Worth It

More than halfway through our time here in Lascahobas, and the question that keeps running through my head has to do with value. We’re doing a lot of work here: installing network and solar systems, conducting training seminars, repairing large quantities of machines. I don’t mind that we’re not being paid for it, but I do wonder how much we should be paid. How much are all of these things worth to the people they’re supposed to be helping?

First of all, allow me to complain about the condition of the computers. The first thing Jeanide decided to do with them once we’d gotten the sack open was clean everything with a damp rag – these things were pretty filthy. Okay, maybe the kids were scared of using water to wash them. But the computers are damaged in other ways as well. Smashed screens, missing antenna, keys peeled off from keyboards, cracked batteries. Not all of them are that bad, of course, but these are definitely the worst cases I’ve ever seen.

One school's storage center.

One school’s storage center.

I know in a way this is a good sign. There’s such a thing as a computer that’s too clean, and I’m glad these machines aren’t suffering from that. They’ve clearly been used. And I love how the kids make the laptops their own by adding personal touches like writing their name on the front and drawing little pictures on the keyboard.But in the end, you have to start wondering how much the students really respected the computers when they return them in this kind of state.

No excuses because they’re kids. If I’m working for a group called Unleash Kids, that means I have a basic belief in people’s ability to look after the things they value, no matter what their age. And don’t tell me this is because they’re Haitian or because they’re poor. People tell me my ideas about taking care of things are very American. Not many people here own nice stuff, so apparently it’s a foreign concept to maintain something that costs a lot. Except, I’m not buying that. Most Haitians I know dress better than me – shining their shoes, keeping their white dresses spotless for church. And when people depend on something for a living, like their motorcycle, they take pride in making it look as good as possible.

So you begin to wonder why some people don’t have the same attitude about their computers. Maybe we’ve all got messed-up concepts about the value of technology in general, actually. Every time we put the laptops on display at a tech fair, people come up and ask, “Oh, are these the $100 laptops?” That’s what they remember about them. The price point.

But again, it’s not price that’s important. It’s value, and value only happens when someone puts in the time to make it. The other day, while I was carrying computers down the road to the school, a kid called out, “If there’s one that’s not good, just give it to me!” Then he realized that a broken machine would be useless, and added, “If you want to fix it first, then give me, that’s OK too.” It’s easy to see the problem when we’re talking about whether something’s broken or fixed. But there are so many other opportunities that you miss unless somebody ensures that they happen.

Even when you take out the fancy machines and we’re just talking about teachers standing in front of blackboards, it can be hard to make people see and respect value. I just helped translate a long conversation the other day about teacher salaries. We were asking Bernadette why parents can’t chip in a little bit to pay for their students to attend her school.

Bernadette responded that it’s not exactly an issue of money. It’s not like the parents have absolutely nothing, and it’s not like they aren’t grateful enough for the education their kids are receiving to be willing to pay for it. She’s tried to collect fees before – she had one of her teachers stand in front of the gate on the first day of school so that no one could get past unless they’d paid. But that didn’t work, because no one has the money on hand to pay everything up-front.

Saving money is hard here. Bernadette tries to advise parents to dedicate one chick at the beginning so that once it’s a chicken at the end of the school year they’ll have funds to cover all the kids in the house. But ultimately Bernadette doesn’t have the ability to both educate the parents in smart finances and the children in how to read and write, so she chooses to let the kids attend for free, and Ben’s church raises money to keep everything running.

The school down the road, L’Ecole Mixte Classic, also received laptops from One Laptop Per Child. When we went there to talk to the director, he emphasized that it’s impossible to teach computers if there’s no money to pay the teachers – his term for this is “encouragement.” In all of my reports so far on old One Laptop Per Child projects I complain about how they didn’t bother trying to find local support. But training local teachers means paying local teachers, and it can be really hard to identify whether you’ve got someone competent in each school. So, OLPC decided to just pay a “consultant” to travel between the schools in an area, conducting classes at each one and getting compensated more per week than most of those teachers make in a whole month. But taking the school out of the equation has other consequences, of course. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of who you can trust. Who’s become valuable to you because of the time and energy they’ve given to the community.

Contract for the local guy who OLPC employed

Contract for the local guy who OLPC employed

After all this talking, Jeanide and I go to the corner store to get a drink. There are two ways to buy drinks in Haiti: glass bottles that you return, or plastic that you throw away. The glass ones are cheaper, since you’re only paying for the liquid inside. That night at dinner, the priest we’re staying with explains to his friend another reason why glass is better. When you buy the plastic bottle along with the drink it contains, the government receives some tax money. The money is supposed to go to education, but everyone knows the government teachers are overpaid and don’t even show up to work if the school is far away enough from the inspector’s office.

Computers are a tool for carrying information, just like a bottle carries liquid. And you often see trucks loaded up with boxes of bottles, just like I’m getting used to peering into school storage rooms and seeing boxes of computers. I’m glad we’re going the “glass bottle” route and reusing old machines, instead of the “plastic bottle” route of letting time and money go to waste. But it’s still not enough. I guess what I mean is, that famous quote: “Education isn’t the filling of a vessel. It’s the lighting of a fire.” It’s not just a “you get out what you put in” sort of thing: at some point, someone has to be inspired to go even further than we expected with all of this. Only then will any of this actually become worth it.

Lascahobas: We Do It All

Writing this from Lascahobas, a market town in the Central department, where we’re working with a school that received laptops as part of the pilot program back in 2009. If you’ve been following this blog, you know by now how the story goes: the program started out well but then when key people weren’t paid they stopped coming and the computers ended up shoved in the school storage room.

Now, we’re stepping in to do things right the second time around. We’re doing the whole she-bang here: repairing laptops, installing a solar system, connecting a server with Internet-in-a-Box, and of course training teachers how to use everything.

From right to left: Jeanide, Sora, Shuyan, Herodion, and the school gatekeeper.  Solar panel stretched out at our feet.

From left to right: Jeanide, Sora, Shuyan, Herodion, and the school gatekeeper.

We need as many hands as possible to get all that stuff done, so we have a real crack team this time. First off, introductions. Ben Burrell, a computer science professor, is the one who invited us all down here. His church has built up a relationship over the years with AFAL, the local women’s group that runs the school. Shuyan, a student at his college, came down with him to set up some solar stuff. Finally, Jeanide, Ruben, and Herodion are here to help with repairs and training.

Birds'-eye view of Shuyan's set-up.

Birds’-eye view of Shuyan’s charging set-up.

Discussing where to put that super-long solar panel.

Discussing where to put that super-long solar panel.

The first day of work was dedicated to solar. A team of professionals from DigitalKap came in to put in the largest panels securely. Shuyan’s system can just be rolled up and stowed away when the sun goes down, but the other two panels needed to be mounted permanently. It ended up being a really long day. Bernadette, the local director, wasn’t satisfied with the initial frames. She’s had a lot of problems with theft in the past and wanted to make sure these guys did everything possible to make these panels impossible to take. So the team had to go off into town and find a welder to add some braces, which meant the final hook-up didn’t happen until after 9 that night. “I’ll always remember this day,” Ben told me, when we finally clambered into the truck to go home. Turns out even sitting around and “supervising” can be rough when the job takes so long to finish. But I guess we can’t complain, because everything’s running and those panels are as safe as they’ll ever be.

Bernadette, the school director, discusses her preferences.

Bernadette, the school director, discusses her preferences.

The team affixes the solar panel while Jeanide looks on.

The team affixes the solar panel while Jeanide looks on.

Working late into the night to finish the job.

After the solar work came the laptops. We don’t always have electricity to power the machines, so throughout this whole trip every task has one extra step to it: removing the dead battery, putting in one that we’ve been able to fully charge, turning on the machine to do whatever we need to do, and taking the good battery out again so we can use it in the next machine. It’s a frustrating necessity, but at least we’ve got this good-bad battery swap down to a rhythm by now, working in pairs to keep the stored electricity going back and forth between the machines we’re checking and the ones we’ve finished.

Bringing the machines out of the supply closet.

Bringing the machines out of the supply closet.[/caption

[caption id="attachment_811" align="alignnone" width="1024"]Wiping the dust off the laptops. Wiping the dust off the laptops.

Reviewing the updating process.

Reviewing the updating process.

All the work pays off when we get to do training and see students and teachers enjoying the refurbished machines. To wrap up, here are some of my favorite shots of them in action.

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Preparing computers for the first day of class.

Preparing computers for the first day of class.

Students getting some shots of sky and trees.

Students getting some shots of sky and trees.

Lots of photos being taken.

Lots of photos being taken.

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Stacking the finished machines.

Stacking the finished machines.

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Kenscoff, Special Report

Kenscoff is a town up in the mountains that you reach by following one winding road out of the rich Petionville suburb to the southeast of Port-au-Prince. In the mornings, the route gets clogged up by big white NGO vehicles – as Petionville fills up, many aid workers have been moving up here. Since Kenscoff is a market town, collecting the produce from small farming communities in the surrounding mountains, you also see big trucks loaded up with sacks.

Two things strike you the higher you get up the mountain: the cold, and the beauty. It’s chilly up here, perched up amongst clouds of mist that come rolling in and obscure the other special thing, the view. One of the most famous Haitian proverbs is “Behind mountains there are mountains.” I’ve known it for a long time, but somehow it doesn’t become real until you look out at the patchwork slopes spread before you, at the way the land is so ridiculously wrinkled, the people just tucked into its folds.

Ruben posts some shots on Facebook, of course, and Marie Holt, my ever-perceptive fellow Haiti lover, immediately comments, “Just be happy Sora that you do not have to farm this land as well. Beautiful though…” I see gorgeous gorges; she sees terrain that is steep and eroding much too fast. On another photo, of all the teachers bundled up in hoodies, she emails me, “Is this a joke?” Surely people should develop a resistance to the cold, over time. The temperature hovers around the 60s here, nothing too terrible even if the wind and damp can occasionally make it feel a little worse. But most of the people we’re training aren’t actually locals; Deb and John invited them up here to work in the school and they still go back down to the capital on weekends. Filling out Christelle’s profile page, I list “Bois D’Avril” as her current location at first, but she wants to put down Port-au-Prince. After spending three years there, she still doesn’t really live in Bois D’Avril.

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It goes back to the idea of newness – do you belong somewhere, or are you just visiting? If you’re a visitor then the sights are breathtaking and you’re going to have to slip on a jacket and sleep with a hot-water bottle on your toes. If you’re a local, you’ve got more important things to do than gape at the mountains, and you’re used to the cold. Or maybe beauty is just beauty, and cold is just cold, no matter how many mornings you’ve woken up to them. It’s an important question, trying to figure out whether it’s possible for people to adjust to new scenery and atmosphere, because it’s the same thing with technology in a way. Right now these computers are just marvelous machines. We’ve taught them the basics: blue words are a link. Ctrl+X enables you to cut text out, and then you can paste it somewhere else. But they’ll never really advance until these things become tools in their daily lives.

You won’t ever run out of mountains to cross – no training is ever complete. But as long as you take care of the first order of business, curing people of their fear of heights, giving them ownership of this new foreboding territory, things will be okay. My guess is that didn’t happen the first time the XO laptops were introduced to the schools in Kenscoff. Same story as always, it seems. Big launch, lots of machines. The president’s wife herself came down to kick things off. But the teachers themselves never received any training, so there was no one comfortable and confident enough to keep things going after the OLPC team left.

There are more schools here than in Thomazeau, which probably means more students receiving laptops. Ruben and I find 4 places: Meri Kenscoff (local community center), EFA Kenscoff (the state school), and two church primary schools where students are partly funded by the government. We turn up at each one and Ruben asks for “a little information.” It can be hard to find the directors now that the school’s closed for the summer – most of the time, people tell us that coming back in the morning would be better. We have training in the morning, so I ask Ruben if he can go by himself. He will probably be the one in charge of the training, so it’s important that he’s the one these directors shake hands with. Ruben smiles and shakes his head, and tells me about how one time when he was trying to recruit kids for a special camp, and he wasn’t able to find anybody until Adam, our Canadian boss, started going around with him. Once people saw the white guy, everyone wanted to sign up. It’s nice that I have a function here in Haiti. It’s frustrating that Ruben, who is a school director himself, can’t get the other guys interested in talking to him unless he drags me along.

The national school has cabinets like this one that are filled with laptops.

The national school has cabinets like this one that are filled with laptops.

Anyway, we eventually find someone responsible at two of the places: EFA Kenscoff and one of the church schools. At each, Ruben launches into a speech about how the initial program was “badly done” and our organization plans to do a better job by actually giving training. I’m glad he’s here to explain everything – by being honest that it’s One Laptop Per Child’s fault, the schools don’t feel like they’re to blame for what happened and are more willing to accept our help. One director whips out a pen and paper to take notes on everything. “So, you’re here to continue the program?” he asks. I look at Ruben and shrug. “If the program stopped, we’re here to restart it,” I say, trying to make it clear that we don’t mind that it’s stopped. Everyone involved is going to do a better job this time.

Except, everything’s harder the second time around. Walking around the city, I’ll often see a sign for a cyber-cafe, or a bank, or a school, and I’ll try to go inside but the inside won’t match the outside. The sign is a manti. A lie. Someone else has moved in, taken over, and didn’t bother painting over the original marker so that passerby like me won’t be confused.

"Same name, same school, another vision" the sign says

“Same name, same school, another vision” says this one sign we saw

Some of the magic’s gone: these are no longer shiny brand-new computers, they’re strange green and white things that have been sitting in the back room for a while. Still, I know it won’t be hard to get the excitement going. Computers have lights and sounds and look expensive, which will be enough to attract anyone’s attention. But I’m thinking of the bigger picture, of the original project and all the work that went into it: the hardware design, and all the code, and the visits from the president’s wife. All I can say is we’re lucky to have a community of volunteers who have stuck it out for years, who are committed to doing this thing right. They own these mountains, and they’re ready to guide these schools across them. We’re trying to get people to the point where the cold stops bothering them, so they can chart their own course.

Teachers bundled up for training.

Teachers bundled up for training.

The People, 1. Digicel, 0

Last week, I vented about Digicel blocking Skype and other VoIP applications, explaining how it’s not just that it’s inconvenient for me, but they shouldn’t be able to get away with what they’re doing.They don’t own the Internet.

Luckily, the Haitian government agrees with me! Conatel, the national telecom regulator, ordered them to open everything back up. Conatel didn’t go so far as to say, “Don’t block services on the Internet.” All it said was, “We’re the only guys allowed to decide which services on the Internet are blocked.” But hey, I’m counting this as a win.

Before Conatel stepped in, I had to turn to one of Jeanide’s friends, Thompson. He works in the big Digicel tower, on the same floor as the Haitian CEO, so I figured he’d have a solution. His recommendation? Download an “illegal” app, Hotspot Shield, to sneak around Digicel’s wall.

View from Digicel tower.

View from Thompson’s office.

Now, I don’t need the hotspot anymore. But I’m not deleting it from my phone yet. You never know when it might come in handy. Half of my job here is making the Internet work, and you always want to have as many things as possible in your bag of tricks.

More to See

The work continues here in Bois D’Avril. Every morning I have to pause for a moment on my way to the bathroom and just gape at the surrounding mountains. I wonder if the people here are as constantly struck by the beauty as I am – or if they’re too busy trying not to twist their ankle walking up the rocky road to look up and admire. Maybe the villagers feel the same way about technology. For me, it’s just something that wakes me up in the morning (cell phone alarm) and keeps me up at night (talking to other volunteers on Skype). But for them, it’s a new marvel.

Things are really too beautiful here.

Things are really too beautiful here.

Anyway, despite the distraction of the scenery training continues. Children have began participating in classes along with the teachers, which means the lesson sometimes has to pause for a moment while we help the younger ones find a menu option or something. Luckily, the teachers have started stepping in at those moments to assist with telling the kids where to click, and in the end I think that experience helping them can be valuable. Another thing that helps is seating the children in groups so that when you show one all the others follow. Still, we’re trying to structure the day now so teachers arrive an hour before and get some more advanced learning in before the kids arrive.

Ruben explains what we're about to do.

Ruben explains what we’re about to do.

Let's see if the students can do it on their own now.

Let’s see if the students can do it on their own now.

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We end the first day of training with a special treat: spaghetti.

We end the first day of training with a special treat: spaghetti for everyone!

Jeanide and Ruben are both from the city, so being up here is a new experience for them. I know Ruben’s enjoyed the chance to talk with a fellow school director about the difficulties of getting an institution up and running. They were joking the other day about how much of a pain getting registered is. Christelle said, “I don’t want Martelly to come down here and tell me what to do.”

Hot water bottles keep Ruben's bed nice and toasty.

Hot water bottles keep Ruben’s bed nice and toasty.

Jeanide’s been giving Christelle her own recommendations for the school, helping her prepare a list of guidelines to parents. And when the kids struggled with a basic geography game, she sat down after class and hand-drew a map of Haiti, labeling all the departments.

Jeanide traces the outline.

Jeanide traces the outline.

More help arrives as the teachers join in.

Teachers see what she’s doing and start helping out.

Meanwhile, I’m just trying to soak it all in. I’ve always been interested in spending more time in small, isolated villages like this here in Haiti. It’s a struggle to bring technology here – people lack experience and exposure to even basics like cell phones, and there’s certainly no electricity, and the young professionals we’d like to hire as teachers have already left for the city. But I think if we can get a computer program to work in a place like this, we can get it to work anywhere. Of course, Bois D’Avril has a few advantages the other schools don’t because of Deb and John’s generosity. Here, for example, the cycle’s been reversed – Deb and John provide the teachers with a living space, enabling them to leave their homes down in the capital to come help the community here. Otherwise, it would be insane for them to just move into a random village where they didn’t know anyone – these places are so tightly-knit that an outsider would have a lot of problems and worries.

Off on an adventure.

Off on an adventure.

Terraced farming on the slopes.

Terraced farming on the slopes.

See the scarecrow?

See the scarecrow?

These guys passed us on the road.

These guys passed us on the road.

Random house on a hill, all by itself.

Random house on a hill, all by itself.

Coming in to the village.

Coming in to the village.

I’ve still got a lot of learning to do about all the diverse places that make up this country. That’s one job that will never be done.

Patchwork countryside.

Patchwork countryside.

Delmas 28 Launch

We just got done launching our second project with Ken Bever and Hope for Haiti’s Children at the College Chrétien de Delmas. This school has 580 students, from pre-K all the way up to the last year of high school, and nursing students also use the space to meet. Now, it’s also home to 25 XO laptops and our Internet-in-a-Box system.

Jeanide, Fefe, and I ran training together, and now Fefe’s going to be responsible for keeping the program going. Fefe already has three months of experience giving the XO course in Cazeau, so I know everything’s going to be in good hands. Jean Tirard, director of the school and church, is really excited about this new opportunity, and I am, too.

Laptop "seminar" participants

Laptop “seminar” participants

Jeanide goes over the parts of the computer.

Jeanide goes over the parts of the computer.

The fact that the school includes a wider range of ages means it’s easy to find apprentices – teenagers between 14 and 17 years old who really have a passion for technology. Around the world, the best programs are the ones that give these young enthusiasts the chance to mess around and inspire others. Resources like Internet-in-a-Box can also be useful for professionals like these nursing students who want to do research. Overall, I think the laptops are going to be used really heavily here, in a wide variety of ways, and I’m looking forward on hearing about the results.

It’s always a pleasure to work with Hope for Haiti’s Children. They support local directors like Jean Tirard with the resources they need, but also give them the freedom they need to get things done. I know from experience it’s a tough balancing act, and I’m always impressed when organizations manage to get it right.

The Hills Are Alive

Today Ruben, Jeanide, and I headed up to Bois D’Avril, a small village in the mountains outside Port-au-Prince, near a town called Kenscoff. We’re staying with the Currelly’s, a Canadian couple who have been living here for thirty years. The local school here is receiving 10 laptops, and we’re also setting up Internet-in-a-Box. Shoutout to Nancie Severs, who was the first to realize this is a good home for our machines and got everyone together to make it happen.

Adam’s stayed here before and described it as a Swiss villa. I figured he was just exaggerating like always, but now that I’m here I certainly do feel a sudden urge to start belting out, “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” Up here at 6,000 feet, you get quite a view. Also, John and Deb have done their best over time to make things comfortable for visitors and the many animals who also live here.

This wouldn't be an Internet site without at least one cat picture.

This wouldn’t be an Internet site without at least one cat picture.

101 Dalmatians, minus 100

101 Dalmatians, minus 100

Jeanide meets Bony.

Jeanide meets Bony.

Check out the winding road on that mountain.

Check out the winding road on that mountain.

Another view of the compound.

Another view of the compound.

We’re also smack-dab in the middle of a cloudbank – at times, you can’t see any of the surrounding countryside because it’s blocked by fog. Less sun and a higher altitude also means the temperature’s below 70 here. That’s the coldest Jeanide and Ruben have ever been. I’ve been cracking up seeing them wandering around in bulky coats.

Ruben all bundled up.

Ruben all bundled up.

Fog rolling in.

Fog rolling in.

So far, we’ve just tinkered around with the server, walked around the village, met the directors and teachers, and given people a brief introduction to the XOs. Wait, I guess that was actually a lot of work after all.

Teachers getting familiar with the computers.

Teachers getting familiar with the computers.

Setting up the server.

Setting up the server.

Internet troubles are less frustrating when this is the view from your workstation.

Internet troubles are less frustrating when this is the view from your workstation.