L’Artibonite and Cholera

Second post today. Not going to be a long one, but a clarifying note for myself. A while ago, I posted a post, where I stated

It’s hard to see people who are at times, just so unwilling to make the minimal effort to help themselves.

I understand that a little better now.

A key difference between this trip and last is that I have been living with only Haitians, interacting with only Haitians, and really living a Haitian lifestyle. We travelled to Mirebalais, in the central plateau, this weekend to retrieve some supplies for our project and to do some shopping (not for dresses, but for hoses and hammers and etc) in Port-Au-Prince.

Mirebalais is where most of our other projects in Haiti currently are in. It is also where cholera started back in 2010. The river, Artibonite, is what originally carried the disease downstream to Mirebalais. I stayed at a house right next to Artibonite. After bouncing in the back of a tap-tap, then another tap-tap, then a motorcycle from seven in the morning, I was ready for a shower, but far too tired to retrieve buckets of water. So we swam in the L’Artibonite to shower. Was I aware of the relations between cholera and Artibonite? Wi. I was. Was I just being dumb and lazy? One can see it that way. Certainly, I saw it that way. But what the old me failed to comprehend is that sometimes, it’s really difficult to imagine and be concerned with these invisible little bugs that some blan is telling you about when what is present in front of you is your exhaustion.

Almost every family in Plaisance that we’ve talked to still cooks or cleans with water from their stream. They are fully, completely aware of the danger of the river. They would never drink untreated water from the river or anywhere – but it is difficult to get the energy to make the 1.5 hour trip for pipe water when the river is 10 minutes away. The system has failed, not the people.


Hospital in Cange

One of my favorite moments, perhaps even my favorite moment thus far, in Haiti occurred yesterday. But to get to the significance of that moment, I think I need to explain a little about my current state of mind. As I have written before, this time around, my experience has been filled with a lot of frustration and disappointment. I am happy here, but this happiness is still interspersed with a lot of frustration. You never really know how much of a difference you are actually making. Seeing abandoned NGO projects — seeing Port-au-Prince — really just re-affirm it that there is a lot of money going to waste, without any lasting impact. Sometimes, I think it’s because each separate NGO is tackling their little corner of problem, hoping that someone will pick up the slack in another corner. I am working in clean water, great. Someone else can create jobs. And another organization can work on the malnutrition problem. But the issue and problem is there are dimensions of time and space at play here. So, when each is working in their own little corner of Haiti, during their own 1, 2, maybe 10 years, they are not tackling the problems all together. And efforts get forgotten, because people become overwhelmed with other problems. And things break.

But each little corner is also brimming with challenges and difficulties, that it would be literal suicide for any small organization to take on too many efforts at once. Just take, for example, trying to test water here. I haven’t been able to find methanol at all throughout the country (and I have travelled far, bouncing on the backs of tap-taps). It is the only alcohol that the DelAgua kit can be used with. So, the kit is sitting in my room, with everything I will need to run water samples, but just lacking this infuriating, simple, and common thing. And that is the littlest corner of a little corner.

The constant questions that have been haunting me for the past months — when limited by resources and people, what makes a good program, with good solid, concrete impact? — have only gotten louder since I’ve arrived.

Yesterday, we visited the hospital at Cange. That hospital, sitting like a citadel in an oasis, overlooking a lake, is far larger than anything I had ever imagined. The pictures I took of it came nowhere close to capturing it. Partly because the complex is so spread out, but partly, I think, because its significance for me comes from what it represents for me — an organization that made some sort of lasting, good, beautiful impact. That moment, trying to grasp the immensity of what PIH has done here in rural Haiti, what PIH continues to do. It made me smile. It made me think. The problems are so big here sometimes that it is hard to imagine a solution to them. But sitting there was this massive, concrete (literally concrete), tangible solution to a problem. It’s decades upon decades of work, but it is there, healing people.

A man asked when I was doing my surveys, are you going to be back? That is always the question here to internationals, to NGOs — Are you going to be back? Are you going to make sure this is going well? 

How long are you going to be here?


I am not very good at being patient. I don’t think I’ve ever been. Partly driven by my normal environment, partly my own personality. I like that sense of accomplishment that comes with ticking off little boxes on my to-do list.

So patience has been the hardest lesson of the past three weeks here. Being patient that things here will never move at the same pace as in the states, that constantly, constantly, constantly, something small can delay entire operations for days, that you often have to repeat tasks three or four times to get them right. The infuriating little bits of my every day life are teaching me how to smile through them.

“Gibbes, are you coming on Friday with my methanol and charger?” — two things that were missing in the water testing kit Oxfam dropped off for me. They had promised to return this Friday with them. Without methanol, I haven’t been able to run any tests and I can’t seem to locate methanol anywhere in northern Haiti.

Pretet. M pa konne. ” — Maybe. I don’t know.

I laughed. Some bits of the laugh was self-derisive, about these situations I constantly find myself in. But sometime ago, sneaking into that laugh is also just a good-natured acceptance and resignation.

Most people are not as capable here. Maybe not intrinsically so, but the system has created a generation of people who just don’t work on the same level that I am used to at Swarthmore. I suppose, the same would be true on a regular basis in the states, but the gap is even more noticeable here. So I said,

Dako, Gibbes. Mesi. M pral pretet ve ou vendredi.” Okay, Gibbes, thanks. I’ll maybe see you Friday.

Then I went on to find someone else to drop by Oxfam tomorrow to pick up the methanol and charger.

Haitian Politics

In Plaisance, we are constructing hand washing station and drinking stations for two schools (one of which only has a morning session and the other one has a morning and afternoon session). Today, we spoke to the principals of two of the schools we are working in about the gas problem — mainly that they are not buying enough gas to pump enough water to last for the afternoon school.  I came up with a tentative solution for this problem. We plan to sell filtered water to community members after school for 15 goudes per bucket, the US equivalent of $ 0.45. Although fairly expensive for the average household here, the price is still less than what most are paying for Culligan bottled water (25 goudes). This would give the school a modest income to hire someone to maintain the filtration units, buy bleach, soap, give the janitors a raise to begin actually cleaning shit off toilets, and to pay for, of course, the gas.

Sounds simple enough? Right. But then begins a number of little issues. At one of WWR’s previous projects, we had attempted this but the community refused after they found out that the water is free. At a different project, the plan had backfired and many began badmouthing the units because they could not afford the price, saying the water was no good. In a culture like this, that does a decent bit of damage. From the surveys we have conducted around the community, this price should be acceptable for most, but planning is always a dangerous process here… Other issues remain — can the size of the well support that much water being pumped? No one seems to have a clue who built the well. Of course, again, no written records of any sort. We eventually were able to find out after finally contacting a priest who had left this town five or six years ago. Even he only remembers the building that that organization is in in Cap Haitien. Great.

Water is a rare resource here, mainly because of politics. This area of Haiti is actually very green and receives a decent amount of rainfall. But, recently, some NGO had fixed the pipes without first asking for permission from the mayor. The mayor, in his petty way, decided to not open the pipes for the entire town. This same mayor had previously hired gangsters from Cap Haitien when the people in town wanted to remove him. To further worsen the situation, a member that used to sit on the town water committee began profiting through selling water from his own private well. The mayor, we are presuming, is probably also benefiting from this on some level. As a result, many have had to travel 1 – 1.5 hour for each bucket of water or pay exorbitant prices for each bucket of unfiltered water. Such is the life of Haitian politics.

We had our own episode of Haitian politics today. Last time I had spoken to one of the principals, I had asked for recommendations of someone to hire for filtration maintenance. Because this is such an oral culture, word of mouth is taken very seriously. He had taken what I said to mean a promise, after he had casually introduced us to a youth that is really not doing much at the school. When we brought along our candidate for filtration maintenance, he was not very happy with us trespassing without his acknowledgement. His face drawn tight. We worked out a tentative compromise. (The situation is really more complicated than I can explain here, involving also who is sponsoring this project and who is sponsoring what school etc, but these are the basics facts). This isn’t an esteemed or well-paid position, but there are complicated, unwritten (always unwritten!) hierarchies here that one needs to tread carefully around.

Life the past few weeks…

I haven’t had the internet capabilities to blog for the last few weeks. I have been writing consistently, although the content seems silly now to publish on the blog since they are so temporally removed.

Life is simple here. I have a total of two friends that I talk to in any sort of meaningful way here. One of them is a ti chat (little cat) that I have named Platito. The first time I found the timid little thing, she was tied to a chair outside my room (the concept of a “pet” isn’t very well understood here). She intersperses her affectionate purring with some scratching and biting.

The day begins here at 6AM. I wake up, dally in bed for a few minutes, enjoying those first quiet 30 minutes of the day.Then, I dress, eat, sometimes read or study for a little bit before heading off to the construction site at 8:00 AM. Then the day is a mix of obtaining construction material, figuring out various logistical water issues, and conducting surveys and interviews.The electricity sometimes comes on for two hours between 6PM and 8PM, although I have learned that this, like so many other things in Haiti, is not very reliable.

As much as my Creole seems to impress the Haitians here for the amount of time I have been here, it has only been really sufficient to get across very basic meanings. Sometimes, I get struck by feelings of homesickness and isolation. Oftentimes, by frustration at my own ineptitude (with the language barrier) and at the general unpredictability of events and people here. Sometimes, I dwell in it. Sometimes, I try to walk it off. This afternoon, I walked to the schools to see the construction sites after the workers had left.

There was a class where 40-50 year olds were learning basic maths of equal than, less than, more than. I watched them for a while, feeling better. Walking in town gathers less calls of “ti blan” now, but I am still an outsider. I sat down with some girls braiding their hair. Their grandma came and asked if I liked the baby. She wanted to give me the baby.

I walked off. Arriving at the basketball court that some good willed NGO must have built some time ago, I watched some boys run around, kicking a flattened basket ball. Soccer, not basketball, is the sport of choice of here. Joking with Marie about how Jean Bap mache, anko (which has become a household joke, since Jean Jean is always walking and can’t ever be found), I began feeling better again.

That is my life here. Every day isn’t bursting at seams with some sort of purpose, some new epiphany about myself, some exciting adventure. Most of the time, I am trying to understand what is being said to me. Sometimes, I am encouraged. Other times, I am disappointed. Sometimes, I feel that gaping distance between here and America. But this place is beginning to settle into its own routine.

Gaps and reciprocity

It’s 4:50 in the morning, but thoughts just wanted out. Again and again, in the last six months, I’ve ran into people who have been completely exhausted by Haiti. Haiti has this tendency to just plow through good people. It saddens me because these are people that I like and care about. It scares me because I can easily envision it for myself.

Part of it stems from the sheer immensity of the project at hand. The problems of Haiti are so deeply rooted in its culture that it is hard to know where to begin or that if anything you are doing is making any sort of difference. This is a people who have grown so beaten down and desperate that it is hard for them to envision any other way of life — much less to know how to try for that other way of life. Desperation and hopelessness inspires compassion, but this hopelessness manifests itself daily as just a kind of laziness. And this laziness simply frustrates.

It is easy to stand from the side and talk grand themes of empowerment and how that will lead to Haiti’s eventual revival. But when you are caught in the dailiness of it all, that is not how it happens. One cannot always keep perspective.

Haiti is a place where our familiar concept of reciprocity simply does not apply. I want to clarify here, that by reciprocity, I don’t mean a lack of material reciprocity — which, I think, everyone has an easier time understanding. But here in this NGO republic, it’s more a wish for another kind of reciprocity — whether it be some form of recognition or just meeting half way in effort. It’s more often just ban mwen kob la (give me money), ban mwen telefone ou (give me your phone), ban mwen manje (give me food). Always just give me, give me, give me. It isn’t fair to say this is everyone in Haiti, but it is also not uncommon.

Between here and developed nations, there is an obvious gap of material means, but I think people more easily forget how great destitution also leads to gaps in more intrinsic qualities. It is much easier to understand the gap in material means, but harder to forgive certain things like work ethic or just simple morality. It’s hard to see people who are at times, just so unwilling to make the minimal effort to help themselves. I remember one of the first few words said to me when I was here last time was “poverty makes good people do bad things.” I think of those few words often, but when you are concerned for your own safety simply because you are a blanc (which is what they call me as well) — it becomes a little harder to remember and comprehend.

What is inspiring this post is actually just being around a friend of mine here, who works on biosand filters. I met him during my last two weeks in Haiti. The project is on a scale far different from it was last summer, but he has also paid a price as a result of it. He has grown more shut down, more uninterested in people in general. I think, it’s in attempt to preserve some bit of himself from the daily ugliness of it all.

I wish there is a better way of ending this post, but all I can leave you with is that — I am scared. I’m scared shitless about what this will do to me as well.

M’ap aprann Kreyol dousmann

Translation: I’m learning Creole slowly.

Tomorrow, I leave Leogane for Plaisance early in the morning — a simultaneously scary and exciting thought. A number of little logistical issues to be figured out before I leave, but this last minute ramble seems a fairly consistent part of my life now. Hopefully, I will be able to have some time (and electricity and internet) to write a summary of my time in Leogane, just to have a personal record of lessons to take away.

Have to get crackin’. Probably will not be able to blog this regularly for a while.