I sprang up, turned on the light, and there Msr. was! Leaning against the wall a few feet from our bed is a metal bedframe (we're currently staying in a bunkhouse of sorts). Msr. had run up it and stood there "hiding." We searched for something with which to hit Msr, but only small flashlights, books, and flip flops were at hand. We shouted, clapped, and ran at the mouse who of course ran for cover. Bizarrely, we discovered two tiny okra pods in the bathroom at the base of the toilet. A message? Threat? No idea.

We went back to bed disgusted and wide awake. Yet what could we do? There was no way to seal our room and nothing with which to kill the mouse. We put a flashlight and swiss army knife next to the bed and eventually managed to fall back asleep thinking surely the mouse would stay away for the rest of the night. Right? Wrong.

At 3 AM I was jarred awake from a dream in which I was trying to kill the mouse in my childhood home armed with an Italian leather purse.

The mouse was on my pillow.

Flurry of action, flashlight switched on, photo taken, knife thrown. The mouse again scurried away.

Needless to say, the trap did not work and we did not get much sleep.

This morning Fr. Medenel asked us how we slept. We told him that we had shared our bed with a mouse and he laughed and laughed and laughed. :-)

I cannot wait to move into our own house.



Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kill the Beast!

Dear Loyal Readers,

We humbly present for your perusal an unfortunate series of events:

In the beginning, Msr. Mouse existed for us only as a glimpsed tail or subtle pattering of feet. We had no issues with mice, mice can be very cute. Mice might even eat spiders! We didn't know.

Then there were mouse droppings next to our water filter. This was highly unwelcome. We discovered another smattering of pellets on our couch and chairs. The infestation had spread. Yet we did not act. We considered the presence of Msr. Mouse as an unsanitary test of patience.

Emboldened, the little beast interrupted an innocent game of cards. He graced us with an encore while Jack was praying, peering curiously into his backpack.

One hears stories of Man-Eating tigers, who upon their first taste of human blood are forever consumed with an insatiable lust for more.  So it was when Msr. Mouse first closed his tiny jaws on John's Trail Mix.  We short-sightedly conceded this loss, and allowed the monster to continue feeding on the tainted nuts.

Meanwhile, we stored our remaining rations on the impregnable glass patio table, the centerpiece of our living room. Please see exhibit A. Clearly this was an unscalable summit. Smugly complacent, we retired for the evening.

The mouse protested our inhospitality by littering used toilet paper throughout the bathroom and hall for several nights in succession.

This stalemate, however, was doomed from the start. As we happily munched on our 6 lb, multi-month supply of Glorious Trail Mix, we noticed that the raisins, once so succulent and fine, had gone a tad stale. With a cry, Andrea snatched a peanut a mere inch from Jack's lips and pointed in horror. A newly-gnawed hole, proof of the mouse's dastardly act, silently bled nuts and raisins on the table.

Outraged, we constructed the first TRAP (Trail-mix Revenge APparatus). The initial model consisted of: one five gallon bucket, 3.5 gallons of water, one red bandanna, salvaged Trail Mix, a chair, and a ramp (cleverly constructed from a seat cushion). See exhibit B.  Our mouse-inspired constructions went beyond the TRAP just described.  In the spirit of any bear-wary camper, we devised two "bear bags" and hung them from the edge of two very tall doors. See exhibit C. In addition, the Trail Mix found a place of honor above the door frame.  TRAP in place and food secured, we marched off to dinner singing a deeply-felt rendition of "Kill the Beast!"

We returned from dinner. Foiled again! The blasted mouse had eaten the bait and escaped unscathed. And so it was that TRAP II, TRAP III, and TRAP IV were born. Each with more precariously-positioned bait. One was too strong, another too weak. We failed to find the baby bear of mouse traps, the one that was "just right." The mouse lived on, fatter than ever; despairing, we abandoned our TRAP machinations.

So began the uneasy peace of Mouse and Man - each gazing at one another over a Maginot Line of bear bags.

This peace continued until Andrea spied a hostile pink ear suspiciously near the Trail Mix. Driven by his unholy thirst, Msr. Mouse had scaled an eight foot vertical surface and again feasted his fat face on our Trail Mix. Panic ensued, diplomacy abandoned, the mouse ran down the door frame. With uncharacteristic malice, Andrea sprang forward and slammed the door, hoping to squish the hairy intruder. She failed.

Woebegotten and forelorn, we turned in for the night. As we slumbered, the mouse danced in victory, scattering half-eaten M&Ms and feces throughout the room.

Still, we were consoled by our last defense: the bear bags. The Trail Mix was gone, but at least the remaining food was safe.

Sadly, we must report that the mouse recently pillaged our peanut butter crackers. Astonishingly, the bear bags were no match for Msr. Mouse.  They now hang from the living room ceiling fan and a metal bar suspended between sheer concrete walls. Will these precautions stand in the way of Msr. Mouse? Probably not.

We come to you in need, Dear Reader. We will warmly receive any and all ideas for TRAP V involving materials readily available in rural Haiti.

The mouse must die!


Andrea & Jack

Well Update

Last Friday, I finished work late, hot and sweaty from helping construct our house (this will be the subject of another blog). The road home takes me past the police station, where the police chief flagged me down. After a bit of small talk, he informed me that the pump we fixed in front of the station had broken. Yesterday, Andrea and I walked to see Sister Antoinine and passed the other well. The normally wet cement foundation looked suspiciously dry. The market women smiled sympathetically as I pulled up and down on the lever to no avail. Both of the wells we fixed have already broken! As soon as possible, we need to gather the gang and repair them!


Friday, September 25, 2009

Who is Belinda Gédéon?

This year, Belinda Gédéon dropped out of high school.

Her godmother, Sister Antoinine, first described the situation to Jack and I a few weeks ago. Sr. Antoinine approached us after Mass one morning and in a cloud of French told the story of a young girl unable to attend her final year of high school. At the time, school was just beginning throughout all of Haiti. It has now been in session for two weeks.

During this time, I have had many conversations about Belinda with Sr. Antoinine, Fr. Medenel, and Covsky (our friend and sometime-translator in Haiti). I never once spoke with Belinda who lives an hour away in Cap Haitian. I know very little about her. Everything I know of Belinda came from conversations with other people and a brief, handwritten letter composed in French.

The letter, roughly translated, reads as follows:

Madame Andrea and Msr Jacque,

I greet you in the holy name of Jesus.  I am writing to describe my situation to you: I am 18 years old, I am at the very end of my studies, and now for economic reasons my parents have told me I must quit school. But I would like to complete high school and go on to study something that would help me in the future. I come to you asking, could you please sponsor me for my last year of high school? I had already started to go but my parents forbid me because they could not pay.

I know that many people in Ste. Suzanne have benefited from your help. I ask you please for a part of that help for my final year of high school. Thank you for giving me this chance.

The peace of God be with you,

Belinda Gédéon

Sr. Antoinine brought me this letter in addition to all of Belinda’s tuition information. The cost of Philo—the fourth year of high school—is approximately $500 USD. I submitted Belinda’s letter, tuition documents, and story to one of our affiliated foundations. 

The foundation was interested but cautious. They have begun phasing out student sponsorships in favor of community-building projects. Even so, they requested more information and promised to make a decision at the next board meeting (last night). In particular, they wanted to know why Belinda’s parents were unable to pay, the circumstances surrounding this last year, and more about Belinda herself.

I called up Covsky—a law student who grew up in Cap Haitian—for a little context. How important is a high school diploma? Can you get a job without one? What is a reasonable tuition rate in Cap Haitian? Etc.

Covsky and I chatted in English over cell phones while I sat in a public square in the heart of Ste. Suzanne. Primary school was just letting out. Uniformed boys and girls, tiny and curious, milled about staring at me and my pad of paper. I smiled and waved; they smiled briefly and turned shyly away. Covsky and I discussed Belinda, but really we were discussing these students as well. In one ear, Covsky was saying “You can’t even get a job with a high school degree, much less without one. You have to graduate from high school because otherwise you’ll never be accepted to university. At university you learn your trade and that’s the only way to get a job.”

(The unemployment rate in Haiti is 70%)

“But even if we find a sponsor for Belinda, how on earth could she pay for university? Wouldn’t she just be stuck again?”

“Oh that’s much easier—especially if you’re studying to become a nurse or doctor. Parishes or organizations in Haiti will often sponsor you in exchange for a few years of service after graduation.”

The imperative to finish high school sent my mind back to a conversation with Fr. Medenel the evening before. This year he had opened a school in Ste. Suzanne for 7th and 9th graders. Baffled that there was no 8th grade, Jack and I asked Fr. Medenel why.

Fr. Medenel launched into a story about how the parents in Ste. Suzanne had demanded a middle school.  They were tired of sending their children far away to a public school that was continually closed because the government teachers went unpaid for months at a time. He had planned to begin only with 7th grade, but parents begged him to include the 9th grade as well. Fr. Medenel described a test that public schools administer to their students; only after passing this test could you continue to the next grade. Last year the public school failed to administer this test to the 8th graders from Ste. Suzanne. Consequently they could not graduate to 9th grade. Yet because they had already taken the 8th grade curriculum they could not attend 8th grade again. The parents of these students entreated Fr. Medenel to include 9th grade otherwise their children would have nowhere to go and no hope of attending high school.

Back in the square, I told Covsky that I would hike up the road to talk to Sister Antoinine later that day. He offered to translate over the phone. I laughed and said that it would be a huge help.

The road to the sisters’ house is steep and eroded. It’s composed of occasional concrete, clay, and rock. Deep gullies have been formed by fits of torrential rainfall. A well-constructed concrete gutter, built years before, stands perfectly intact but several feet above the road. Covsky’s words had made a big impression, and I pondered them on my way to Sister Antoinine. More than anything, they reminded me of a story I heard during my visit to Haiti last February.  Jack and I had lunched with “Jean,” a regional director of a large foundation in Haiti. Jean had grown up poor in Port au Prince; like Belinda, he dropped out of high school because the tuition was too much for his family. Afterwards, he worked random odd jobs—as a mechanic, a welder. His goal through it all was to finish high school, but he could never get enough money saved. Years later he came across an old English textbook and learned enough to get a job with a Canadian-based company. The owner was so impressed with him that he sent Jean back to school. Jean described his return to high school so many years later as a blessing, but also as very difficult. He sat in classrooms with his much younger, 18 year old classmates while still holding down his job.  Jean graduated at last, went on to university, and then began work with the foundation: building infrastructure, managing trash, and constructing schools in Haiti.

Jean’s return to high school seemed so belated, so unlikely. Was there any hope for Belinda?

Across from the sisters’ house is the Ste. Suzanne clinic, run by Sister Antoinine. She was working there when I arrived, and motioned me to sit in one of the blue wooden chairs outside.  She joined me, and after a few pleasantries I got down to business, determined to get the information the interested foundation needed. Unfortunately, this was one of the most indirect and convoluted conversations in my life. Sr. Antoinine speaks soft, rapid French. I speak halting French and pathetic Creole. Even with the occasional help of Covsky over the phone, the conversation went in circles. After an hour or so, I gleaned only that Belinda had gone to primary school in Ste. Suzanne and had been a highly intelligent and diligent student. She wants to become a doctor. She hopes to help her younger brother and sister through school. She would happily work in Ste. Suzanne the summer after graduation in exchange for tuition.

I asked again and again why her parents could not pay, what the circumstances were, but Sr. Antoinine would only repeat that the parents could not pay and that Belinda needed help.  I asked Covsky to translate. Again Sr. Antoinine gave the same response. I explained that the board’s decision might hinge on this information, but the reply was identical. It was baffling and infuriating. “YES,” I wanted to say, “I am quite aware of these facts, but don’t you know what is at stake? I do not want to pry, I have no personal interest in any of these questions, but if you care about this girl surely you can come up with something more?”

And yet, each time, Sr. Antoinine’s response was the same, calm and simple, as if no other information could possibly be required. I finally thanked Sr. Antoinine, walked home, and sent the information I did have to the foundation.

This morning, I learned that Belinda’s tuition was not approved. Before the foundation can approve the funds, they must know why it was a hardship case and why the family could not help with at least part of the money. With this information, they may be able to sponsor Belinda but until then, Belinda waits.

I can entirely sympathize with the foundation's decision. They receive far more requests than they can possibly fulfill, and Sr. Antoinine seemed to willfully withhold the information they need. There are so many students who cannot afford to go to school—in Haiti, in the United States, everywhere. What makes Belinda Gédéon more deserving than they? Why should she receive a sponsorship when so many others do not? Yet in Haiti, there seem to be no scholarships whatsoever and the attitude exhibited by Sr. Antoinine was quite different: Belinda is deserving, she needs help, she has come to our attention, and we are able to help. The idea that further justification or context might be needed mystified Sr. Antoinine.

And so Belinda will not go to school.

In the stories I heard from Covsky, Fr. Medenel, and Jean there was such urgency. Everything hinged on moving from one level of education to the next. Yet so many obstacles stood in the way. In addition to excelling in your studies (no small thing—9th graders in Ste Suzanne study five languages in addition to math, science, and history; at the end of the year they must pass a national exam), you must scrape together tuition every year or contend with public schools that are open only sporadically. The odds of managing all of these things seemed very remote.

It was exactly this urgency that the foundation needed to hear concerning Belinda.  Although I could not extract it from Sister Antoinine, I’m certain that it’s part of Belinda’s story. To struggle through the Haitian education system for so long, to be so close to self-sufficiency, to know that just one year later you could attend university through your own work and merits, and then to stop—perhaps permanently—because for that last year your parents cannot pay the final $500… I can only imagine how Belinda must feel.

I’m frustrated with Sr. Antoinine yet most of all I am profoundly sad for Belinda.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Nou Genyen Dlo! (We have water!)

I can now fix a well.

Last Saturday, Ron Hobgood arrived for a three-day whirlwind fix-it tour of Ste. Suzanne’s water systems. His timing proved perfect for several reasons. First, Ste. Suzanne has seven wells, but none of them were functioning. Second, the mayor requested that HBHH send someone to fix the wells and we could respond that Ron was already on his way. Third, Sunday-Tuesday is a busy time (Sunday, after church, everyone is out and about; Monday is market day and was also the first day of school) and provided us with a large cheering section!

Three weeks ago wells were strange and magical contraptions to me, and as I’m guessing that they remain so for many of you, I’ll attempt a quick explanation. Wells are comprised of 3 major parts. On top is the recognizable box with a handle and spout. Screwed into this mechanism you will find a long section of pipe housing a “sucker rod." Finally, at the very bottom of this pipe, in the water, hangs the pump. When you raise and lower the handle, the sucker rod moves up and down in the pipe. In turn, this raises and lowers a plate in the pump allowing water to flow into a chamber and forcing it up into the pipe. After several strokes, water comes spilling into your 5-gallon bucket. For most people, this saves hours of walking to a polluted stream to fill a bucket. Unfortunately, lack of technical knowledge meant that each of the seven wells had fallen into disrepair, or been disconnected on suspicion of foul water.

In preparation for Ron’s arrival, Fr. Medenel gathered together a group of pump workers led by a Ste. Suzanne local, Lucien. Apparently, some had been trained by another organization on how to drill & repair a well (the language barrier makes me uncertain if this is true). At first, Ron and I handled the raising and the lowering of the well, slowly moving our wrenches down the pipe, careful not to touch the other wrench (doing so risks dropping the pipe). When we realized that Lucien had been trained, Ron handed him one wrench and Lucien and I worked the pipe. But how on earth do you say, “Don’t touch my wrench” or, “Okay, I’ve got the pipe, go ahead and move your wrench up another few inches” or even “hey, my arms are breaking, would it trouble you to hold onto this 20 ton steel rod for a sec?” I’ll tell you the answer – you resort to a lot of shouting, pointing, laughing, smiling, the word “okay” and, for safety, a pipe-sized vise grip.

On Sunday afternoon, after several false starts, we cracked the first well. We had tried using a somewhat McGyvered tripod to help us raise the heavy sections of pipe. However, because the legs were too short, we mostly just succeeded in a long preamble to our work. During this exhausting exercise, a crowd gathered to watch, which grew everyday. I felt a little self-conscious when looking around realizing that I could communicate about as well as an 18 month old with everyone but Andrea and Ron. I’ll never forget the laughter of the crowd when two people started debating whether the prayers of Diak (the local deacon) or the magic of a witch doctor would be more helpful in retrieving the pipe– which we did end up dropping—from the well. Even I didn’t escape becoming a good joke, when I happily pointed to Andrea walking down the street and declared to Lucien and the crowd, “Madame moi ap vini!” (My wife is coming!). A minute later, Lucien pointed to Andrea, who, having not seen us, continued on to the school, slapped me on the back and roared with good-natured laughter.

As we worked over three days, I realized that wells are not necessarily difficult to repair, the two we fixed just needed a pipe section replaced. With the proper tools, our Haitian helpers could do the work we did. However, they lacked these specialized, expensive tools. This makes repairing wells a far more tenuous venture. Prior to our arrival, Lucien had attempted to fix one of the wells. While we had a pipe vise grip, Lucien had nothing but some teenagers. He left them holding the pipe while he went in search of a tool. The pipe and pump are now lost almost 100 feet down an empty shaft. What had probably been a simple repair has now become a seemingly insurmountable problem.

After a few days of work, two pumps now function in downtown Ste. Suzanne, but the surrounding areas still have to use polluted streams.

The final irony struck Thursday night, when I (romantically) decided to bring a cool bucket of water to my tired wife. Before I could make it back to the house, word had passed through the village that the white man was at the well, filling a bucket. Anouse, the rectory’s housekeeper, tracked me down and made it abundantly clear that when we needed water, we should ask her— until we move into our apartment, we are her guests. I’m afraid my jaunt to the well may have insulted her sense of hospitality. Over and over, we have seen that American ingenuity and independence have their place; but so does the deeply relational culture of our Haitian neighbors.


Monday, September 14, 2009

A Day in the Life

Some of you probably wonder about our daily routine.  So far, there’s no such thing.  Our classes are still being scheduled and so we have been instructed to “acclimate.”  This principally involves reading edifying texts (on Haitian culture, history, and agriculture), learning Creole, and meeting people in the village.  Right now, the only constant from one day to the next is waking to the church bell between 5-7 AM.  Even this has varied wildly.  Sunday Mass is scheduled for 8 AM.  During the week it’s scheduled for 6 AM.  Yesterday (Sunday) it began at 7:45 AM.  Today it began at 8 AM.

So here’s a description of last Friday. That day we were expecting the delivery of a container shipped from Florida containing computers, supplies, our furniture, etc.

1.    7 AM – Breakfast at rectory after Mass
    A.    We eat spaghetti containing:
        a.    tomato sauce (thick)
        b.    noodles
        c.    meat? (maybe just bones)
        d.    hard boiled eggs (garnish?)
        e.    Side note: this, while unusual to American tastes, is preferable to the cow heart Andrea mistakenly put on her plate and ate for breakfast this morning

2.    Unable to work on Fr. Medenel’s computers before 10 AM so that the “battery can charge.” Battery does not charge.

3.    Study Creole in stairwell—ten degrees cooler than the rest of the house
    A.    Andrea despairs over conjugation & word order of verb “to give”
    B.    Discover that wife of Wally Turnball—author of “Creole Made Easy”—published an accompanying and FAR superior text.
    C.    Mock “Creole Made Easy”

4.    Andrea prays on balcony, ignoring cries of “blanc!”

5.    “Fix computers.” Internet disabled because of “too much downloading.”

6.    Lunch with deacon and seminarians
    A.    The deacon (“Diak”) asks many baffling questions about some song
    B.    WHAT SONG????
    C.    Only Diak knows.
    D.    “Ti moun” (child) enters scene and plays percussion with the silverware
    E.    Conversation ceases
    F.    Side note: Diak loves to talk and seems unconcerned at our total lack of comprehension. This morning at daily Mass for the elementary school children, he delivered a thundering half-hour homily  
    G.    Drank Coke

7.    Return to house high on caffeine

8.    Begin writing blog entry, amid giggles and hilarity

9.    Diak interrupts—waits awkwardly outside

10.     Diak again attempts communication.
    A.    We understand only “container” and “150,000 Gouds”
        (Gouds = Haitian currency)
    B.    WHAT?!
    C.    Diak confused and seemingly afraid
    D.    We ask if we can speak to Fr. Medenel
    E.    Diak does not understand

11.    Call Fr. Medenel
    A.   Discover that we need 150,000 Gouds as a “deposit” to release the container from customs in Cap Haitian
    B.   The paperwork taken by hand from Port au Prince to Cap Haitian to Fort Liberte to Cap Haitian proves useless- expired
    C.    The bishop, monsignor, and various priests unable to prove that the container is for a Catholic organization

12.    Return to rectory to contact HBHH

13.    Accompanied by Diak
    A.    Inexplicably, Diak explains that someone named “OOG” has been to a grandfather’s funeral
    B.    Confusion ensues

14.    “OOG” found slumped on dining room table.

15.    Awakens, Diak performs introductions

16.    Charming conversation with Fr. Hugh, Haitian priest studying in Rome.

17.    Return to computers
    A.    Solar panels unable to function despite Sahara-like conditions
    B.    No power
    C.    Celine Dion on radio AGAIN (it seems her heart will, in fact, go on)

18.    Impulsive playing of Canon in D and Heart and Soul turns into pencil-guided assault on low clef—entire rectory participates

19.    Jack prays

20.    Andrea finishes “Gardening in Fiji” and begins “Two Ears of Corn”

21.    HOT ANPIL (ridiculously hot)

22.    Read and study Creole until nightfall

23.    Ti moun heralds arrival of Frederick (Haitian head of the HBHH agriculture projects)

24.    Return to rectory
    A.    Greeted by Frederick and his assistant, Marius in utter dark
    B.    Fail to recognize both, but respond with cheerful “Bon soir”
    C.    This followed by awkward “Mwen regret”
    D.    Taciturn Frederick, taciturn

25.    Meanwhile, Fr. Medenel returns with 20 foot plank tied to truck; propane tank and diesel container attached

26.    Attempt description of our future garden w/ Fr. Medenel & Frederick
    A.    Cucumbers insurmountable concept
    B.    French Dictionary no help
    C.    Frederick concludes we mean squash or carrots
    D.    Fr. Medenel fascinated by word “trellis”

27.    Dinner

28.    Again attempt to contact HBHH via computer. Gmail loads after fifteen minutes

29.     Urgent cries, splashing water, and repeated calls for “Jakline” draw us to backyard

30.    Generator on fire—located directly beneath missionary apartment

31.    Andrea returns to computer and describes container problem to Mom, Exec. Director of HBHH

32.    Mother calls:
    A.    Bishop
    B.    Haitian ambassador

33.    Return home (not to apartment)
    A.    Bat in house
    B.    Search for water leads to 4” cockroach
    C.    Andrea slaughters it with shoe
    D.    No water- Fr. Medenel verifies and brings “keke bukeet”
    E.    Second cockroach—Kenneth Cole no match for Keen’s cockroach-hunting abilities
    F.    Bucket showers all around

More adventures to come,

Jack & Andrea

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Receipts Beyond Receipts

Bonjou! This is our seventh day in Haiti and I write off-line as Jack struggles with our broken wireless connection. The solar panels that power the rectory at St. Suzanne were inexplicably devoid of charge this morning until the "technician" pulled out various live wires, sparked them together, and twisted them with pliers. But still, the wireless fails, and our blog may wait yet again for its debut.

This morning before breakfast, Madame Serge, one of the women in town, approached us on our way to the rectory. Her son, Sergo, is a second year med student sponsored by HBHH. Madame Serge informed us that Sergo could not take his exams because of outstanding tuition fees. Yet HBHH had received no bills or receipts for the money. Smiling, Madame Serge assured us that these documents had indeed been submitted to Pere Medenel--who authorizes transactions in St. Suzanne before they go to the HBHH Board. We told her that we would discuss the matter with Pere Medenel that morning.

Pere Medenel, the pastor of St. Suzanne, is in his early thirties and our host in St. Suzanne. He speaks French and Creole and fortunately for Jack and I, his English is decent as well. Between our feeble attempts at French grammar, deficient Creole vocabulary, and Pere Medenel's English, we manage to communicate reasonably well. He has a quick laugh and an easy smile, which burst forth when we speak well in French or Creole. Our meals with Pere Medenel are also punctuated with soft meows from his kitten who winds about our ankles and pulls at our shoelaces as we eat.

Over breakfast we inquired about Sergo. Pere Medenel continued chewing and shook his head. Sergo had presented Pere Medenel with all requisite paperwork and receipts well before his first year at school began. Since then, Pere Medenel had heard very little from him and received nothing--despite having made it clear what documents would again be needed. Until now, anyway. Apparently Sergo had communicated with Pere just a few days before but still failed to submit all his papers. Without these papers, tuition will not be paid and Sergo cannot sit for his exams.

Pere Medenel again informed Sergo of what was required. As for us, we will update Madame Serge, request the missing documents, and hope to hear back from Sergo. But this matter seems indicative of a general trend. Time and time again missing receipts halt HBHH projects--or result in unpaid tuition. Projects are lost in limbo or students cannot take exams because of missing slips of paper. Sadly, as a non-profit, HBHH cannot operate without receipts for tax reasons. On one hand, the equation seems simple:

project proposal + approval + receipts & updates = funding

Yet projects continually snag on the last component. By all accounts, obtaining receipts in Haiti is a Herculean task. Vendors rarely (if ever) offer them and one can obtain a handwritten version only upon determined and insistent request. HBHH operations thus hinge on the alteration of typical Haitian business behavior and strangely, the IRS is indirectly changing Haitian accounting. Haitians’ seeming failure to follow simple procedures leaves HBHH frustrated and perplexed. Americans’ seeming meticulousness often leaves their Haitian counterparts exasperated.

I’m sure we’ll have much more to say on the matter soon,