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,