Pyramids, Mudcakes, and Other Scams

“I’m headed off to a meeting,” Bernadette tells me. “It’s a new program where you sell things, and you can also make money by enrolling other merchants.”

Warning bells start going off in my head. “I’d like to hear more about it later,” I tell her.

We sat down tonight and talked about it. Yep, it’s definitely a pyramid scheme. And, apparently she’s already signed up for something like this before. They gave her expensive foreign coffee to sell, and it totally didn’t work: the only way to make money was to recruit other sellers, because customers for these products were nonexistent. She ended up losing $250 USD.

Given that past experience, Bernadette was willing to listen to me. But, one of her best friends is eager to get in on this thing. I wanted to explain to her why this is a bad idea so she can convince her friend and everyone else not to do it.


My “explaining” notebook

I pulled up the French Wikipedia article on my phone. First, I made the mistake of trying to walk through the math: “Now, let’s say each of you has to sign up 3 other people in order to make a profit. What’s 3 to the power of 10? 59,049. That’s bigger than the population of this whole town. 88% of you are going to be at the bottom level of this. You’re going to lose all your money.”

Then we got to the legislation section. We read about laws in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada. “If these people tried this in Canada, and they got caught, they’d go to jail. It’s not legal.” Haitians are always comparing what they have here to what other people have abroad. This is just one more example of Haitians getting screwed for Bernadette to add to a whole bunch of others that she already has in her head. She started nodding.

This is also an example of my foreigner powers at work. Unlike the vast majority of Haitians, I’m equipped to tackle this problem. I’ve heard the term “pyramid scheme” before. I know how to Google (and read). I have a smartphone with Internet. I’ve spent my entire education being told that if I just read something enough times and take notes, I’ll understand it, so I’m willing to sit down and take the time to read the French article and try to make sense of it. I have spare time, and, also important, spare head-space, since my other obligations aren’t stressful (I’m stressed as heck trying to make this project work, but no one’s depending on me for sustenance).

I have mixed feelings about my foreigner powers. On one hand, their existence justifies my presence here: it’s great to be able to “save” Bernadette from making a bad investment just by knowing the right search term to type in. On the other hand, what if instead of giving me a grant we paid the salaries of Haitian lawyers and regulators so that they can nip these things in the bud? It’s a short-term, long-term game.

Right now, in the medium term, I take comfort in the fact that Bernadette’s a community leader: if I supply her with the arguments, she can influence other people to avoid this in the future. In the longer medium term, if we install an Internet-in-a-Box server at a school, all the students there will have access to the Wikipedia article, and maybe even a translated Khan Academy video on the subject, without having to pay for an Internet connection or a smartphone. In the long-ish term, if we teach kids to read and write in their own language, maybe they’ll start writing their own articles and chat messages. People who got scammed by a program can post about it, and maybe other people won’t fall for the same thing.

I mean, that’s what I tell myself when I wake up in the morning.

Meanwhile, I’m just sad that someone, somewhere, decided to exploit Haitian hope and lack of access to information. Also, I’m mad that they got away with it.

I’m also thinking about information on my end. I tried Googling “pyramid scheme Haiti” to talk about the problem with Bernadette in a local context. Surprise, surprise, an article called the “The 10 Nastiest Ponzi Schemes” popped up. It’s got this little gem about why you shouldn’t scam Haitians: “People there eat mud cakes when times get bad.”

But actually, the mud cake thing is a lie.(1) Not a super dangerous lie like telling someone that if they pay money they’ll get rich quick. But it’s still a pretty dangerous lie, because it changes how Americans see Haitians, which affects how we decide to “help” them.

If we keep portraying Haitians as these miserable and uneducated caricatures, clearly the solution is always going to involve someone like me swooping in as the savior with their smartphone.

But you know, somebody must have fallen for pyramid schemes once upon a time in the good ol’ US of A. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a law against them in the first place. Plus, I don’t want to live in a world where you have to Google every little thing and protect yourself.

I was about to write “I want to live in a world where I can rely on the government to protect me.” Still think this would be pretty good, but even better: a world where no one’s scamming anyone in the first place.

I know that’s not going to happen, but I’m thinking we can get a little closer to it if there’s more communication on all sides. There are three sides, by the way: Us understanding Haitians, Haitians understanding each other, and Haitians understanding us.


I’m posting my first ever Haitian Creole status on Facebook, letting all my Haitian friends know to check out that Wikipedia article and message me before they get involved in something like this. After all, Bernadette’s the third person I know personally who’s been affected by this. It’s very likely that someone else I know is at risk, too.

I’m going to email this blog to some foreigners I know who are visiting Lascahobas next week, so that they can continue the conversation and back Bernadette up if people don’t believe her.

Bernadette already took notes in her own notebook, but I’m also going to write up and print off a brief explanation of why these things are bad, so that she’ll have the script for passing this on to other folks.

Oh, and I wrote this blog post!

Clearly, lots of world-saving going on here.


(1)I have personal experience with these mudcakes. My first summer in Haiti, a bunch of kids gave me one and told me to eat it. “Haha, not falling for that trick, guys.” Then one of the girls popped it in her mouth. I still didn’t believe them (they could have dared her to) so I made another do it. Okay, then I tried it, too. Surprise. It tasted like dirt. The girls giggled and told me that pregnant women are supposed to eat them. That was the joke: since I ate it, I must be pregnant! Who was the father?

Mangos So Far

This list is supposed to compliment the mistakes list by documenting all the times I’ve gotten free mangos (or the equivalent).

1. Last-minute tech support
Normally, I rely on Unleash Kids volunteers to prepare the servers for me, and I just bring them down. This time, I decided to try doing it myself, but I ended up being really lost. For one thing, I didn’t have the right tools at hand. I had to bike to the store just to get a screwdriver. Then, I learned that you can’t just plug the NUC into your computer – you’ve got to track down a monitor, keyboard and mouse. I managed to find all those things, but they were in different places, so there was a lot of lugging and trekking back and forth. Luckily for me, our technical team had just developed an easier way of installing the software. They walked me through the steps, and although things looked grim and impossible for a while, eventually everything worked out (insert sigh of relief here).

2. Printing help
The professor who’s registered as the principal investigator on this project, Deborah Ramer, helped print out all the teacher surveys and consent forms. Kim Van Deusen, our advisor for the scholar’s program, let us use the printer to do the bulk of the pre-test pages, and I also did some at the Writing Center in the library. Plus, Jennifer Shotwell, a Randolph-Macon professor, did the rest of them, and she’s also going to be taking them down.

3. Nice library people
I still had two servers left to install, but I wasn’t able to take all my equipment off-campus, so I had to figure something out. I went to the library and asked to borrow a projector. Normally, the loan time is a few days, but I asked if they could make an exception since I was traveling out of the country. I explained that I would leave the projector in DC and my friend would bring it down ten days later when he returned to campus. Surprisingly, they were okay with that (even though a projector’s a really expensive piece of equipment). We stayed at Eve’s house in DC, and her dad’s a big tech guy, so he was able to provide all the other stuff we needed.

3. Free rides and places to sleep
Last summer, when I booked a flight leaving out of DC, my friend and I had to take the bus. It was terrible – I mean, Greyhound isn’t bad, but the fact that we had a whole leg added to our trip before we got in the plane meant we were pretty tired when we got to Haiti. This time, our friend Max offered to drive us up (he was also the one who brought my projector back later), drop us off at Eve’s house, where we got a little sleep and I got my installations done, and drive us to the airport at 3:30 in the morning.

I’ve got a lot more to add (so many things to catch up on) so check back later to see how things are going.

Mistakes So Far

This post is mostly just a way of me getting things off my chest and reminding myself not to do this again. Maybe it will prove useful to someone else who ends up in the same situation; maybe it’ll be amusing for the rest of you.

1) Leaving two or so weeks earlier than planned
The original plan was to head down in the middle of June, a few weeks after the end of school. Plenty of time to test everything and make sure it works before hauling off. Then, my teammate found out that she would have to start work on June 1st, so if we waited until then to leave she wouldn’t be able to go with us. And I started thinking about the advantages of spending more time in the community, visiting the schools while classes are still in session, and getting to know our partner here better. So far, all those aspects have been great. But downloading large files is almost impossible here, and I had to install all the server software the night before leaving – it was a miracle that it actually worked, and I have no idea what I would have done if it hadn’t. Also, none of the books or tests were ready in time, so I’ve been spending my time begging other people to carry them down for me. Finally, it hasn’t been fair to our developer, Gonzalo Odiard, who’s been working really hard on getting all the software pieces ready and has to cope with our team’s unpredictable travel schedules at the last minute…

2) Not printing everything way ahead of time
The original idea was to administer the test using the computers – they’ve put together software that works on tablets, and I thought it wouldn’t be too hard to adapt it. But it turned out to be just one more thing to do, and we really don’t have time, at this stage, for “one more thing.” Plus, it makes sense to do what’s easier for the teachers administering it. They’re used to paper, so we should do paper, even though it’s much harder for us. Anyway, we decided to print all 270 * 2 exams. With 9 pages per exam, that’s almost 5,000 pages. Plus teacher surveys and parental consent forms. I have free printing privileges at two places on campus, but an amount that large is going to raise some eyebrows. So far, thanks to some generous folk, we’ve managed to get halfway there, but I guess we’ll just have to Fedex the rest. Later on, I’ll probably report back to whine about data entry and how we have to do everything manually whereas on a computer it would have been automatic…

3) Not realizing it takes time to receive money
They warned us to plan accordingly, because we wouldn’t get the grant until summer, but somehow I just assumed everything would be fine. In their defense, people have been working hard at both ends to get our funds to us, but paperwork requires processing. It doesn’t help that our situation is unusual. I asked them to direct the money to my friend’s account, so we don’t have to pay transfer fees twice (once to get it to my account, and then again to get it to him). But, I’m liable for this on my taxes, so that won’t work. Actually, I should be really grateful that my friend here volunteered to receive it in his Haitian bank account. It would be really dangerous to carry that much cash through the airport, and the fees for Western Union transfers or debit card are outrageous. Then there’s the fact that I’ve just never handled this much money before, ever. For example, I had to call my bank yesterday and ask them to increase my spending limit so I could pay for our books. I didn’t even know there was a spending limit – I’d never tried to spend that much before. I guess I’m making progress. I remember a few years ago, I was trying to buy an airplane ticket to Haiti, and I was shocked to learn that banks aren’t open all day on Sunday.

4) Being too proud to talk about money
I like to think of myself as independent, so I hate having to go to my parents and admit that I need their help. I waited until the last minute to ask for money to buy the books that we need, so they showed up at my house just yesterday, and someone else is going to have to figure out how to get them here to Haiti (thanks, Shuyan, Jennifer, Ben, and co.). Meanwhile, I’ve been worried lately because we’re operating with $2000 less dollars than I expected. Our school gave us the grant, but then our trip wasn’t approved (my personal trip and my personal grant are fine, but they don’t want me being responsible for other people). I know additional fundraising is an option, and we’ll probably be looking into it after the trip is over to recoup some expenses. It’s just hard to not have as much wiggle room as I expected. It means there’s a limited amount of space to screw up, which I guess is good in some ways but terribly stressful in others.

5) Going to the wrong airport
Speaking of costly mistakes…This one is really embarrassing, and I still don’t know how it happened. There are two airports in D.C.: Reagan and Dulles. I should know the codes for both of them by heart, because I’m looking up flights all the time. But somehow, I got it fixed in my head that DCA = Dulles, and our flight was out of there. So, we show up there around four in the morning (thank you Lydia for being paranoid and making us leave the house way earlier than I thought necessary, or this story would have a much worse ending), I go up to check in (I can never check in ahead of time, because my name’s hyphenated), and the lady at the counter points out that we’re at the wrong airport. We run downstairs and manage to get a van, and on our way to the other airport I try to figure out whether my reservation will be cancelled if I don’t check in an hour and thirty minutes ahead of time or an hour ahead of time, because we’re definitely not going to make the hour and thirty minutes thing. Luckily, it’s an hour ahead of time.

6) Feeling like I’m alone, when I’m not
Sometimes I assume that all of this is on me, but it’s not. For one thing, I’ve got my proposal-writing team: my fellow students, my professors, our mentor, and the Big Ideas judges who reviewed everything. Here on the ground, I’ve got Bernadette and many new friends that I’m making. If Bernadette weren’t here, I don’t think this project would be happening. I trust her, and lots of other people hre in town trust her, too. Then, on Saturday, Shuyan arrives with her own team. She came with me on my first trip to Lascahobas, and I’ll be glad to see her here again. They’re taking care of solar panels and laptops, which I could never handle on my own. Finally, I wouldn’t be able to function here in Haiti if it weren’t for the folks who put their faith in me right from the beginning, like the people at my church who contributed over $1000 when I served them really bad cooking in fundraisers, the Unleash Kids volunteers who spent hours on the phone training me how to install operating systems and read a voltmeter, and friends all over who give me a safe place to stay on my travels. In order to make it, you’ve got to learn to depend on the kindness of strangers. You’ve got to learn how to depend on the kindness of people who matter a lot to you, too.

I’ll be adding to this list as time goes on (actually, I’ll probably end up making many more mistakes than I document here). I’ll also be creating a separate list of all the times I’ve gotten free mangoes. Ideally, the two will roughly balance each other.

Our Big Idea

Update: our team was recognized with second place and an additional $3,000 to make our project possible. Thank you to everyone who listened to us rehearse our pitch and offered feedback. You can watch the full pitch below.

Our team’s entry for the student social innovation competition Big Ideas @ Berkeley was selected as one of three finalists for the Global Impact category of Grand Prize Pitch Day. Basically, that means we get to fly out to California in a few days to present our plans to a panel of judges in the hopes of winning more money. We’ve already received $10,000 from Big Ideas as a first-place winner in the Mobiles for Reading category.

Thank you to everyone for your support leading up to this. Here’s a little blurb we wrote about the project, plus a video we made presenting our work’s context:

Learning to read from words on a screen is not inherently better than reading on paper. However, technology is a good investment if beginning readers can use it as a tool. First, I create software that students can use to read, write, and share stories. Then, I work with local teachers to create lesson plans that accompany new materials. The teachers will go on to present the curricula during a six-week summer literacy camp. Small class sizes and time dedicated to reading and writing activities will give teachers an ideal space for trying out new techniques. The test group uses laptops to access the content, and the control group reads and writes on paper. In my model, technology has a positive impact on both teacher and student behavior. Both teachers and students are participants who are split between the groups. I will administer a pre- and post-test early grade reading assessment to all students to gauge whether technology leads to higher score increases. I will analyze student writing samples and monitor their reading and writing habits to observe which technology tools, if any, students use when they are available. I will also survey teachers to determine whether receiving training in and using technology has an impact on their teaching methods and attitudes. 270 students and eighteen teachers from three schools will participate. Each school represents a different side of the Haitian educational system: one is public, one is Catholic, and a local women’s group runs the last one.

Big News

Screenshot from the Haitian Creole version of iloominate, available here:

Screenshot from the Haitian Creole version of iloominate, available here:

Pleased to announce that the book-making software we piloted a few weeks ago has been awarded $12,000 as one of three finalists in the All Children Reading – Enabling Writers competition. The credit goes to Nick Doiron for stepping up as the lead guy on this, and to everyone who offered their help, including Adam Holt, Caryl Bigenho, and Jennifer Shotwell. Over the next few months, we’ll be expanding on what we started; stay tuned for the latest. I know I’m really excited.

Doing It All

I talked a little bit about the work in Lascahobas while we were doing it, but now that it’s done it’s worth taking a look back at just how much went in to the site.

First, a lot of preparation is needed to get materials ready before they’re sent down to Haiti, so that installation is as simple as possible upon arrival. Some physics students at Randolph-Macon took on the task of building and testing out the rollable solar set-up. Meanwhile, our schoolserver team figured out how to run the network directly off the batteries being charged by two other panels.

Testing out the solar set-up.

Testing out the solar set-up.

The solar team at Randolph-Macon. Shuyan, Conner, Dan.

The solar team at Randolph-Macon. Shuyan, Conner, Dan.

Our first full day in Hinche was then dedicated to getting that solar system in place – we knew we couldn’t do anything without a source of electricity. Shuyan worked on the portable, rollable system, and a team of professionals from DigitalKap came in to install the other two panels securely and permanently.

Setting up the charge controller

Shuyan setting up the charge controller

Discussing where to put the solar panels

Discussing where to put the solar panels

It ended up being a really long day. The DigitalKap guys promised a secure install, and of course “security” means different things to different people. Bernadette, the school director, wanted them to cover the panels with metal flaps. Ultimately, they came up with a solution that satisfied everyone, welding on a brace to make everything more secure. Of course, that meant taking down the panels, going into town, and finding a welder. So, the job wasn’t finished until really late that night, around 9 or 10: they had to run a light-bulb off a generator in order to be able to see to set up the final pieces. The important thing, though, is that Bernadette feels the panels are protected. It’s her school, and our goal is to minimize the worries we cause her as much as we can.

Discussing options with Bernadette

Discussing options with Bernadette on the roof

Hoisting up the solar panels

Hoisting up the solar panels

The welded brace.

The welded brace.

Other security measures had to be taken as well. Since the rollable solar panel has to be put out and taken down every day, Bernadette recommended hiring a guy to build a tower and install a door to give easy access.

Constructing a tower

Constructing a tower

In the computer room itself, another guy put in a shelf for the network equipment and charge controller.

We constructed a shelf to keep the boxes with blinking lights out of the reach of kids.

We constructed a shelf to keep the boxes with blinking lights out of the reach of kids.

On Day 2, we leaped into our job of fixing laptops. The grand total, I’m proud to announce, was 126. That means they had their data collected, were unlocked, had their date updated, had their firmware upgraded, and had HaitiOS installed. 55 more laptops are in various stages of disrepair – hopefully some can be salvaged at a later date, or at least used for spare parts.

One big obstacle was electricity: the city power comes on at night, but other times there’s no real guarantee you’ll have it. In order to work on the laptops, we needed to be able to turn them on, so we had to get creative. For tasks like collecting data, unlocking, and changing the date, we switched out dead batteries for some that we’d charged ahead of time, doing the job, and then taking those good batteries back out to use in the next set of machines. Basically, we had a bunch of batteries and laptops going back and forth, working in pairs to get those stacks of unfinished machines lower and lower. For tasks that take longer or require a power source, like upgrading firmware and installing HaitiOS, we carried the laptops back to the rectory where we were sleeping and stayed up until 11 or midnight finishing the process.

Shuyan and Herodion helping to transort laptops

Shuyan and Herodion bringing laptops back

On top of all that, we also wanted to make sure the local teachers understood how to use all the fun toys we were working so hard to bring them. Every morning started out with a training session in the XO laptops. We also went over the solar system and the Internet set-up, and we invited kids to attend on the last few days for some trial classes.

Meeting to review the Haiti Course Guide

Meeting to review the Haiti Course Guide

As you can probably gather by now, none of this could have happened without a fantastic team and a lot of careful planning. Plus, support from Ben Burrell’s church back at home in Virginia, which was really needed to make everything possible.

In addition to the work at Bernadette’s AFAL school, we also visited another school in the area that received laptops and fixed a total of 65 machines there. Unfortunately, this school isn’t as lucky as Bernadette’s – they don’t have a relationship with a church back in the States that provides funding to make things happen. Working with Bernadette’s school and Ben’s church has made me realize just how essential it is to have a source of funding: so teachers can get paid for the extra work they’re doing in the computer classes, so electricity can flow, so an Internet connection can happen.

So grateful for what we’ve been able to accomplish in Lascahobas thanks to everyone’s efforts. We’ll keep moving forward as much as we can with every one of our locations, but I know this school will go farther than many others thanks to all it’s able to receive.

The "other school"

The “other school”

Worth It

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

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

One school's storage center.

One school’s storage center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contract for the local guy who OLPC employed

Contract for the local guy who OLPC employed

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

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

Lascahobas: We Do It All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussing where to put that super-long solar panel.

Discussing where to put that super-long solar panel.

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

Bernadette, the school director, discusses her preferences.

Bernadette, the school director, discusses her preferences.

The team affixes the solar panel while Jeanide looks on.

The team affixes the solar panel while Jeanide looks on.

Working late into the night to finish the job.

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

Bringing the machines out of the supply closet.

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

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

Reviewing the updating process.

Reviewing the updating process.

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

IMG_0420 (Medium)

IMG_0454 (Medium)

IMG_0460 (Medium)

Preparing computers for the first day of class.

Preparing computers for the first day of class.

Students getting some shots of sky and trees.

Students getting some shots of sky and trees.

Lots of photos being taken.

Lots of photos being taken.

IMG_0414 (Medium)

IMG_0421 (Medium)

IMG_0424 (Medium)

Stacking the finished machines.

Stacking the finished machines.

IMG_0477 (Medium)