Whenever I see a map of Haiti on a flag or a promotion or something, which isn’t uncommon, I check to see whether they’ve included Lagonav. Lagonav is an island, tucked in the big bay in the west. Often, it’s not there on the maps. Lagonav is sometimes referred to as the Forgotten Island.
Things are bad all over Haiti, but I want to say that they might be worse on Lagonav. Since they’re cut off from everything, they depend on shipments for food and other supplies. Not much grows here, because the climate is extremely dry. It’s been even worse lately. People tell me that it hasn’t rained for a good three years, and things that used to grow – oranges, avocadoes, grapefruit – are no longer available. The main source of water in the places I’ve visited is an underground spring. The kids are in charge of carrying jugs or bringing donkeys in order to transport drinking and bathing water for the family.
When I came here to do some work with Matènwa Community Learning Center, I brought along Junior. Junior was born on Lagonav, and he actually attended the school for two years when he was living here in Matenwa with his uncle.
It’s been two years since Junior visited the island, and eleven years since he was here in Matenwa. “I’m not sure if people will remember me,” he said when we first arrived. A lot of people did. On our way to get soap, several people said hello and asked things like “How many kids do you have now?” It seemed like they were used to people turning up after a long time. They must have been surprised to see him, but they didn’t really show it.
About the soap: it took an hour to get to the next town over, where we visited a woman at her home and she sold us some. Other things like energy drinks or cell phone minutes that I like to buy regularly are a ways away. It’s not like the city, where you can find everything you need all on one corner. It’s not like Lascahobas, a small town where you walk down the road a little bit and then it’s there. For me, that sense of isolation is the main problem here. That, and the ridiculously slow Internet. I’m not even going to bother to try to post this page until I get back to the city, because things just take too long to load.
The way Matènwa houses its volunteers, you’re placed with someone who is associated with the school who’s already used to receiving guests. When we arrived at the place we’re staying, Junior walked around, taking it all in. “It’s a very nice house,” he said, seeing the carved wooden furniture and decorative figurines everywhere. “The only problem is, the clock doesn’t work.” I guess around here, it doesn’t have to.
Every morning, when we wake up, and every afternoon, when we’re hanging around the house, Junior will start laughing. Each time, when I ask him why, he says it’s something that our hosts have said when they’re talking among themselves. “Everything they say is so funny,” he says. “I love listening to them.”
There’s no electricity, but the place we’re staying in is equipped with solar panels so we have light at night. For charging telephones, people plug them in at the school. For watching TV when there’s a soccer match, they sometimes have screenings over at Chris’s house. Chris Lowe is the American who founded the school here over twenty years ago. This school was one of the first to try out things like teaching in Haitian Creole instead of French and not beating kids for discipline, along with other techniques like a “Grand Circle” where students talk about what went well and what didn’t. They’ve been getting good results, and people have started paying attention.
Junior tosses me little tidbits about what his life was like here before. “Let’s go check out that building – I used to live there.” “The school gave me a joke job as a security guard, so that I’d have an excuse to spend the night in the library reading and practicing my English.” Junior was the guy who picked me up at the airport the first time I came to Haiti by myself. We don’t always work together, but when we do we’re very comfortable with each other.
It’s been interesting to see his perspective on everything. “You know, Sora, there are subcategories within categories,” he said on one of our walks. In his mind, you can call the people here poor, but they’re ‘upper poor’ because they’ve got solar panels, and their cell phones and motorcycles are brand-name. I was confused. Why would someone choose to live here, when they’ve got the money to go to the city where things are more comfortable and convenient?
“People don’t want to leave the place they’re from,” Junior explained. He added that the adults often send their children to school in the capital, or the mothers are receiving money from husbands who are working in the U.S. I asked whether the school is what’s making the difference. In one of the rooms, there’s a list of employees on the door. There’s almost 50 people on it, which means they must be having some effect.
Junior said the school is part of it, but also people may have left by boat for the U.S., back when they negotiated the deal to accept Haitian boat-people. I pointed out that anyone in Haiti could have taken advantage of that opportunity. Why did the people here benefit the most? Junior said that maybe because they were the worst off, it made the most sense for them to leave. Now they’re not the worst off anymore, because they’ve got people in the U.S. sending some support. That doesn’t mean you’re always getting everything you expected. We pass a cemetery, which Junior calls a waste of cement. I tell him that it’s just people honoring the dead. He points out that sometimes, the children in the U.S. don’t send any money. Then, their parent dies, and they spend a lot of money putting on a big funeral.
Another day, Junior and I visit Grand Source, a nearby town. “I think the people here are better off than in Matènwa,” Junior comments. I ask him for a reason. “Well, there’s a really good school in this area, and that attracted people.” I wonder aloud whether you can call your project effective if you improve the area you’re in by attracting better people, instead of making the people who are already there better. I guess it works either way. The newcomers will want to spend money, and maybe they’ll encourage the locals to do things differently.
On our way home, we run into a guy who used to work for the school in Matènwa. I tell him a little bit about my project, and he asks whether we had the money to help other schools find computers. “The kids at Matènwa know all about computers,” he says. “You should take your project somewhere else, like the school down the road, where the kids don’t even know how to open a computer. I try to explain the pros and cons of trying to build something from the ground up versus adding on to something that already exists. I only have a week of time here. The teachers already know how to use computers and tablets. I’m just here to teach them how to browse webpages and plan lessons that incorporate Wikipedia and Khan Academy. I don’t have to fix the solar, I don’t have to update computers, and I don’t have to negotiate salaries. Once you start adding on those tasks, I’m going to need at least a month. I told the guy that the hard part of getting a computer program running isn’t finding the computers. It’s about finding a volunteer who’s willing to spend a month or more getting it going, and then you still don’t really have a guarantee of it lasting unless the school is committed and someone who works there is dedicated. The guy said it wouldn’t be hard to find people. “Everyone wants to learn how to use a computer.” That’s true. Everyone always shows up for the first month or so. But six months in, will people still be interested? That’s the part that makes me hesitate. That’s why I’m always considering how to integrate computers into what the schools are already doing, like our literacy project. The kids at Matènwa already have a computer class, and arranging for after-school access probably won’t be too difficult. At a new school, we’d be setting those things up from scratch, which makes it much harder to be sure that they’ll keep going. So yeah, in this case the kids in Matènwa will get better at computers, and the kids down the street will still have nothing. I told the guy I’m always looking for ways to bring down the cost of our systems and get schools collaborating in order to make it possible to provide access to more people, but it isn’t easy.
The next day, Junior and I had the day off, so we went to Anba Lagonav, where he was born and his family still lives. Overall, it was over two hours on a motorcycle each way. The roads are terrible – more rock than road, so if you’re sitting in the back you’re constantly in danger of falling off if you don’t hold on. Sometimes, when I’m on a motorcycle somewhere else and we’re going down a bad stretch of street, the person with me will ask whether or not we’re safe. “I’ve been on worse roads than this before,” I often say. When I say that, I’m talking about the roads in Lagonav.
At one point our motorcycle’s chain broke, and we went on a short walk while waiting for them to fix it. We stopped underneath a stand of coconuts, looking out at a pond where a flock of flamingos was resting. “How do you feel?” Junior asked me. I told him I was fine. “You can’t be fine all the time,” he pointed out. “Isn’t it strange, to be going to a new place?”
I knew in my head that it’s much stranger to be going to an old place, a place where you’ve been before but maybe you’ve changed since then or it’s changed since then and it’s not how you remember it. “I think that a lot of times, the picture in our head doesn’t match reality,” I tell him. “But you’ve got to take a look anyway, just to see. That’s life.”
Then our motorcycle arrived, and the philosophical conversation was over. We arrived at Junior’s house. He’d called ahead of time, but the phone numbers he had weren’t good anymore, so no one knew he was coming. On our way out of the house that morning, Junior had asked to borrow $10 to give to his family when he got there. “When you come from Port-au-Prince, they expect you to be sharp,” he said. He didn’t add that traveling with a foreigner also means they expect more from you, but I knew that was part of it, too.
When I checked in my bag, I realized I’d forgotten the $10 back at home. We used our motorcycle money instead: “I should be able to negotiate a better rate for the way back,” Junior decided. It was an awkward way to start things.
After saying hi to the family, we set off to look at the ocean. Whenever Junior ran into someone along the way, we’d stop to talk briefly. A lot of them wanted to know, “When did you arrive?” Others asked for news about people Junior knew, or his own family.
Sometimes, when people told us their problems, it was clear they were asking Junior for help. “Did you know he was sick?” one woman asked, with her husband in a wheelchair right beside her. Someone else had lost $4000 USD when their wallet got stolen. One of the guys who needed help was sitting under a tree with others in a group, but he didn’t hesitate to ask Junior to come closer so he could whisper something. We all knew he was asking about money, but I guess he must have needed it badly.
Junior asked some people whether we could borrow their boats to go out on the water. The wind was a little high that day, and some people laughed at him. “How long has it been since you fished?” All the boys in Junior’s village know how to swim and sail when they’re young, but I guess if you go off to the big city and start working with foreigners people assume you’ve forgotten the things you used to know. You can’t have it all, after all.
We went swimming instead, going all the way out to where one of the shipping boats was tied and climbing up on it to dive off. “Now, people will realize that I know what I’m doing,” Junior said, as we headed back to shore for a watermelon. This time, when he asked someone new, they had no problem lending us a boat (maybe because the wind had died down at that point, too).
Our boat was your standard rowboat or canoe, made out of wood. Junior did the rowing and I did a bad job at bailing, and we followed the coast a bit until the beach turned to small cliffs and the water underneath was a pure turquoise blue because it was just sand, no rocks. “How long has it been since you’ve swam in the ocean?” Junior asked me. I told him that the last time was in California, a month ago. He said, “It’s been two years for me.” You can also go to the beach right in Port-au-Prince, but he said he doesn’t trust the water there.
We ate our melon, climbed up on the cliffs, and got back in the boat to head back. Junior tried sticking leafy branches in the spot on the boat where you’d stick a sail to make the job easier, but then the wind changed. We still made it back okay, although at one point Junior had to take over the bailing operation because the waves were going into the boat and it was getting to be too much water.
We got back to land and headed back up to the house, where a meal was waiting for us. I almost choked on a fishbone, but Junior counseled me to eat a big spoonful of rice and that seemed to help. “You’re not going to stay the night?” his mom asked us. “I’ve got work in the morning,” he explained. People asked me how I liked the village, and I talked about how clear the water was compared to the water back home.
Then we were off, headed back down that horrible road. “We’re like sharks – we never stop moving,” Junior said. He started singing a song that went “Like a shark, like a shark, like a shark.” I asked what song it was and he said it was techno. “You don’t listen to techno music?” “You’ve heard my music,” I tell him. “Didn’t you say the singer sounded like the saddest man in the world?” (This is in reference to Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes, singing Road to Joy, which was my favorite song for a while and the only one I had downloaded to my laptop because I used it as an alarm in the mornings). “Yeah, but it’s been two years, and you’re in college now,” Junior said. “I was thinking maybe you listen to something different.”
“Nope, same old sad stuff.”