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.



  1. Really touched about the story of receiving hospitality. I'm reminded of when Jesus tells Peter "Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me (Jn13:8)."

  2. Hi Jack & Andrea!
    Glad to hear things are going well for you guys- I'm praying for you.

    This really reminded me about what a gift it is to have clean, safe water, something I take for granted everyday.


  3. Great story there. And very heartwarming to hear. I hope all continues very well for you both. God bless you!