Kenscoff, Special Report

Kenscoff is a town up in the mountains that you reach by following one winding road out of the rich Petionville suburb to the southeast of Port-au-Prince. In the mornings, the route gets clogged up by big white NGO vehicles – as Petionville fills up, many aid workers have been moving up here. Since Kenscoff is a market town, collecting the produce from small farming communities in the surrounding mountains, you also see big trucks loaded up with sacks.

Two things strike you the higher you get up the mountain: the cold, and the beauty. It’s chilly up here, perched up amongst clouds of mist that come rolling in and obscure the other special thing, the view. One of the most famous Haitian proverbs is “Behind mountains there are mountains.” I’ve known it for a long time, but somehow it doesn’t become real until you look out at the patchwork slopes spread before you, at the way the land is so ridiculously wrinkled, the people just tucked into its folds.

Ruben posts some shots on Facebook, of course, and Marie Holt, my ever-perceptive fellow Haiti lover, immediately comments, “Just be happy Sora that you do not have to farm this land as well. Beautiful though…” I see gorgeous gorges; she sees terrain that is steep and eroding much too fast. On another photo, of all the teachers bundled up in hoodies, she emails me, “Is this a joke?” Surely people should develop a resistance to the cold, over time. The temperature hovers around the 60s here, nothing too terrible even if the wind and damp can occasionally make it feel a little worse. But most of the people we’re training aren’t actually locals; Deb and John invited them up here to work in the school and they still go back down to the capital on weekends. Filling out Christelle’s profile page, I list “Bois D’Avril” as her current location at first, but she wants to put down Port-au-Prince. After spending three years there, she still doesn’t really live in Bois D’Avril.

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It goes back to the idea of newness – do you belong somewhere, or are you just visiting? If you’re a visitor then the sights are breathtaking and you’re going to have to slip on a jacket and sleep with a hot-water bottle on your toes. If you’re a local, you’ve got more important things to do than gape at the mountains, and you’re used to the cold. Or maybe beauty is just beauty, and cold is just cold, no matter how many mornings you’ve woken up to them. It’s an important question, trying to figure out whether it’s possible for people to adjust to new scenery and atmosphere, because it’s the same thing with technology in a way. Right now these computers are just marvelous machines. We’ve taught them the basics: blue words are a link. Ctrl+X enables you to cut text out, and then you can paste it somewhere else. But they’ll never really advance until these things become tools in their daily lives.

You won’t ever run out of mountains to cross – no training is ever complete. But as long as you take care of the first order of business, curing people of their fear of heights, giving them ownership of this new foreboding territory, things will be okay. My guess is that didn’t happen the first time the XO laptops were introduced to the schools in Kenscoff. Same story as always, it seems. Big launch, lots of machines. The president’s wife herself came down to kick things off. But the teachers themselves never received any training, so there was no one comfortable and confident enough to keep things going after the OLPC team left.

There are more schools here than in Thomazeau, which probably means more students receiving laptops. Ruben and I find 4 places: Meri Kenscoff (local community center), EFA Kenscoff (the state school), and two church primary schools where students are partly funded by the government. We turn up at each one and Ruben asks for “a little information.” It can be hard to find the directors now that the school’s closed for the summer – most of the time, people tell us that coming back in the morning would be better. We have training in the morning, so I ask Ruben if he can go by himself. He will probably be the one in charge of the training, so it’s important that he’s the one these directors shake hands with. Ruben smiles and shakes his head, and tells me about how one time when he was trying to recruit kids for a special camp, and he wasn’t able to find anybody until Adam, our Canadian boss, started going around with him. Once people saw the white guy, everyone wanted to sign up. It’s nice that I have a function here in Haiti. It’s frustrating that Ruben, who is a school director himself, can’t get the other guys interested in talking to him unless he drags me along.

The national school has cabinets like this one that are filled with laptops.

The national school has cabinets like this one that are filled with laptops.

Anyway, we eventually find someone responsible at two of the places: EFA Kenscoff and one of the church schools. At each, Ruben launches into a speech about how the initial program was “badly done” and our organization plans to do a better job by actually giving training. I’m glad he’s here to explain everything – by being honest that it’s One Laptop Per Child’s fault, the schools don’t feel like they’re to blame for what happened and are more willing to accept our help. One director whips out a pen and paper to take notes on everything. “So, you’re here to continue the program?” he asks. I look at Ruben and shrug. “If the program stopped, we’re here to restart it,” I say, trying to make it clear that we don’t mind that it’s stopped. Everyone involved is going to do a better job this time.

Except, everything’s harder the second time around. Walking around the city, I’ll often see a sign for a cyber-cafe, or a bank, or a school, and I’ll try to go inside but the inside won’t match the outside. The sign is a manti. A lie. Someone else has moved in, taken over, and didn’t bother painting over the original marker so that passerby like me won’t be confused.

"Same name, same school, another vision" the sign says

“Same name, same school, another vision” says this one sign we saw

Some of the magic’s gone: these are no longer shiny brand-new computers, they’re strange green and white things that have been sitting in the back room for a while. Still, I know it won’t be hard to get the excitement going. Computers have lights and sounds and look expensive, which will be enough to attract anyone’s attention. But I’m thinking of the bigger picture, of the original project and all the work that went into it: the hardware design, and all the code, and the visits from the president’s wife. All I can say is we’re lucky to have a community of volunteers who have stuck it out for years, who are committed to doing this thing right. They own these mountains, and they’re ready to guide these schools across them. We’re trying to get people to the point where the cold stops bothering them, so they can chart their own course.

Teachers bundled up for training.

Teachers bundled up for training.

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