Junior and Sora on Lagonav

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.”

When Things Don’t Work

Every time I tell people about the project I’m doing, I say that we’re looking at the advantages and disadvantages of technology for both teachers and students. I always forget that it’s also important to consider how technology changes your mindset when you go to the place to conduct the training and do the installation.

When things go wrong, in the back of my head I tell myself that normally a project wouldn’t look like this. There would be planning and testing months in advance to confirm everything is working long before it gets to the ground. There would be multiple back-ups for every single device, just in case something goes wrong. There would be several team members, or maybe a whole team, specifically dedicated to making the technology work: that’s their only job.

The following is a list of all the problems I have had with technology since we started. It is very long and painful. I was going to just tell some of my readers to skip to the bottom to hear my general thoughts, but you should probably just read the whole thing if you really want to understand what I’m talking about. After all, if you think it’s long and painful just to read, think about what it was like to live through it. And remember that this is just a list of the big problems. Most of them are composed of dozens of smaller ones that it would take too long to mention here.

As far as planning and testing went, we had a very short window after we got the grant to plan an application, hire Gonzalo, and get him to write it. To make matters worse, I decided to head to Haiti early to do class observations and build relationships with the locals instead of waiting a few weeks and testing the software in the States like we originally planned. I called my teammate Lydia up and tried to walk her through the steps of connecting our devices to the Internet so Gonzalo could do the work directly, but she didn’t have the right equipment. Connecting one of our devices to the Internet requires a USB keyboard, a USB mouse, an Ethernet connection, a monitor, and a cable. I’m sure people who do this kind of work regularly have all those things on hand, but as college students we depend on our laptops for all our computing needs. Luckily, we could find almost everything we needed available on campus…but in different places, so it had to be lugged back and forth. Plus, it turns out our school’s Ethernet only works if your device is registered with the network, which wouldn’t have been a big problem except we couldn’t get the registration page to come up for our system. What we ended up doing was buying an Ethernet dongle to fool the system into thinking that the dongle is making the connection instead of our device, after registering the dongle by connecting it to one of our laptops. But, I forgot to leave Lydia a dongle to do that, so my mom had to go out and buy one for $25 (normally you can get them for $11 online). Luckily for us, my mom agreed to do that, and a Catholic mission team traveling to Lascahobas agreed to take down the finished devices.

As far as testing, I had a general idea of which equipment to buy because this isn’t the first time I’ve done a server or a solar installation, but we decided to save money by buying a computer model that we hadn’t tried out before. Unfortunately, it didn’t work with our solar system as a power source. So, I had to call up a few schools that we know in Port-au-Prince and arrange a swap: they have a box that works off solar, but they aren’t using solar; we have a box that doesn’t work off solar and we need one that works off solar, so…Fortunately, my friend Jackson went to pick up the boxes and drop them off at the station. The Lascahobas drivers run a free delivery service between the two destinations, as long as whatever you’re giving them is small.

One of the new computers from Port-au-Prince worked the moment we tried it, but the other was giving issues. I had brought a cable with me just in case, but the cable was intended for the boxes we originally bought. They take HDMI. These new boxes take mini-HDMI.

My friend had a motorcycle, so I hopped on the back and we drove around to literally every computer shop in town asking whether they had one that would fit. I felt like Cinderella’s prince looking for his bride: “Does the shoe go onto the foot? Does the cable go into the slot?” No one had one. Most people would heartbreakingly announce that they had it, and then pull out a normal HDMI cable. One guy started negotiating what price he would lend it to us for, and then I was finally like, “Before we start arguing about money, let’s check if it works.” Of course, it didn’t. Cybercafes, print shops, radio stations, “cable shops” (yes, there is such a thing as a cable shop. It is a person who has amassed a collection of cables. You can go there and normally you can find a charger that works with your device. But, you will not find a mini-HDMI cable. I learned that the hard way). People told us that it’s really only something you would use if you had a flat-screen TV. Not many people have one of those. We’d have to go to Port-au-Prince, or maybe we could find it across the border in the Dominican.

A few days after that, I had to go to the capital, Port-au-Prince, to drop off Aidan and meet with Library for All. Library for All’s office is in Petionville, the wealthy suburb outside of Port-au-Prince. They had a computer shop right down the street from them. We walked in and found what we were looking for in 30 seconds. It cost $33, and we had actually already resolve our problem a different way by then, but I bought it anyway, because I’m sure something will go wrong in the future.

After all that, we still had a quantity of 200 or so computers to check, triage, and update if possible. The Randolph-Macon student group helped out a lot with that, of course, but we had two more schools to do after theirs. And even with the computers they updated, we had to do things like making sure the batteries (both internal and external) hold a charge after being abandoned for so long and confirming the mouse, WiFi, and keyboard work. Inventory gets pretty crazy when you find yourself surrounded by stacks and stacks of machines, and you’re constantly moving them to plug some in or check some with your flash drive. Luckily, I had Aidan and Zhane with me to keep things sane.

Also, as we tested our app out with the teachers, we noticed things that needed to be changed. Initially, the app would not let you send a copy of a book you were working on to your friend for editing, which we considered a pretty essential feature. Then, we had trouble uploading the books to the digital library, because it didn’t want to accept books that had accents, but accents are common in Haitian Creole, so that was a problem. Then, all the book files that the publisher sent us were huge, so we had to reduce their size so that kids could download them to their computers quickly. Storage space on the computers was also an issue. We installed a system that was chock full of interesting activities, and we kept getting a “Your journal is full” error. I know from prior experience that it doesn’t always meaning the journal is actually full. Sometimes, it means you have too much stuff stored on the computer in general. Gonzalo prepared a script to delete everything except the activities we would need for the summer camp. The teachers preferred having a screen with less things to click on, but I felt bad about it. Computers are supposed to give you a large variety of options. Even if no one ever uses them, sometimes I just like knowing they’re there.

Anyway, after that, we had some small bugs to resolve with the statistics server. If that thing messes up and I’m not there to fix it, there goes a lot of useful data about the classes and the kids. We weren’t able to get everything working perfectly, so we had to set up a way to manually update things in order to get it functioning smoothly.

I totally didn’t finish all of that before I left Lascahobas on Wednesday afternoon. Instead, I spent Wednesday morning training Fernand, one of the teachers who started working last summer at Bernadette’s school in the after-school computer classes. We visited each school and I explained what remained to be done. I told him that in exchange, I’d give him my old laptop, and when I went to Port-au-Prince that night I typed up a detailed set of directions for him, and I bought a fancier cell phone to make sure that when he called to ask for help I’d be able to hear him clearly and send text messages quickly (more on why I don’t have the phone I came here with later).

I hate leaving with unfinished business. You leave tasks until a more convenient time, and then you end up running out of time. I know that because I didn’t get everything done when I was there, I’ll end up spending twice as long on the phone making sure everything happens. Maybe it will end up being a good thing because Fernand will be invested in what we’re doing. I just hope nothing else goes terribly wrong.

Speaking of things going terribly wrong…you’d think my problems would be over once I got into the van out of Lascahobas, but now I’m in the new location, Lagonav, and Day 1 wasn’t easy. I’m using a server called Haiti Internet-in-a-Box here. Denny Baumann and other volunteers made it, building off the work Unleash Kids did with Internet-in-a-Box to provide schools with access to resources like Wikipedia even if they don’t have an Internet connection. You download Wikipedia (yep, the whole thing) and you save it onto a big drive on the computer, and then when the kids want to connect to the “Internet” to do research they’re actually connecting to your computer and the copy of Wikipedia stored on its big drive. It’s pretty cool, and completely necessary here in Lagonav where it takes several minutes to load some web pages. We’re on an island, which means it’s not impossible for Digicel to send us some high-speed signals, but they’re not going to do it unless they think there’s money to be made, and according to them there’s not.

Anyway, so I decided to spend Wednesday night at Mario Calixte’s house. He’s this great Haitian guy who studied computer science in the States and travels sometimes on his weekends to do Linux and server trainings at the remote schools where Denny is sending these computers. I knew that he would be able to help me resolve any issues quickly. I didn’t have time to test Denny’s server what with all the problems we were having with our servers, and I knew he hadn’t had very much time to test it himself before sending it down. I was really worried, because since Lagonav has no Internet I couldn’t rely on finding a helpful webpage if I ran into a problem.

So, Mario and I set the thing up to test out, and it worked the first time we tried it. I was skeptical, so I turned it off and turned it on, and we tried it again. It still worked. We were able to load all the pages. I did a lot of poking around in the stomach of the thing, digging through files and trying to understand where things were located, but finally I had to call it a night. We had accomplished what we set out to do, and there wasn’t really anything left to do. We had no other devices to test it on, so as long as it was working on my personal laptop, we assumed it was fine.

We arrived at the school around 4 PM, after almost a full day of traveling (I left the house at 7 AM, went to another house, got on the phone with my bank, and then left that house at 9:30 AM). Instead of going to the school to install the server and try it out, I decided to leave it for tomorrow. What could possibly go wrong? Junior and I went on a walk to buy soap (it was an hour away).

Bad life choice. When we tried it out the next morning, just before the training was supposed to start, I noticed that even though my own laptop was connecting fine, the MacBooks and the tablets that the school uses were both having problems. “Maybe it’s just that the software isn’t compatible,” the tech guy who works for the school suggested, trying to be helpful. “Is there an app you can download?” “This is supposed to work – it’s a browser,” I said irritably. I messed around with it for an hour, while teachers waited. Finally, I admitted defeat and I connected the server to itself. That way, we were able to use the server and my personal computer, so two teachers were sharing a computer, which was fine.

After class ended, the tech guy asked me, “Do you think you’ll have it working before you leave?” I replied, “It’s got to be a simple, silly thing that’s wrong. As soon as I find it, I’ll be able to fix it. It should be working by tomorrow.” He seemed doubtful. I tried to hide how doubtful I was.

I sat around the entire afternoon, burning up in the sun that was coming through the window directly in front of me (no, I did not have the presence of mind to move to another space in the room that wasn’t as hot). I poked around in the belly of the server and the router, trying to figure out what settings were making my computer work but not the other computers. I didn’t get very far. There were simply too many things to try, and I was afraid of breaking something for good. I discovered that the computer had “” as the address for the digital library. My computer was able to ping that address, but the MacBook wasn’t. I decided one solution might be to sign up for an online service that provides you with a static IP address for your server. Some of the words in that description sounded helpful and related to my problem, after all. But, the Internet was so painfully slow that I didn’t get very far in the sign-up process, and I still had no idea if I was moving in the right direction anyway. So, I sent out an email plea for help, and then Junior and I went on a walk.

Later that night, around eight, we got back to work. No one was responding to my emails or phone calls, so I plunged into things alone. I managed to break the connection that my computer had to the digital library, so I no longer had any idea what had been working and what hadn’t or what changed. Then I managed to somehow get rid of the networking icon in the taskbar for the server, so I wasn’t able to make changes there and I had to go somewhere else, and I wasn’t sure whether the somewhere else was the same place I’d been going. As you can probably tell, at this point I was getting pretty frustrated.

The tech guy arrived and asked how things were going. I was in the midst of trying to check my email for the umpteenth time. He suggested we go down to his studio hut (yes, that is not an oxymoron) and try it there, because it works better. The pages did load faster, but not fast enough. I still felt really limited in my ability to search for a solution. Normally I like to quickly scan through a few pages that seem relevant, but when each page is taking a little bit that method doesn’t work anymore.

At this point it was getting close to midnight. The tech guy was playing music for us that he had recorded himself, which was cool. Junior asked him whether he’s used to staying up until midnight working. The guy said sometimes he actually sleeps in the hut. I was glad to have a fellow companion in the job of solving problems on computers.

I gave up and called Adam, my boss in Unleash Kids. This isn’t his server, but he tried to help me out anyway. He said isn’t normally the kind of address you could use, but he did a little research and this isn’t the only time someone’s used it for this. He counseled me to call the people who actually set up the server, and passed on Denny’s phone number, which I didn’t have.

I called him, intending to leave a voice message for the morning, but he picked up. I couldn’t tell from his voice whether he’d been sleeping or not. I explained my problem. He said he’d gotten my email and forwarded it to the people with the know-how, and we’d just have to wait. I thanked him. He asked whether there were any other Windows devices available at the school. I told him there aren’t. He asked when I was leaving, and I admitted Wednesday. He said that if things aren’t fixed by then, I should find another school to install the server, to make sure it would get used. I said that might be possible (after all, I already pulled one server switcheroo). I didn’t tell him I’d been hoping to get it fixed that night so it would be ready for training the next morning. I congratulated myself for bringing an Unleash Kids server with me that had already been tested. The only problem was, it didn’t have the French videos and the Creole books I was looking for, because it wasn’t really customized for Haiti.

I set my alarm for 6 the next morning, and woke up at 6:45 instead (my alarm is actually pretty quiet). I headed straight to the school. “What’s your goal?” Junior asked me as I was getting ready. “I just need to get those two computers working for today’s workshop,” I told him. “You mean, the same place where we were yesterday?” he said, in a voice that was either amused or alarmed.

At the school I tweaked a few things I must’ve forgotten to tweak the other day, and found that I was able to load the pages again, which was a relief. Then I tried something new: writing “” in the address bar on my computer instead of “hiiab:8008.” It gave me a “Connection Refused” error. I was thinking that was just because the server didn’t want people going inside it, but then I remembered that I’d run into the same problem the other day with the server we had to buy the cable for. Back then, I had Internet and I was able to do some research, and it apparently had something to do with both the server and the computer connecting to it fighting over the same IP address or something. I had a vague concept that if I just reserved an address for the server (instead of signing up for one with that online service) I would be okay. The router had an option for that, so I went ahead and tried it.

At first, it didn’t work, but I checked it again and I realized that it was doing the Ethernet port instead of the WLAN port. I changed it, and then I tried getting a tablet to load a page from my new address,


It worked.

I was all by myself, or I might have shouted and gotten up to hug someone. Or maybe not. I’m generally pretty contained about feelings.

Later, talking to Junior about it, I tried to figure out why I felt so happy to make this breakthrough, and why the problem had caused so much stress in the first place.

First of all, there was this sense that it wasn’t my problem. I wasn’t the one who prepared the server, and I went out of my way to test it that night with Mario, so if it didn’t work it wasn’t because I did something wrong and it wasn’t my job to fix it. The only thing I had to feel guilty about was not testing it the second I arrived. It’s not like I had a tablet or a MacBook handy to try it out before then.

Then, there was this idea that I’d been abandoned. Of course, Mario helped me out, and Denny arranged for the laptop to be delivered, for free, in the first place. But I guess it just fit into my larger sense that this is the first project I’ve done on my own, where I’m the one responsible for all the pieces. The other projects, I had a very specific role: interpretation (a bigger job than translation), training, and coordination. Okay, maybe that’s multiple roles. But I’m comfortable in all of those roles, and in my mind I’m very capable.

Now, I’m capable of doing things like installing solar panels and servers when the situation calls for it, sure. Or at least, that’s what I told myself before embarking on this project. But it’s not ideal to have me do it. I’m not always the most organized person, and you’ve got to be patient and careful when you’re troubleshooting or just trying to keep track of equipment. It gets doubly hard to do that when you have other stuff on your mind: how can you update laptops and negotiate a salary with the security guard at the same time?

In the past, I’ve had a lot of assistance from the dedicated Unleash Kids team when doing project. We’re talking six-hour phone calls sometimes, and constant email strings, and very fast responses. Not having them involved as heavily in my independent work here has been a big blow, because I’m used to reaching out to them for help instead of trying to solve my problems on my own. On one hand, they’ve prepared me plenty with all their training to be able to handle a lot of this myself. On the other hand, the solutions that seem obvious to them aren’t going to occur to me, and sometimes I feel like I spend a lot of time trying to figure things out the hard way, because I lack the basic foundational knowledge that I need to actually make them work, so I’m just kind of shooting in the dark.

But, I’m not actually in the dark. Amazingly, in the midst of everything, I’m picking up things as I go. I’m still extremely ignorant, but I’m developing a sense of some things, at least in a limited way. There are still a lot of ideas tangled together in my head, but some of them have been straightened out, and I’m able to use those little bits to figure out the other pieces sometimes.

When you don’t have Internet, and when people aren’t answering the phone, I guess you just surprise yourself with what you can do. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that jazz. It’s great that I’m learning how to stick with problems and grope cautiously towards an answer. It’s a useful life skill.

So yeah, this story has a happy ending, because I was just smart enough to have a hunch and follow it. It could just as easily have turned out not as well. I don’t know what I would have done then. Maybe install the back-up one from Adam that didn’t have the right stuff on it. Maybe take a boat back to the mainland and work with Mario to try to figure it out there. The scary thing is, sometimes you back yourself into a corner and there’s not much you can do.

So yeah, I’m proud of myself but I’m also angry that I had to go through this, because I feel like it could have been avoided or at least done differently. Someone (possibly me) should have gotten an Android tablet and tested this thing, in Port-au-Prince or in the States.

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure stuff will ever stop going wrong. I can give all these recommendations, like testing or having a person specifically assigned to the role of fixing tech, but at the end of the day maybe I also need to admit that this is just how technology is.

Instead of spending the morning talking to teachers about how to use Wikipedia, you waste an hour messing around trying to get Wikipedia to work. Instead of considering how to make your storywriting app better for writing stories, you’re getting your programmer to put together updates so you can load the books into the digital library. Instead of training teachers in what to do with their students, you’re talking with them about what to do when the Internet goes down or the batteries start charging.

I know there are ways to make my situation better, and I know the XOs have a lot of annoying quirks that other computers don’t. But, I also know that the larger principle remains the same. When you go to do a project that involves technology, the technology itself becomes a big distraction. You end up spending more time tinkering with it and talking about it than more important topics, like what a teacher is supposed to do when they’re standing up in front of a classroom.

I’m a big believer in the principle of picking your battles, and I guess what I’m saying is that if I could pick my battle in this situation, I would pick to work with the teachers instead of to work with the tech. Except, maybe that’s not actually true. I sort of have a love-hate relationship with tech. I hate having problems, but I love solving them. And focusing on tech gives me an excuse to focus less on addressing what the teachers are doing with the tech directly. Someone once told that tech is like a Trojan horse. You can get teachers to change their techniques by talking about what they’re doing with the tech instead of what they’re doing to teach. That may be true. But I can’t leave myself out of the equation. How is tech affecting me, as a project implementer?

I feel like I can’t pick my battles here. I have to get the tech working, or the kids won’t be able to write their stories and read their books. The computers have to turn on. They have to be able to connect to the network. The teachers have to know how to make all that happen.

Whereas other, more-important battles are easier to avoid. If I don’t convince a teacher to use a certain technique that I think might be helpful, no one’s going to notice. Whereas if the computers won’t charge with the solar system, I’ll definitely get a phone call about how that needs to be fixed.

I guess the conclusion of this rant is that I wish the education problems were as easy to detect and solve as the tech problems. Weird. That’s not where I thought this rant was going.

But maybe if I apply the same persistence I applied to the tech problems, the education problems will eventually get solved, too.


Stop, thief!

If you’d asked me what was the safest street in Port-au-Prince, this one would probably have made the list.

Right after you turn out of the airport, you go around this roundabout. In the center, there’s a statue of three hands holding up the world. It’s called “Three Hands” and when the tap-tap drivers are announcing it as a destination, sometimes they just hold up three fingers and then the other hand.

For those of you who don’t know what a tap-tap is: it’s public transportation in the city. They take a pick-up truck, and they install benches in the back, build a cover over the whole thing (arched prairie-wagon style), take out the piece in the back and replace it with a step. Your typical tap-tap generally contains about 15 people who are paying (6 or 7 per bench in the back, with one bench on each side. Two in the front cab with the driver – generally, women who are dressed nicely get offered this favored seat. One guy – typically male – standing on the back step, holding on to a ridge on the roof). Then there’s the driver – person number 16 – and the guy who helps out the driver by collecting money from passengers when you get close to your destination – person number 17.

After dropping Aidan off at the airport, Zhane and I got on the first tap-tap we could find that had two seats and was headed for Carrefour Ayewopo, which is straight down the road, about five to ten minutes away depending on traffic.

Like I said, in my opinion it seems like one of the safest roads in Haiti. It’s wide and paved, with a median in the middle that has flowers growing on it. The businesses lining the side are banks, hardware stores, office supplies, and car places – places you go when you’ve got a lot of money to spend or a big job to do. There are billboards over the road advertising Internet and energy drinks, plus another that I took forever to figure out. It says “Male pa gen klaxon” and features a picture of kids playing in a park in one and a family sitting in canoes in the other. For the longest time, I thought the translation was “Male has no horns” and they were advertising some sort of national park where you could get away from the traffic of the city. Then, upon closer inspection, I noticed that the family is canoeing in their flooded living room, and the kids in the park are very close to falling out of the tree they’re climbing in. Turns out the billboard actually means “Misfortune doesn’t have a horn to warn you when it’s coming” and they’re advertising insurance.

Anyway, Zhane and I are perched on the “point” of the taptap – that’s the part that juts out from under the cover, extending out from the back of the pick-up truck. There’s a railing so you don’t fall off. You’re supposed to not like sitting there, but I enjoy it. I like the sun and the wind, and I especially like seeing and being seen. Plus, when you’re trying to snag the first taptap that comes by, you don’t have much of a choice of where to sit.

Anyway, I’m on my phone, looking up the map to the place we’re going next, and there’s a guy next to me, standing on the step and holding on to the taptap cover, because there’s no place left for him to sit. We slow down a little, because of the traffic, and he takes my phone out of my hand, gets down off the taptap, and casually saunters away, pausing at a roadside stand to talk to his friend there.

I immediately start yelling “Stop, thief!” and telling the driver to stop. I’m very confused about why the guy isn’t running, but I’m happy because it means we can probably catch him. The other passengers in the taptap aren’t doing anything, not even knocking on the window to tell the driver to stop. The taptap keeps moving. I look around at everyone and ask, “What am I supposed to do?”

A woman in the taptap starts telling us in very good English, “Hey, you lost all your contacts, but you didn’t lose your life. This is a red zone.” I’m not smart enough to realize that she might have a good reason to talk in English, and I reply in Creole, “What do you mean, a red zone?” “The police can’t do anything here,” she says. “If you’re a police, or if you’re white like you, they’ll kill you. That guy has a lot of friends. You should never have your phone out in a taptap.”

And that’s the reaction I get from a lot of my Haitian friends, when I tell them the story. “Were you sitting on the point? You shouldn’t sit there.” “How many times have I told you not to take your phone out on a taptap? Isn’t this the second time it’s been stolen?” “You need to learn where the bad places are in the city, and be extra careful there.” “You should be happy he didn’t take your bag with all your money in it, too.”

They’re all right, of course. The only defensive detail I can really add when I tell the story is that it doesn’t look like a bad neighborhood where gangs would hang out. But I guess bad neighborhoods don’t always look the same in Haiti as they do back at home. And it’s not like I know much about what bad neighborhoods look like back at home, anyway – growing up in the suburbs, you don’t have to develop many street smarts. Looking back on it now, it actually makes a lot of sense that that would be a dangerous area. There’s lots of people to target, because if you’re coming from the airport, leaving the bank, or shopping for solar panels at a hardware store, you probably have a lot of cash or valuables on you. It’s a business area, not a residential area, so there aren’t many concerned citizens sitting around watching you (and anyway, I guess residential areas can have their fair share of gangs, too).

From now on, I’m going to do the Haitian thing, where you have one crappy dumb phone for calls and text messages on the go, and you pull out your smartphone for Internet or photos once you’re in a safe place. I guess what gets to me is that now, all of a sudden, tap-taps aren’t a safe place.

Normally, when people ask me whether or not Haiti’s dangerous, I tell them that you can depend on the people around you to watch for you. Most of the help I receive actually comes from my fellow passengers on the taptap. I tell people that the taptap drivers can never cheat me, because everyone else is watching how much money I handed them and how much I got back in change. Whenever I’m lost, I can ask someone for directions. When I have a heavy bag, they help me lift it. And I guess in the back of my head, I just assume that if I got sick or someone tried to hurt me, they would help out in that circumstance, too.

But in this situation, the guy could have had a gun or a knife on him. No one’s going to put their life at risk for my cell phone, and they shouldn’t have to. I’m annoyed that he was able to just walk away so casually. In my mind, if you want to steal something, you should have to run. A few of my friends made comments along those lines. “Did you remember to yell ‘Stop, thief’?” “Was the taptap mostly empty?” But when I explained that the other people there were probably too scared to do anything, my friends just shrugged and agreed, “In Port-au-Prince, sitting still would be right reaction.”

Most people who come to Haiti don’t do what I do. You hire a private driver, or you have a Haitian friend accompany you (if I’d had a Haitian friend with me, they would have made me put my phone away). You just don’t try to cross the city by yourself. Even if you think you know exactly where you’re going, and you speak the language so you think you know what’s going on, you’re going to make mistakes that a Haitian wouldn’t make.

I used to be able to tell people, when they asked, “I’ve never been stolen from, even though I take public transportation all the time.” Then, I had to admit, “Well, I’ve been stolen from, but it was someone picking my pocket. If I’d been able to catch them doing it, they wouldn’t have gotten away with it.” Now, I’ve got to say: “Yes, I’ve been stolen from. Someone snatched my phone right out of my hand and walked away with it, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do, because it was a gang-controlled area.”

It’s going to be a long time before I’m running the kind of operation that merits spending the money for a private driver. In the meantime, I’ve got to be more realistic about the risks.

I asked my friend the other day whether Haiti’s getting more dangerous or I’m just getting less naïve. They said it’s probably a combination of both, but Haiti is definitely rougher these days than it used to be. For one thing, inflation has gone insane. When I was here in January, it was 47 gourdes to a dollar, up from 45 last year. Nowadays, it’s 50, and every day it seems to get higher. At the supermarket, they’ll actually give you 51 gourdes. They’re willing to pay you 1 gourde for your dollar. They must be stockpiling for when things get even worse in the future. It’s scary.

I don’t hear much talk about the elections, but I’m sure those are part of it, too. Presidents, senators, and deputies all have elections in August (president = U.S. president, senator = U.S. senator, deputy = U.S. congressperson). There’s also the crisis with the Dominican. The status of Haitian migrants and Dominican-born Haitians has always been pretty shaky. Now, the Dominican’s announcing that they plan to deport all the Haitians who went there to work and don’t have documents. The number changes depending on who you talk to, but it’s supposedly 100,000 or 200,000 people who will be arriving at the border with little more than the clothes on their back. They’re being referred to as refugees, and people are talking about how they could have all manner of diseases and how they’ll probably steal in order to survive. In my opinion, a lot of the returnees have family back here in Haiti that they could stay with. Many of them went to the Dominican to study or work in technical jobs like electricity or plumbing, so it’s not like they lack useful skills that can help them integrate here (assuming the work is available, of course). I tend to remind people, “During the earthquake, didn’t you give your family members from the city a place to stay when theirs collapsed? How is a human-caused disaster any different from a natural disaster?” But of course a human disaster is different from a natural disaster, so the reactions take a different tone.

I’ve still got my head on my shoulders. Life goes on, and you recover. Trouble doesn’t come with a horn to warn you, but there are obviously methods to minimize it, and I’ll have to be even more alert about those from now on. Eventually, I suppose playing it safe becomes a habit, and the idea that you might want to look up something on your phone while going down the street in a taptap stops making sense. It’s just one other thing I have to learn how to adapt to here.

Ask and it shall be given?

I told the teachers to work on their lesson plans over the weekend and then on Monday we would talk about topics like presenting a book in front of a class. We started out with the idea of asking “questions that have more than one answer.” I told the teachers that it’s good to ask students about information from the story you just read to them to make sure they’re listening, but it can be even better to ask them a more subjective question that requires some critical thinking, like “What will happen next?” or “What would you do in the same situation?” I explained that since each kid has a different response, they’ll all have to sit there thinking about what to say instead of just deciding whether the first person who raised their hand was right or wrong.

This discussion built off of a few conversations I’d been having with individual teachers about what it means to read a story in front of the class. Some of the teachers selected books that were very short and simple as presentation books. At first, I tried to tell them, “Look, the schedule says you will spend 20 minutes reading this book. How can you spend 20 minutes on a book that is only 8 pages?” But, they always assured me that they’d be able to do it. They pointed out that first of all, after you finish reading you’ve got to ask every kid a question in order to make sure they understand. When they get the questions wrong, that means you should read the book a second time straight through, to give them another chance to listen and grasp it. For some of the longer books, teachers were saying they wouldn’t have time to get through it in 20 or 30 minutes, so they’d stop midway through and pick it up the next class.

This was one place where I put my foot down. They should be reading one book, straight through, out loud to the class, for a good 20 or 30 minutes every day. No selecting kids to read paragraph by paragraph (it’s no fun to sit and listen to one of your fellow classmates struggle through a passage). No picking a short book and reading it two times through. As far as asking questions to confirm comprehension goes, that’s why we had the conversation about subjective questions – I figure at least those will be more engaging for students. I told the teachers that the objective of reading a book out loud to the kids is to increase their oral listening skills (you pick a book that is more difficult than what they would typically be able to access on their own) and to get them excited about reading by demonstrating how fun it can be. If the kids are paying attention, they’ll probably be able to tell you at the end of the story which character was which. But, if they can’t, then it’s just a capacity that they need to continue developing. It’s not like this is a science class or a history class where there’s a specific set of facts and theories we need to stuff between your ears. Our objective is reading and writing. If they don’t get the story the first time, it’s not a big deal to move on to something else and see how they do on the next story the next class. I’m not sure how helpful reading a second time will be, after all, because in my mind you get bored the second time and even though you pick up on some details you with you spend most of the second reading just sitting there waiting for it to be over.

Anyway, I guess for me it was just interesting that the concept of presenting turned out to be the most confusing one. I thought personally that the group work would cause a lot of problems, because that’s not done normally in Haitian schools. But it turns out it’s easier to start something completely new instead of changing something slightly that’s already in place. I tried emphasizing to teachers that kids do what you expect them to do. If you tell them to sit and listen to something for 20 or 30 minutes straight through, they can. I pointed out that they do it all the time, for two hours at a time, when they’re watching a movie. Of course, some people might say a book isn’t as exciting as a movie. But if there’s one thing these teachers definitely have down pat, it’s the ability to keep all eyes in the class on them. Maybe that’s a skill that the students have, too, come to think of it. Both groups work together to maintain the collective attentions span, because there would be fifty conversations going on at the same time and learning would really be impossible.

My mistake is, sometimes when I’m telling teachers that they should demand a lot from their students, I phrase it as, “Well, in my country, the kids are able to do it, and so I think the Haitian kids aren’t any different.” At one point, a teacher raised their hand and told me that one of these days I should demonstrate the whole two hour lesson for them instead of doing a normal training session. I pointed out that wouldn’t be the best use of time, and that they’re better at teaching than I am anyway.

He said the point of making me go through that would be to show me that some of what I’m asking for isn’t possible. You can’t expect Haitian third-graders to arrive at the same level as American third-graders. They’ve got so much in their way, so many disadvantages.

Cue long rant from me, with no pauses to translate for my friends (normally, I stop every few sentences to let Aidan and Zhane know what’s going on and ask for their input. Or at least, I try to). First of all, I decide to approach the question linguistically. Sometimes, I talk about technology or about languages, the two subjects I’m recognized as the local expert in, instead of attacking them head-on and saying, “Wait, are you really telling me that you don’t believe the kids are smart enough?” Maybe being frank would be the better approach, but sometimes I try not to step over the boundaries of my role. I try to give myself a specific job to do, because that will give me the chance to do it well.

Anyway, I told the teacher that Haitian Creole, as a written language, resembles Spanish a lot. Both systems are more or less phonetic – each sound corresponds to one letter, and vice versa. Their syllables end in vowels, instead of consonants (Haitian Creole does have a lot more consonant-ending syllables than Spanish, but you can still argue that it’s easier to break words into syllables in Haitian Creole than it would be in English). When you’ve got a system like that, it doesn’t take kids much time before they’re able to read any word you put in front of them. Whereas back home, we’re having spelling bees up through the eighth grade. I told the teachers that what their kids are missing is practice, not intelligence. Sure, it would be nicer if the school-day could be longer, if the kids could show up with full bellies, if the parents knew how to read themselves. A lot of things could be changed for the better. But if they use what they have efficiently, they can get pretty far on that alone.

I don’t think he was really satisfied with my answer, so I wrapped up with, “You know, this is a research study.” I don’t know what exactly I can expect from the kids, or the teachers. Maybe I really am being too ambitious and asking for too much. But that silly saying about shooting for the moon because even if you miss you’ll land among the stars might be applicable here. Either that, or we’re in deep space and we’re suffocating. I guess we’ll see.

Parents’ Meeting

Last week, we had our last parents’ meeting. At every school where we’re working, I asked the directors to organize a meeting with the parents so I could present the project, hand out consent forms, and take questions. In the last two meetings, the questions had been pretty basic. I tried to make it clear to everyone that just because you turn in the form doesn’t mean your child will be selected. If you have two children in the same school or the same grade, one might be selected and the other might not be. Not everyone is going to be using a laptop – half of the kids will be using paper books. Once those things were cleared up, people tended to be satisfied.

Not so with this meeting, at the Catholic school. There were a lot of questions about the project itself. Most of them came from men. The first guy wanted to know what the long-term plan was. I explained that everything depends on what results we get. Someone else wanted to know more details about me and my organization. I wrote my contact information on the board, and I talked for a bit about how we’re very aware that many foreign NGOs come in, make a donation, leave, and never come back. After all, we’re working with laptops that were basically abandoned by One Laptop Per Child. I explained that our goal is to enable schools to take advantage of these resources. We’ll provide power, connectivity, and training, and we’ll work to integrate the laptops into classrooms instead of sponsoring an after-school activity.

I explained that the school itself had to take ownership in order for this to become sustainable. We’ll provide them with the things they need, but in the end it’s up to them to decide to use them. We’re not going to pay people for years on end to use these laptops. The summer program is funded, but after that if the laptops become a normal part of the school day then the teachers will receive the same amount of money for using them that they’d normally receive for teaching. Our organization can’t provide scholarships, salaries, or stipends. The school has to decide that laptops are worth it. In terms of expanding, if we get good results, we can reach out to public and private networks for the support to get larger. The next step, after this summer, is to adapt the program for the school-day situation and schedule. That will happen in December. After that, it’s really up to the schools. This is a year-long effort, and then we’ll see. No one can predict the future.
One mother asked whether we would take photos of the kids and share them with our government, because I’d mentioned that the U.S. government is providing part of our funding. I didn’t understand her concern at first. It turned out she was worried that if the government knew the kids were getting help in our program, they wouldn’t allow them to participate in other programs. I reiterated that all the information would be private.

Then, another man had a complaint about the fact that we were only choosing 30 students per grade. There’s 50+ students per grade. He saw it as unjust. I explained that we’d like to take everybody, but we don’t have the resources, both in terms of teachers and money to pay the teachers. Everyone will get the chance to use the laptops and follow our adapted curriculum in January. For three months (September, October, November) some kids will be behind the others in the class because they didn’t participate in the summer activity. We’ll instruct the teachers to pay special attention to them, and they’ll probably benefit from being surrounded by other students who worked over the summer. I said we didn’t want to make the teachers work with more than 15 students at once, because this is partially a training activity, and we want them to have conditions where they’ll be successful.

The guy wasn’t satisfied with that answer. He said that’s not how you do things here in Haiti. Someone suggested that we get one of the sisters to come up and talk about whether or not they approved of this program. Sister Micheline said that she’d talked to me last summer and again in December about the possibility of starting to use the laptops again, and they sent one of their teachers to our workshop in December. She said that if some of the parents didn’t want to participate because they had doubts, they weren’t going to force anyone.

After that, we handed out the forms and left. Aidan and Zhane both had a lot of questions for me about what had gone on – I hadn’t been translating, because I’d been too busy responding. I told them it’s a good thing parents asked so many probing questions. I’d rather have that than blind acceptance of what I’m doing, and their concerns were completely legitimate. It’s hard to be doing something that’s framed as research. At the end of the day, you’re not helping everyone, or at least you’re not helping everyone equally. The idea is that in the long term the information you find out will be helpful to everybody. But how do you explain that to the kids and their parents?

First Laptop Workshop

Originally, we’d been planning to start laptop stuff Monday, or even the week after that, but I decided to have a preliminary thing on Saturday in order to give them more time to get used to the computers. That affected turn-out: only six of the nine teachers showed up, and we started an hour late. I’d decided ahead of time not to feed everyone, so we just got drinks.

After discussing the advantages and the disadvantages of the laptops, we pulled up the WriteBooks, an activity that Gonzalo Odiard developed for our team. I walked the teachers through how to add a background image, add an image, and write text. Some had prior experience with the laptops and went very quickly. Others needed a little bit of help – one woman in particular was struggling, because she was too hesitant to click on things after hovering her mouse over them. I let the teacher sitting next to her, who was quick with the laptops, help her out. I also took the time to explain concepts like clicking and dragging to the group as a whole, offering plenty of examples: “If you want to move this pen over here, you put your hand over it, you grab it, and you don’t let go until you get to the spot you want to move it to. Then, you let go of it.”

After everyone had the example on their screen, I asked them to add a second blank page and start working on it. Some were able to do it, and others needed to be coached through the steps again. One teacher searched for “dog” and a chimpanzee came up along with some dog pictures, because the word for dog is “chen” and the word for chimp is “chenpanze.” She asked if there was a way to look up “chenpanze” so the kids can learn what it is. I showed her the HaitiDictionary activity, a Creole-Creole dictionary stored on the computers. Another teacher wanted to orient a car so that it looked like it was coming straight at you as it entered a garage. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any car images that were facing in that direction. I also used the time to coach teachers on using the mouse, typing upper-case letters, and adding accents.

After everyone was done, I asked a teacher to walk us through the steps again – partly to remind everyone how to do it, and partly to see how good he was at explaining what to do. At one point, he used the word “cursor”, and I said it wasn’t a word he could expect the kids to recognize. Everyone should use “mouse” or “arrow” when talking about the mouse. Otherwise, his explanation was well-paced and clear, which I was happy about.
Our hour was almost up at that point (originally, we’d scheduled everything for two hours, but everyone had shown up an hour late, and I didn’t want to keep them long because it was a Saturday). I told the teachers to play around with the activity more. I helped some of them out with using the arrow keys to navigate through the text they’d already written. Then, I suggested we all walk down to the house to grab some chargers so they could take the laptops home and practice by themselves. They said I should go down myself and come back up – they’d wait for me. When I got back, they were still working on the computers, which I was happy to see.

I told them their homework was to write a story of three to five pages, and come up with five recommendations about how to make the app better. They asked some questions of what I meant by a story. Did they have to write it on the computers, or just tell it to me from their head? Did it have to be a story they made up, or could they copy some from a book? What kind of stuff should go on each page?

After that, they asked me to sing a song I’d written – I’d made the mistake of mentioning that I write songs but I’m a terrible singer. “You always ask us to do stuff we’re not comfortable with,” they said. “You should have to do the same thing.”

As we were leaving, I glanced at my phone, and realized a whole hour had passed – the teachers had willingly stayed for the extra hour, even though it was Saturday. I felt like that was a confirmation that for once I’d done something right. Maybe it was the computers, or the smaller number of people, or the fact that the directions were clearer, or maybe everyone, including me, is just more relaxed on Saturdays. But it was nice.

AFAL’s Story

The other night, I translated Bernadette’s explanation of how her organization came to be founded, which was also my opportunity to finally get the whole story. Today, I stopped by my first meeting of the organization. Here’s what I’ve learned.

In 1989, Bernadette worked with a nutrition center, where a lot of mothers would bring their kids. Sometimes, the mothers weren’t able to come themselves, so they sent the older siblings to accompany the young ones. She started asking why those kids weren’t in school, and the mothers explained that they weren’t able to pay the fees. Bernadette told the parents that if they bought the uniforms and made sure to send them, she would find a way to sign them up.

They started out with 12 students. Bernadette found a sympathetic priest who was willing to accept them at his school, but then, at the end of the school-year, she wasn’t able to meet the conditions. The priest wanted her to pay full-price, so Bernadette had to start looking at other options.

The land where the school is now used to be a church. She talked to the priest there, and he was willing for them to start having classes there. That was in 1990, but the school didn’t get its official papers until 2 years later, in 1992, so that’s the official founding date. They started with first grade, and added classes year by year. For a while, they stayed at six, and then two years ago they added seventh grade and eighth grade (to comply with government regulations, you’ve got to go up to nine now). There are over 600 students attending the school, and they finished construction in 2014 (although paying off the construction loans is of course another story).

Bernadette offered us a glimpse into her school’s finances. Teacher salaries for grades 1-6 range from $80 USD to $125 USD every month. The teachers for the higher grades are paid by hour, because they’re only teaching a specific subject. Only three of Bernadette’s teachers are “normalized” – that means they’ve spent three years studying education at a “normal school.” If you’re normalized, you’re in higher demand, and you can expect a salary of around $400 USD every month. She’s not able to attract normalized teachers, because they often go work at other schools in the area that get paid better.

AFAL itself was founded in 1996, a few years after the school opened. It stands for Association of Activist Women in Lascahobas. They focused on education and agriculture, providing schooling, seeds, and tools. Bernadette received support from all over: Worldvision, Oxfam, and others. In 1999(?), they joined up with the Church of the Redeemer, a Catholic church in my state, Virginia. A lot of the Catholic churches in Virginia have a twinning program where they partner with a Catholic church in Haiti. The Church of the Redeemer decided to help out Bernadette’s group, even though they’re not affiliated with the church (Bernadette goes there on Sundays, but she’s just a member). They’ve supported the school, a housing project, a small vocational school where they made cleaning supplies, a water treatment project, and other things.

Bernadette told us that she served as AFAL’s first president, and after that others stepped up. But then, around 2003 and 2005, AFAL almost collapsed, and she felt obligated to take the reins again. Since then, she’s served as president, and AFAL has grown to over 150 members.

At the meeting today, there were only 20 women or so. Bernadette explained that not everyone attends the monthly meetings all at once, and there are others who choose to meet in smaller groups closer to their homes at other times. The meeting was supposed to start at 3, but Bernadette told us not to show up until 4.

After we introduced ourselves, Bernadette launched into the lesson. She opened a book about democracy to a page that talked about what being a citizen means. First, she asked the group what being a citizen means.

“You can vote,” said one woman. “But you have to respect the laws,” said another.

Bernadette asked them at what age people become citizens, and they talked for a bit about how you’re considered an adult at 18 (you “become a major.”). Bernadette also talked about the difference between civil rights and political rights. A civil right is something you’re born with, and everybody has one. You have the right to an identity (when your child is born, they should get a birth certificate with their name on it, along with their “siyati” – their last name. Now I know why all the parents were confused when we put “siyati” on the consent forms. It also translates to “signature”, so they idn’t know which one I was asking for). You have the right to claim a nationality – if you’re born in Haiti, you can be Haitian. You have the right to marry, once you’ve become an adult. You have the right to free speech. Everyone has the right to health and education, too.

Political rights involve participation in the system. Voting is the obvious one. Also, you can join a political party and run as a candidate. Plus, you can criticize the government. Bernadette explained that “criticize” doesn’t mean you should just talk about all the things the government is doing wrong. You should also talk about when it does something good. If it does something wrong, that doesn’t mean it’s bad, either. It just means that it will avoid doing that again in the future.

Bernadette asked if anyone had questions, and no one did. So, she announced, she would ask questions of her own. First, she asked what a citizen was. After they correctly identified someone who has turned 18, she asked what the distinction was between a member of the population and a citizen. The women understood that a child can be a member of the population, but isn’t considered a citizen until they stop being a minor. There was also a discussion about how someone can lose their rights as a citizen. Bernadette clarified that if you’re convicted of a crime and sent to prison, you can lose your citizenship.

Bernadette asked them to talk about civil rights, but no one was able to correctly explain what they were, so she went over them again briefly. One woman smiled and said “Good health for you, and for me” like it was a joke she couldn’t believe in. Then, they moved on to political rights. This time, there were many more questions after people delivered “voting” as one correct response. One woman wanted to know whether someone who had stolen or committed a crime could run for president. Bernadette repeated what she’d said about losing your citizenship if you went to prison. “One thing you should know is that we’re all equal under the law,” Bernadette declared. “Everyone plays by the same rules.”

The woman in the back wasn’t buying it. “How can we all be equal when a president has more power than I do?” she asked. She also seemed to be implying that she’d never be able to run for president – it was an opportunity that wasn’t open to her.

Bernadette answered that when she was talking about equality she was talking about the legal system and the justice system. As for the political system, apparently there’s a law that you don’t have to be able to read to vote or run for office. In Bernadette’s mind, that was going to open up the system to a lot of previously-marginalized people.

Someone else asked about the age when you can run for candidate. Bernadette said it’s 25 for some local positions, 50 for deputy or senator (those are the representatives that get sent to Parliament), and even higher for a president. Someone commented that instead of saying people have citizenship at 18, they should say 25, because you aren’t able to run for a candidate until you’re 25. Bernadette pointed out that you can do a lot of things at 18, but they aren’t allowed to run until later because most people don’t graduate from college until they’re around that age.
There was still some confusion about what age you can be president. Bernadette said she wasn’t sure of the exact number. There’d been a decree, but she hadn’t read it yet. Someone brought up the case of Baby Doc, who was the son of Papa Doc, a dictator. Baby Doc definitely hadn’t been over fifty when he came to power. Someone pointed out that in that case, it was a matter of succession. If you die, then your first son will inherit everything you own. It took a little more hashing out before they also recognized that the case was unusual not only because the guy was young, but because he was a dictator, not an elected political leader.

After that there was yet another discussion about whether people who commit crimes can still be candidates. One woman asked, “Are you sure that if someone commits a crime, they’ll lose their citizenship, and they won’t be able to be a candidate?” Bernadette told her that’s a question to ask the justice system and the legal system. She also told them it’s a question they need to ask themselves, and she went on a long rant about the idea of community justice.

Basically, in the past, people used to look out for each other. Bernadette seemed to be blaming kids and teenagers for most crimes. “In countries all around the world, not just Haiti, kids go around stealing things,” she said. Before, if someone caught you stealing, they would tell your parents about you, and the gossip would spread all around the town. The parents would discipline the child, and in extreme cases, they would send them away. But now, parents are eager to “tear up leaves and cover up” their children’s crimes. Even if their child does something wrong right in front of them, they’re not going to want to admit it or accept it. They’ll try to hide it from the community. Bernadette related a story about a boy who had stolen a phone not too long ago who got beaten for it. It was unclear how she felt about the community taking matters into their own hands and beating him, but it was very clear that in her opinion things might have been different if the parents had been strong enough to control the boy. Maybe she was implying he wouldn’t have committed the crime if he’d been raised differently, or maybe she meant that the community wouldn’t have had to beat him if the parents had taken care of it themselves.

After that, Bernadette decided to continue. She told them she wanted to talk about “some general things that a good senator or deputy would do.” She proceeded to give a list of priorities and projects, all of which were things she herself has worked on in the past. First, micro-finance and collectives are important, especially when there’s an emphasis on women’s rights, since they’re the ones who “hold the largest loads on their backs.” Infrastructure’s also important to consider. When people talk about the environment, most of the time the first thing that comes to mind is trash or deforestation, but it’s important to remember that the environment is everything around you. Environment is also a question of infrastructure. There’s lots of good food available up in the mountains, but it’s being wasted because the women can’t carry it all down the path on their heads. A better road would help. Next, a safe place for children is important. After the earthquake, lots of children ended up on the streets. That’s not good. They should be taken care of. Houses for adults are also important. You might be able to live outside when it’s sunny, but what will you do when it rains? (Haitians really hate rain). Bernadette announced that even if her funding source for the housing project runs out, she’ll go looking for money in other sources. However, she announced, the funding source had just told her they were willing to keep going, which was very good news. Bernadette went on to briefly mention agriculture. She said that seeds and tools were important. Then she touched on health. One of the best hospitals in the country is only half an hour away, in Mirebelais. But there are people who sleep outside just to guarantee their spot, because it’s so overcrowded. You can wait up to eight days just to see a doctor. It would be better if each area had its own clinic, so the Mirebelais hospital only had to see the most severe cases, or the ones that required a specialist. Finally, education is important. It’s such a big question that all the politicians are going to have to work together to tackle it (were the other questions not so big?). School should be free and available up to university, and it should be focused on the idea that when people graduate they should be able to find a job. She said she wanted to talk more about the idea of employment, but she didn’t have much time. She moved on to electronic voting, which would make it easier for more people to participate. Then, she passed it over to another woman, who was going to talk about immigration.

The Dominican Republic denies citizenship to children who are born on its soil to Haitian parents. They’re sending 130,000 “Haitians” back to Haiti very soon. Everyone was shocked at the number. Apparently, for many of these deportees it’s actually their first time in Haiti. They’re like refugees. In Haiti even more than other places, survival is based off who you know. When you need something, you rely on your family or community. These people may not know anybody. The woman warned people to take precautions. Who knows what diseases these people could be carrying? Some might have AIDS or syphilis. If they can’t find work, food, or a house, they’re going to turn to stealing. She urged everyone to get locks for their doors. There would be all sorts of people coming: criminals, homosexuals. They would drive the price of food even higher, by stealing or buying food that Haitians needed to eat. The gist was, “Batten down the hatches. A crisis is coming.” It would be 45 days or less before they arrived.

They asked me what I thought of the woman’s message. Maybe they could tell it didn’t sit well with me. I said I’m not Haitian so I really shouldn’t say anything. But it irked me to hear them talking about these people like they were trash that the Dominican was throwing out. “Everybody is somebody,” I said, using a Haitian proverb to make my point. “These people share the same language and culture with you.” “No, they don’t,” Bernadette interrupted. “Most of them don’t speak the same language.” Some of the people being sent here have lived in the Dominican for three or four generations. I floundered: “Well, they were Haitian long ago. You still have a common enemy. It’s not like these people are choosing to come here. The Dominican is sending them. Be mad at the Dominican, instead of at these people. This is a crisis for them too.”

Bernadette cut me off and went into a rant. She talked about how after the earthquake they all had to take people in and feed them. People have already showed up at her door from the Dominican, asking for help. Almost everyone in the room knows someone who’s currently in the Dominican, whether it’s friends or family. “These people are going to be descending on you, and you’re going to have to open your doors to them,” Bernadette said. That still doesn’t solve the problem of people coming who have no connections, but at least it was something.

After that everyone left the meeting in a hurry, because a storm was coming. Normally, rain here is just a downpour of warmish waves of water. We debated whether we’d walk to go visit some people, and then things got worse and our decision was made for us. The wind was blowing really hard. It drove rain in through the windows of the house. Standing on the porch, we saw hail bouncing off the pebbles in the front yard. I picked up a stone, and brought it in to show Martha, marveling that there was something cold naturally occurring in Haiti. Puddles collected on the floor of our room because it wasn’t possible to completely close the windows. We moved papers and electronics to safe corners. The roof leaked less than I’d expected – it turned out they’d plugged up a lot of the holes, so we no longer had a small pond collecting under the columns in the living room. After the storm passed, everyone went up on the roof to shovel off the wet sand and sweep the water towards the drains. It’s not sloped, so you have to put in a bit of extra effort.

“Maybe Haitians have a good reason to hate rain,” Aidan commented. “That looked like a hurricane.”