Haiti – Ruminations

See Also: Haiti: Lessons Learned in Plastics

I recently had the opportunity to head to Haiti, part of an effort to build a small scale recycling operation in the town of Jacmel. I’ll deal with the success or failure of the machines in another post, but here I wanted to get down some of my impressions of the trip as a whole, especially from the perspective of a first world maker.

We landed at the Port au Prince International Airport at around 3pm.  My cousin, Sarah, met us at the airport, and we went about the task of collecting our bags. We were travelling with a group of 12 people. My focus was entirely on the plastics project. The others are helping Sarah with other aspects of her work down here. Some of this work is at the home where she fosters between 3 and 5 kids at any given time. There is also a clinic where she leads a group of Haitian midwives assisting with births, pre and postnatal care, or education. Lastly there is a house, dubbed the OliveUs House, that our group has rented to house the midwives and women in need of a place to stay to get back on their feet.

With twelve people in the group, we had a lot of bags. I can only take credit for 3 or so. I brought a lot of plastics recycling bits, and a good haul of tools to use down here and leave when I head home. The rest of the bags are filled with clothes, prom dresses, cloth diapers, maternity pads, sewing machines and a plethora of other items. It’s a 3 hour trip over the mountains into Jacmel. We had a 3 ton flatbed truck belonging to Sarah to take the luggage, and a hired van to take the people.

The trip over the mountains was uneventful, for the most part, but it is hard to not notice the poverty around us, especially in the outskirts of the capital. Garbage is everywhere. People are everywhere, often on top of the garbage. Street dogs hunting for missed morsels of food compete with pigs and chickens, set loose in the mess to fend for themselves. Higher in the mountains, dusk, then full on dark greeted us, but the streets are still full of people. They are fetching water in jerry cans, deftly hopping out of the way as our driver rocketed us past. When we slow down for a speed bump, we hear thumps on the car panels as people hop on or off the back of the van, to shorten their walk. Those that aren’t out walking are clustered around the occasional light source, or sitting on the guard rail, watching us pass, or busy on their phones. With no power in the grid, the night is extremely dark.
We reached our destination at around 7:30, well past dark. There, we are introduced to Jean Moise Michel Jacmel, nine months old, HIV+, and severely undernourished and dehydrated. Moise was abandoned at the Jacmel hospital 5 days previously, and was ranking very low on the hospital’s priority list. They were more than glad when Sarah offered to take him home. Two days later, he’s with us at our first dinner in Haiti, and took a turn for the worse. We rushed him to Sarah’s, where she spent the night trying to rehydrate him. We now think he may be lactose intolerant, which could explain his poor health, and why he was abandoned at the hospital. Sarah suspects that perhaps the mother had died, as the malnutrition looks like a recent development. He’s doing better now, more alert and keeping most food down, but his future is still uncertain. It’s a stark reminder of the differences between Canada and Haiti, and how easy it is for life to go pear shaped when poverty is commonplace.

And poverty is everywhere there. In Jacmel, I heard rumours of an upper class somewhere, but I saw no evidence. The most egregious display of wealth was an old Mercedes utility vehicle that had an intact windshield. But despite the lack of resources, I saw very little evidence of crime, of violence, or of desperation. Most people don’t seem unhappy, although I learned that they have seen more than their share of sickness and death. But for the most part they are just getting on with it, and doing it with pride and resilience.

On one of our quieter days, my daughter, Juliet, and I had the opportunity to have lunch at the home of one of Sarah’s previous employees. St Emen is a short, happy woman, living in concrete shack in a field near Jacmel. She proudly showed us her home, quick to mention that she owns it herself. The aforementioned shack is their sleeping quarters, and holds two handmade single beds and an old hospital gurney.  This is where she, her partner, and 3-4 kids sleep. The kitchen is an old USAID tent across the dirt yard. Chickens run around our feet while we consume one of their brethren for our lunch.  There is also a generous helping of rice and beans, and a simple salad, washed with water in a jerry can that was hauled in from a communal tap a few hundred meters away. One day, perhaps, electricity will come to her and her neighbours, but that is a far off dream. After lunch, she goes digging under one of the beds, and comes out with a stack of pictures.
She shows me her 8 children, 5 of whom are still alive. She seems to feel this is an accomplishment, and I don’t know enough to disagree.

Our first full day was spent unpacking the many suitcase,s getting our bearings, and visiting the various sites where our work would be done.  Myself and a couple of my companions scavenged some wood, and built a workbench to assemble the machines on. The day after, I got to work.  Or at least, I tried to. I’d brought as many tools with me as I could, including Diyode’s plasma welder, but these aren’t much use without electricity. Haiti’s power grid is run entirely off of large diesel generators. Typically this are run for a few hours a day, starting in late afternoon and running through until sometime in the middle of the night. What we discovered was that our trip coincided with the lead up to Carnivale, a national party. Seems like they were hoarding the diesel for the party, as the power often didn’t come on at all until after midnight, and was off by the time I woke at 6am.

After a couple of days of struggling with an almost non-existent electrical supply, and a difficulty in acquiring materials, We decided to move the project to the workshop of Travis Knipple of F1 Engineering. Travis is Pennsylvania-born, and moved to Haiti after a number of humanitarian trips. He has a well-stocked workshop, where he builds stuff. Part of his mission is to empower Haitians by teaching them some of his skills, and to that end, he has several associates who he gives full access to his workshop, including lunch each day. These guys get to use his tools, space, and truck, and get jobs from other people in the area, mostly fixing motorcycles, and welding together gates and window bars. This provides them with a decent source of income, and means that when Travis needs help for his projects, he’s got a pool of talent nearby that already knows his tools, and how he works. This crew has a reputation as the best welders in Jacmel.

Before I even met Travis, I saw an example of one way that small ideas can have big impacts. Many Haitians use their phones as a lifeline. Cell service is cheap (I paid $4 for two weeks of service, comparable to what I pay $30 for in Canada).  The phones, however, are mostly cheap imports.  The batteries don’t last. Outside of Travis’s workshop there is a tree with a strip of 16 outlets screwed to it.  The outlets are powered off the grid when it’s available, the generator when it’s on, and solar or battery power the rest of the time. Not once did I see less than 10 people gathered around the shade of their tree, charging their phones, and chatting through the hottest part of the day.

It’s a simple idea with a big impact on the surrounding community. Travis’s relationship with the guys who use his workshop is similarly impressive. Rather than coveting his tools, he is sharing them freely. The wear and tear must be significant, but the skills learned, and the opportunities they create are life changing.

And it was from Travis where my biggest lesson of the trip came from.

I realized that as a maker in North America, we have endless opportunities to be creative, to innovate and build something new and amazing. We have access to the resources to make almost anything that we can imagine. But how often do we have the opportunity to fundamentally change someone’s life for the better? Sure, we build a cool clock, a better 3D printer, an innovative fridge magnet, but imagine figuring out how to build a simple $2 float switch out of available parts (something that could benefit thousands of homes in Jacmel alone), then teaching that skill to someone who could make a career out making and installing them. There are so many opportunities to apply a little bit of ingenuity, and bit of our knowledge of materials, electronics, or fabrication to problems that people around the world are facing every day.

There are a number of stellar examples of this. My mind goes to projects like the Gravity Light, or Joshua Silver’s self adjusting glasses, but my suspicion is that you could throw a group of makers at a place like Haiti, and they’d be hard pressed to not leave the place better than they found it.

Now don’t get me wrong. Being a maker in Haiti can be frustrating. Sitting here in Guelph, I can just order an arduino, RGB LEDs and some hall effect sensors off of amazon, and get started on the next great idea within a day or two. In Haiti, I’d be surprised if you could find any for sale in the whole country. Ordering anything for delivery is more than likely to get lost, if you’re lucky enough to have a n actually address. But the sheer quantity of problems that need a solution, and the potential impact that an ingenious idea could have are vast.

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