Apèl Ekriven / Call for Writers

English further down.

Kids Write ap cheche ekriven ayisyen ki ta renmen kontribye nan yon nouvo koleksyon istwa syans fiksyon / fiksyon spèkfilatif.

Nou poko defini egzakteman kisa kategori sa yo vle di nan yon kontèks ayisyen, men nou gen kèk lide moun deja pwopoze:
-atisfyèl oubyen sipènatirèl (pa natirèl)
-lavni oubyen aktyalite / istwa altènatif (pa kounyea menm)
Si w poko konn ekri istwa konsa, sa pa yon pwoblèm. N ap cheche moun ki alèz eseye yon bagay ki nouvo.

Chak ekriven dwe asiste yon atelye k ap dire 2 jou pou nou ka diskite definisyon syans fiksyon / fiksyon spèkilatif angwoup. N ap bay patisipan yo manje, epi nou espere atelye yo ap toupre lakay ekriven yo, pou yo pa bezwen vwayaje. Atelye yo ap fèt nan mwa out la. N ap eseye fè yo pandan wikenn yo (vandredi ak samdi) men sa ka chanje.

Nou ta renmen ekriven yo echanje istwa pa yo youn ak lòt pou chak moun ka resevwa epi bay fidbak.
Nou pito ekriven yo ekri an kreyòl, men franse, angle, ak español bon tou.

Aprè ekriven yo fini istwa yo, yo dwe chita ak rechechè a (Sora Edwards-Thro) pou yon entèvyou k ap dire 30 minit.

Yon komite ap evalye istwa yo pou deside si yo kalifye pou koleksyon nan.

Nou gentan ranmase mwayen pou ankouraje ekriven yo nan efò yo, ki se $0.075 USD pa mo. N ap cheche istwa ant 1,500 ak 3,000 mo.

N ap negosye ak ekriven yo kijan istwa pa yo ap pibliye, konbyen ak si n ap mande moun peye pou li yo, epi nan ki lang nou mèt tradui yo.

Si w vle patisipe, tanpri kontakte Sora nan imel sa a: sledwardsthro@email.wm.edu.

Pou plis enfomasyon sou kijan lide pou pwojè sa a te devlope, gade isit.

ENGLISH

Kids Write is looking for Haitian writers who would like to contribute to a new collection of science fiction / speculative fiction stories.

We haven’t yet defined exactly what these categories mean in a Haitian context, but we have some ideas that people have already proposed:
-artificial or supernatural (not natural)
-future or alternative reality / history (not right now)
If you haven’t written stories of this sort before, that’s not a problem. We are looking for people who are comfortable trying something new.

Every writer must attend a 2-day workshop so we can discuss the definition of science fiction / speculative fiction in a group. We will provide participants with meals, and we hope the workshops will take place close to the writers’ homes, so they do not have to travel. The workshops will take place during August. We will try to do them during the weekends (Friday and Saturday) but this may change.

We would like the writers to exchange their stories with one another so that each person can receive and give feedback.

We prefer writers to write in Haitian Creole, but French, English, and Spanish are also fine.

After the writers finish their stories, they must sit with the researcher (Sora Edwards-Thro) for an interview that will last 30 minutes.

A committee will evaluate the stories to decide if they qualify for the collection. We are also searching for committee members!

We have already raised funds to compensate writers for their work at a rate of 7.5 cents (0.075 USD) per word. We are looking for stories between 1,500 and 3,000 words.

We will negotiate with the writers how their stories will be published, how much and if we will ask people to pay to read them, and into which languages we may translate them.

If you would like to participate, please contact Sora at this email: sledwardsthro@email.wm.edu.

For more information about how the idea for this project developed, see here.

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Yon Nouvo Pwojè / A New Project

English further down.
M ap reyalize pwojè sa a kòm tèz mwen: sa a se yon pwojè elèv inivisitè fè pandan dènye ane etid yo. Lekòl m (William & Mary, yon lekòl piblik nan Virginia) ap finanse pwojè sa a.

M gen 6 an esperyans an Ayiti. Pou 2 an, m te travay kòm yon kowòdinatè pou yon gwoup teknoloji pou edikasyon. M te visite plizye lekòl, enstale panèl solèy ak Entènèt, epi montre pwofesè kijan yo ka sèvi ak yon odinatè pou aprann. Sa te fè m konsidere relasyon moun ak teknoloji.

Aprè nou kòmanse mete liv kreyòl sou odinatè yo, m kòmanse travay plis sou kesyon li ak ekri nan kreyòl olye pou teknoloji sèlman. M te travay ak pwofesè ni timoun pou bay yo opòtinite eksprime tèt yo ak istwa yo ekri sou odinatè a. M reflechi sou ki istwa m pi renmen.

Depi m te timoun m te enterese nan istwa syans fiksyon ak fantezi, men m te remake tou gen anpil istwa ladan kategori sa yo ki sanble youn ak lòt. Lè m vin pi gran, m kòmanse konprann se paske kategori sa yo manke vwa otè orijinal, ki sòt lòt gwoup, ki gen yon lòt pèspektif. Tout literati nan peyi m, ki se Etazini, gen pwoblèm sa a, men li sanble pi grav pou syans fiksyon ak fantezi espesyelman.

Men, m jwenn Afro-futurism; se ekriven nwa toupatou k ap reenvante istwa sa yo dapre sa yo menm anvizyone. M jwenn egzanp kòm Lagos 2060, ki se yon koleksyon moun nan Nijerya te ekri sou kijan capital peyi pa yo ap parèt an 2060. Anplis, gen moun nan dyaspora karibyen nan, tankou Nalo Hopkinson, k ap ekri istwa ki melanje relijyon ak syans, ki mete istwa pa yo nan lavni a olye pou prezan an, epi gen ekriven ayisyen k ap ekri konsa tou.

Tout sa montre m li posib, li kapab itil pou ekriven sòt tout kote, tout kilti konsidere syans fiksyon ak fantezi. M fèk kòmanse pwojè sa a. Sa vle di m ap toujou dekouvri sa k disponib. Fò m byen klè: m pa vle di ekriven ayisyen “men kisa pou w ekri”. Pito, m ap rasanble ekriven ansanm epi m ap tande pandan yo menm diskite ant yo kisa kategori sa yo vle di pou yo.

ENGLISH

I am carrying out this project as part of my thesis: this is a project that university students do during the last year of their studies. My school (William & Mary, a public school in Virginia) is financing this project.

I have six years of experience in Haiti. For two years, I worked as coordinator for an education technology group. I visited many schools, installed solar panels and Internet, and trained teachers how to use computers for learning. This made me consider the relationship between people and technology.

After we began to put Haitian Creole books on the computers, I began to work more on the question of reading and writing in Haitian Creole, instead of just technology. I worked with both students and teachers to give them the opportunity to express themselves with stories they write on the computer. I reflected on which kinds of stories I like best.

Ever since I was young I have been interested in science fiction and fantasy stories, but I also noticed that many stories in these categories resemble one another. As I got older, I began to understand this is because these categories are missing original voices from groups that have a different perspective. All the literature in my country, the United States, has this problem, but it seemed more severe for science fiction and fantasy especially.

But, I found Afro-Futurism, which is Black writers all around who are reinventing these stories according to what they envision. I found examples like Lagos 2060, which is a Nigerian collection about what the country’s capital will be like in 2060. Also, there are people in the Caribbean diaspora, like Nalo Hopkinson, who are writing stories that mix religion with science, who place their stories in the future or not in the present, and there are Haitian writers who are writing like this, too.

All this showed me it is possible and can be useful for writers from all over, all cultures, to consider science fiction and fantasy. I just began this project. That means I am still discovering what is available. I should be very clear: I don’t want to tell Haitian writers “Here’s what you should write.”” Rather, I am brining writers together and listening as they discuss among themselves what these categories mean for them.

 

 

Internet out of the Box

The last time I was here, in Matènwa, the Internet was so slow it was almost more frustrating to use it than to pretend that it didn’t exist. The cell phone towers were installed, but the cell phone company didn’t want to boost its signal, because not enough people here would use the Internet for them to turn a profit.

Last year, my mission as to make sure students at the school still had access to some information by installing Internet-in-a-Box. In this case, the “box” is a laptop, and “the Internet” is a collection of some of the most useful educational chunks: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, and Khan Academy.

The Haitian Creole Wikipedia only has 50,000 articles – that sounds like a lot, actually, but you have to realize that many of the “articles” are just the names of random towns on maps. They’ve got some pretty good stuff on Haiti’s presidents, and a little bit about nearby countries. Some vegetables and fruits are covered pretty well. But, a lot of articles, if they exist at all, are just one sentence: “A sheep is an animal”, for example.

So, when we did research activities with the kids, we told them to try to use French Wikipedia, even though that’s not a language they really speak or read, especially at this school, which established its reputation by focusing on Creole.

A year later, I’m back and the Internet’s suddenly great. No streaming Netflix, of course, but when I needed to make a call to check something with my bank last night, I was able to use Google Hangouts and avoid international fees.

The Internet-in-a-Box I installed last year is still relevant: even though the Internet works, getting a bunch of devices connected to it all at once is going to slow it down and eat up a bunch of data, which the school has to pay for. Internet-in-a-Box is still the faster and better solution.

But. Now that the Internet does work, I’m able to do something really cool. I can stand up in front of the room and say, “Remember how the Haitian Creole Wikipedia doesn’t have enough articles? Remember how I said the best part of Wikipedia is that anyone, anywhere can contribute an article? Well, today that’s what we’re going to do.”

I think it might have been more exciting for me than for them, but still. I love Wikipedia because it’s the kind of thing that sounds like a terrible idea in theory (an encyclopedia that anyone can edit?) but works great in practice. “Great” meaning that there’s still a lot of stuff missing. It turns out that the kind of person who feels the need to share their knowledge with the world is normally the kind of person who’s already pretty privileged – white, Western, male. When Wikipedia doesn’t include input from other groups, we all suffer. So getting these Haitian kids logged on was a big deal, for me.

We were still relying on the French a little bit – I told them to pull up that article to get ideas, and in some cases people just copied directly from it. However, we also got a lot of instances of kids writing what they do. “Sheep meat is really tasty and lots of people like it,” one kid added to the sheep article.

We had some political interests. Teachers wanted to write about something called a PAC – no, not a “political action committee,” like in the U.S., but a “people’s agricultural coalition.” A kid pulled up an article on the former president Michel Martelly, that hadn’t been modified to reflect the fact that he’s no longer president, and started making those changes.

I tried to explain things like “don’t add a photo that isn’t Creative Commons.” The idea that someone could steal a picture was a little confusing, but we talked about how when you’re buying a book you’re buying more than the ink and the paper – you’re buying the time that the writer, artist, or photographer took to make it.

We also talked about how “even though other people will probably come to edit it later, you need to do your best to make sure everything you put on there is well-written.” In my mind, one of the best ways to get kids to put their best effort into their work is the idea that someone else will see it and benefit from it, beyond your teacher and your classroom.

Except, Wikipedia should probably install a draft feature. When kids are writing something out for the first time, they aren’t going to be concerned about things like punctuation and capitalization, and it showed. When I came up behind them and started making corrections, they clearly understood what I was doing – they knew how to use this stuff correctly, when it mattered. But, when they were first trying to type stuff out, it wasn’t what they were focused on.

I tried to show them that all the stuff they were writing really is staying on the Internet. I asked each kid what article they had written, and then I loaded the modified page up on my computer, to demonstrate that it wasn’t just living on their computer.

There were some teacahable moments. Kenel, the director from the Anse-a-Galets school, researched Lagonav, and found two different numbers for the altitude of the island’s highest point. He remembered one from back when they memorized this information in school, but the other, which was three feet lower, he’d never seen before.

Cue a discussion on accuracy, and how if you’re adding new information, especially information that conflicts with what’s already there, you really need to back it up with sources.

“Or maybe the island shifted three feet in the earthquake?” a kid volunteered. I told him that seems like way too much for a whole chunk of land to just move, but it’s something we would have to do more research on.

 

FAQ about the Student Org

Kids Write is recruiting new members! Here’s some info about us.

What do you guys do?
We partner with schools in Haiti. At each school, we train teachers to use tablets and laptops in their classroom for students to read, write, and share books.

How did you get started?
Kids Write was started in 2015 by Sora Edwards-Thro and three other students at the College of William & Mary. They worked together to prepare a submission to the Big Ideas @ Berkeley competition, which gave them funds for their first project.

Why are you looking for new members now?
We want to reach more schools in Haiti and we need help.

What will the new members’ roles be?
We’re especially looking for people who can be responsible for the tech, business, marketing, and legal aspects of our work. It would be great if you had those skills already; it would also be great if you’re willing to learn. If you’re an all-around awesome person who’s willing to help keep us all organized even though you can’t work in those specific domains, we’ll also really appreciate that.

Do I have to travel to Haiti to participate?
No! We’re happy to let you come with us to Haiti if you want, but it’s absolutely not required. There’s a lot you can do for us right here in Williamsburg. Most tasks won’t require you to travel at all.

What am I committing to?
We ask most members to contribute two hours a week. Our proposal is due on March 9th, and our first trip to Haiti will be in June. We’ll need a lot of help before those two dates especially.

Any other questions we didn’t address here?
Email Sora at sledwardsthro [at] email.wm.edu

Ready to join us?
Fill out our survey!

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.

Jpeg

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.

So:

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.

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(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?

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 “127.0.1.1” 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 127.0.1.1 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 “127.0.1.1:8008” 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, 192.168.0.160.

And…

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.

Right?