Back in 2008, One Laptop Per Child decided to launch pilot projects in four Haitian towns: Kenscoff, Lascahobas, Jacmel, and Thomazeau. I’ll be working with a school that received laptops in Lascahobas in a few weeks. This is the Thomazeau report.
Thomazeau’s a small village that would technically be a suburb of Port-au-Prince if the road wasn’t so bad that it takes an hour and a half to get there. As you can see, it’s between two huge lakes, one salty and one fresh, but otherwise the climate is extremely dry, since the mountains block the rain. Walking down the rocky road to the village, we pass cactus and almost stepped on lizards several times.
Right after we pass underneath the “Bienvenue” sign, there are three walls on the left painted with the names of the schools behind them. My escort, Jean, points to two right next to each other. One is the national school, EFA-CAP. The other is a private one run by a church, appropriately named L’Ecole Batiste Conservatif. EFACAP is closed, but the director of the other one, Msye Nerva Occus, just happens to be grabbing a soda from the shop next door.
I have Fefe, one of the Cazeau programs teachers, with me, and together we attempt to explain who we are and why we’re here. Msye Occus is happy to talk about his experience.
“The kids were so happy to start out with the computers. One Laptop Per Child used to send their people here, to do training, but that stopped after a few months, because they weren’t getting paid. So everything ended.”
Fefe’s listening closely. “You must have felt abandoned.”
The director nods, and explains that his own teachers never learned how to use the machines. One Laptop Per Child just worked directly with the kids, which was fine until they didn’t come anymore.
That’s when I jump in and explain how Unleash Kids does its best to provide all our teachers with training and materials for support. I suggest that we could do a few sessions with his own staff.
Msye Occus is skeptical at first. “And we won’t need to pay for this?” I explain that nope, all we want is for the teachers to work with the kids once they’ve mastered things themselves.
The next morning, Ken Bever drives the Hope for Haiti’s Children truck down and we load the computers up so I can take them back to the orphanage to fix.
“You’re going to take all of them?” Msye Occus asks. I explain that we want to fix as many as possible. “I don’t think there are any that need to be fixed – they’re all working,” Msye Occus tells me. I just sit back and watch as box after box emerges from the school’s storage room. I knew to expect at least 100, but even I’m a little surprised when they just keep coming.
I attempt to explain to the group of kids who’ve gathered to watch that we aren’t taking the computers, just bringing them to the orphanage to fix because that’s where we’ve got a constant supply of electricity. Msye Occus mentions that some of them wanted to take computers home for the summer, but he’s worried the laptops would get lost or damaged. He hitches a ride in the truck up to the orphanage, to make sure they’re protected the whole way. Despite lots of rope securing everything and two people riding in the back to keep an eye, one of the boxes falls off and a laptop’s handle breaks.
As we’re unloading at the orphanage, I go over more details with Msye Occus about the training, our customized software, and our course guide. At the very end, he thanks me for what I’m doing, and then heads back down the hill. I turn to the wall of laptops. I’m amazed he managed to trust me so fast to take care of all these machines. I’ve never actually seen so many at once.
I get to work, and over the next 2 days, with some help from Fefe and Jeanide, we manage to unlock all 265 machines. Msye Occus has taken good care of them – every single one can turn on all by itself, and only 10 chargers are missing.
Walking back into town to drop Jeanide at the bus stop it starts raining. Jeanide pulls out an umbrella and tells me about how her doctor told her wearing wet clothes makes her sick. I let myself get soaked and marvel on the way back at the plants and animals coming to life. Jean tells me it only rains every three months here. I ask how anything can manage to grow with such infrequent hydration. He explains that every time they get a little taste they grow a little, then they just sit and wait for the next storm.
I’ve planted trees in the desert before, and I know how hard it is for things to last. So many steps are required. The assembly line of all those laptops we just fixed actually reminded me a lot of all those seeds we planted. You keep trying, but it’s so difficult to introduce something that’s not suited to the environment.
But it’s not always dry here. Ironically, on occasion they need to evacuate people from the desert due to flooding. The two lakes overflow and spread across the plains. That was One Laptop Per Child’s solution to introducing technology to places like Haiti: inundation. Literally give one laptop to every child, so that no one’s left out, so you can make a big splash.
I walk into the village to add minutes to my phone. Along the way I try talking to people on the streets about the project, I don’t get the responses I’m expecting. People remember seeing students with the green and white laptops in their hands, but most don’t have an opinion about the project. One woman drinking coffee in the market smiles and starts dancing. “Back when the kids had the laptops, I heard some great songs coming from them,” she says with a grin.
We think that the things we’re doing here make such a big difference – but even 265 laptops won’t be anything more than oversized iPods unless someone commits to sustaining them as much as you’d commit to keeping a tree alive in the desert.
Sustainability is a buzzword that’s so easy to throw around. Here, more and more I’m seeing that it means moving slowly, letting things develop naturally a little bit at a time. That’s how people are used to doing things here, after all. When I finally find a guy who can help me put minutes on, he apologizes that he’s not able to accept my 500-goud bill (about $13 American). No buying in bulk here. On my way back up, I pass a whole neighborhood of unfinished houses. They’re a common sight here. People build them up one brick at a time.
When I reach the top, I stare for a long time at the lakes, the lights of Port-au-Prince in the distance, and the mountains rising. Then I go back to work. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a USB drive to do software updates.
Correction: Originally I stated that the pilot projects were launched after the earthquake; in fact they were launched in 2008 and a team from MIT visited again to check up on things in 2011.