Watering Trees in the Desert

Caroline and I stayed a few days with Sadhana Forest, a reforestation project here in Ansapit. I stayed with them for a whole month when I was first setting up Project Rive, and it was nice to return for a little bit. A lot of times the things you’re doing on a computer don’t really seem tangible – I spent three hours in an Internet cafe updating drivers on someone’s laptop today, and while the fact that the machine’s working is cause enough for celebration it would be nice if all of that effort were more visible. In the end, this is just a box with lights and buttons, and when I don’t like the way the lights look I press more buttons…but seeds, and water, and dirt are all a little easier to work with (even as you learn that those too have their own rules).

The nursery where we planted some saplings.

The nursery where we planted some saplings.

Kitchen and dishes drying in the sun.

Kitchen and dishes drying in the sun.

Closeup of the dishwashing area.

Closeup of the dishwashing area.

Another cool thing about Sadhana Forest is the food: everything’s completely natural, vegan, non-processed, etc…we buy vegetables, fruit, beans, grains from the market and mix them all up with spices for every meal. After a month staying there, I really noticed the difference between what I ate there and what I started to put into my body once I went home (I still totally ate it though).

Handwashing station

Handwashing station

Not everything’s so easy to adapt to. I spared you shots of the compost toilets, but here’s one of the hand-washing stations. You just pour water from the bucket into the cup on the left, and it trickles out a hole in the bottom. It’s perfectly sanitary, but I can see how someone who’s a germ freak could have a hard time using a system they’re not used to. That’s the thing about cleanliness – everyone’s got their own way of doing it, and if you don’t do it their way it’s totally unacceptable. Changing people’s behavior, or even just making them more aware of it, can be really hard.

Mural and tree-watering buckets.

Mural and tree-watering buckets.

Cactus.

Cactus.

See, that’s one of the real goals of Sadhana – to exhibit what they call conscious living, to act as an example. Sometimes, when we’re lugging buckets of water past cactus, I pause a moment and think, “Wait, I’m watering trees in the desert. This is kind of pointless.” But you’ve gotta remind yourself that it wasn’t always a desert, and that other people are going to see you and start doing it themselves…

Chilling in the main hut after a day's work.

Chilling in the main hut after a day’s work.

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On the Road

Yesterday morning, we woke up at 4 and squeezed into a van leaving Hinche. After two hours of travel pressed up against the side, we reached Croix-des-Bouquets, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. There, we crammed into another van (16 people, plus luggage) and set off for Thiotte.

Going up the mountains and then back down, I discovered that there are advantages to being squished up against people: the trip is less bumpy because their bodies act as cushions. Also, on longer journeys, people are sometimes more inclined to talk – in this case, the conversation turned to the road we were on and how crappy it was.

The priest sitting next to me went on a long rant about how if it was paved, many more foreigners would come to check out the area and donate money and supplies. I couldn’t help agreeing with him, thinking of how our journey from Hinche only took hours because of its paved road. That doesn’t affect whether we do or don’t decide to work there, of course (people are much more important than materials, I’m constantly realizing), but it does make it easier for me to do things like stop by there and just check up on things, and I’m sure other groups working in Haiti find the road to be a perk, too.

Still, out of boredom more than anything else I attempted to persuade him that his area won’t benefit from foreigners coming in for short visits so much as it will from long-term investment: NGOs and churches are capable of that, too, of course, but I’m thinking more along the lines of businesses. Bad roads are one of many things that creates a bad environment for business here, something everyone traveling in that van – most of them were merchants, moving goods to and from Port-au-Prince – understood very well.

Anyway, after a relatively short but bumpy 4 hours, we arrived in Thiotte, a market town in the mountains above Ansapit. After waiting a while for my friend to come with a motorcycle (he was delayed by something more urgent), we finally gave up and set off with another driver for Ansapit. The ride was well over an hour, and over the course of it we got to watch the landscape change from verdant slopes to more sparse desert; we caught glimpses of sea and passed through tunnels of butterflies. Finally (after a brief negotiation over payment for the motorcycle ride), we finally arrived to Ansapit and the reforestation project we’re staying with here, Sadhana Forest.

More photos later, but I’ll just say for now that it’s good to be here. The people who come and stay create a really unique atmosphere: last night’s dinner conversation revolved around couchsurfing and Kerouac’s On The Road. That and our own long journey yesterday got me thinking a lot about what it means to travel and to arrive (for those of you who still don’t know, Project Rive’s name translates to Project Arrive, by the way).

The last time I was here, I talked to my friend Jean about the concept of home – Robert Frost’s line about how home is “where no matter what, they have to take you in” came up. I think during my time here in Haiti I found a new definition: home is where your special skills are relevant. I’ve managed to pick up a bit of experience during my time here in Haiti: I know how to buy cell phone minutes on the street, find a bus to cross the country, even use the compost toilets they have here at Sadhana. And, of course, speaking Haitian Creole.

Only when I come here to Haiti do I get to practice and improve in these basic but essential actions, and if I went anywhere else I’d have to learn them all over again. So, let’s hope I’ll be here for a long time!
Promise to have more photos, less musing in the next post…

Asking the Right Questions

“So, how are classes going?”
“Tout bagay anfom, wi, Sora.”

“Everything’s fine, Sora.” That’s always the response when I’m talking to the teachers on the phone from the US. The further away I am, the less I know about what’s really going on. In some ways, it makes sense – I want the teachers to feel in charge of programs after I leave, instead of calling me up at the first sign of trouble. But sometimes, more information is useful.

Below are some of the questions I ask Jameson and Jean Albert to report on before we talk every two weeks. What questions am I not asking? How can I change the wording to get a better response?

Attendance:
For each class, write how many kids came and what time class started.

Sometimes a pattern of lateness is an indication of something else – the kids aren’t motivated, or there were problems charging the computers, or classtime is conflicting with other events in the community.

Lesson
What activities did you use?
What did the kids create with the activities?
What did the kids learn with the activities?

When I ask what they’re doing in the classes, the teachers respond with what activities they’re using, but it’s not enough for me to know the kids are using the Paint activity – I want to know what they’re painting. I’m hoping these new questions will emphasize to the teachers that when they plan a lesson, they should be planning what the kids are meant to learn or create with it.

Behavior
Did all the kids work well? Which of your actions encouraged this?
If there was one who didn’t work well, why do you think he didn’t want to do the activity?
Did all of the kids listen well to the teacher?
If no, what will you change to encourage them to listen?

I spent a lot of time debating over the wording here. On one hand I don’t want the teachers to feel like I’m blaming them for the kids’ bad behavior; on the other, the teachers need to understand that their own actions affect the kids’ attitudes. So, I use the word “encourage” to remind them of their role, and when kids do act up, I ask the teachers about the kid’s motivation.

Equipment
Did all the computers work well?
If there was a problem, please give some more details:
Is the solar charging system working well?
Does the box have a red light?

You’d be surprised how often technical problems don’t get reported until the very end of the call. “Oh, Sora, by the way, computer 15 isn’t working.” I want the teachers to know it’s okay to let me know when something’s broken instead of feeling guilty about it.

Write any other information you would like Sora to know here:

This normally turns into a place for the teachers to vent. They want to know that I care about their concerns and I’m doing what I can to support them. Sometimes (often) I can’t give them everything they’d like, but at least they know I’m listening.

We did it

After months of fund-raising, pestering some very patient people with lots of technical questions, and of course praying, I am proud to announce that Project Rive is finally receiving full power.

With the 135 watt solar panel we can collect more than enough to charge the computers twice each day, and the battery allows us to store power so clouds don’t disrupt classes. We can even add a light to our classroom so the learning doesn’t stop when the sun goes down, extremely important considering that both our students and teachers are in school through most of the afternoon.

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The solar panel is finally in place.

Robenson next to the solar stand he built for charging the XOs

Robenson next to the stand he built for the solar panel.

These changes mean 40 students instead of 20 will be enrolled in our computer course. It also means we can give learners access in other ways. Students from the school next door can use resources like our copies of Wikipedia to do research for class projects. Kids who have already graduated after three months of computer classes can still use the laptops for projects and more advanced instruction. We’re also recruiting graduates to help the teachers with the new groups of students.

The teachers are really excited – they’ve been asking me for more power for a long time and now that they’ve got it they’re going to “change their strategy” to make sure all that extra electricity gets used to make things bigger and better for Ansapit.

Stay tuned for more about how we’re growing. Thanks so much for the support that helped us get here.

Back to School in Ansapit

Now that winter break is over and computers are getting charged faster, it’s time to add a new group of students to the course. Here are some shots of what happens the first day you put a laptop into someone’s hands. On the first day, kids learn the basics of using the mouse, keyboard, and camera.

Looking forward to seeing this new group advance!

This brave girl was the first to get up from her seat to take some more interesting pictures.

This brave girl was the first to get up from her seat to take pictures.

Getting lower = getting more creative closeups

Getting lower = getting more creative closeups

Jameson explains to the class how to do something.

Jameson explains to the class how to do something.

Often, students end up learning from fellow students as much as from teachers.

Often, students end up learning from fellow students as much as from teachers.

Everyone crowds in to peer at the first to finish so they can figure it out too.

Everyone crowds in to peer at the first to finish so they can figure it out too.

Graduates become familiar with the new system so they can help teachers with it later on.

Graduates become familiar with the new system so they can help teachers with it later on.

Someone's having fun already on the first day.

Someone’s having fun already on the first day.

How To Get To Ansapit

I finally arrived at the place where it all began – Ansapit, the village where I set up my first project with the laptops and the home of Project Rive. Here’s how I got there:
1. Wake up at 4:55 and apologize profusely to your host, who you thought was joking when he said you’d be leaving at 4 in the morning.
2. Squeeze into a van and alternate between sleeping and watching the sun come up until you arrive in the city.
3. Clamber up onto a truck while the guys below host up your suitcase, shouting “Help me!” because they’re having a lot of fun with the idea that a foreigner is actually going to ride this truck all the way across the country.
4. Wait at the gas station while they fill up the tank. 5. Watch the congestion of the city give way to yards and then whole sprawling stretches of land. 6. Wish you had something to cover your head like all the Haitians to keep it from getting dusty.

dust

Look how white with dust the plants by the side of the road are.

dusty
7. Wait about 15 minutes while your driver negotiates with another driver about who should make way for who going down a narrow mountain road.

empechman

Every stands up to yell at the passengers in the truck in front of us.

8. Find a more comfortable seat in the back of the truck where there’s a bench. The price is you have to explain to the guy next to you that love means something very different for you than it apparently does for him.
9. Don’t take any photos on the most dangerous parts of the road to show people what you mean when you talk about them being bumpy and steep. You’re too busy holding on.
10. Enjoy the sudden coolness of the pine forest.
11. Stare in credulity at the large numbers of people at the market after all those lonely mountain roads.
12. Ponder how the place you’re in looks like something from a map in a fantasy novel, what with the winding paths and the trees and the horses tied to them.
horses

13. Buy some gingerbread and eat it to enhance the whole fairy-tale effect. It’s called boubou here.

boubou
14. Resist the temptation to buy some pistachios too, your favorite food next to mangoes. You refuse to buy things if kids are selling them because they should be in school. You doubt your not spending the equivalent of 12 cents on a bag of pistachios will make a difference but you tell yourself to stick to your principles.

furcoat

Haitians have principles too – cleanliness, for example. This guy dons a fur coat before going under the machin to change the tire in order to keep his clothes underneath it spotless.


15. Get a weird look from a guy when you explain you’re going to the bathroom and you don’t want the taptap to leave without you. Didn’t you realize they’re changing a tire?
16. Give a guy some crackers when he outright asks you, a stranger, for them. It’s against your “principles” but sometimes it’s nice to just be nice.
17. Make room for a new group of people getting on with sacks of things to sell at another market. Somehow there’s always more space for everything – especially when it’s the last machin of the day.
18. Leave the forest and continue through the mountains.
19. Arrive in Tchiotte and ask around for where to find a machin for Ansapit. The moto guys are inform you that there is no truck or bus today, but they’re happy to take you themselves for500 goud (around $12.50). They would charge less, but they don’t have gas in their tanks right now. This might actually be true.
20. Keep looking. Ignore the fact that you look utterly ridiculous going down the street tugging your suitcase on wheels behind you. You’re used to looking ridiculous.
21. Find a moto guy who gives you a fairer price. (350 – still higher than 300, what you paid last time, but not too bad).
22. Ride another hour with him through the mountains, smiling when you see your first cactus.
23. Get off, pay the moto guy, and buy some juice from your favorite juice-lady. You’ve been craving this the whole time you’ve been in Haiti – now, you’re finally here.

Announcing Power Project Rive

Project Rive is raising money upgrade our solar system! Please click on the picture below to donate and give twice as many kids the chance to use our computers. 

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It’s time for Project Rive to get bigger and better, and that means finding a new way to power our grand plans.

In the beginning, our solar system made sense because setting it up is so easy – each solar panel connects directly to each laptop. The price of that convenience is that charging takes longer with such small panels. In order to get the computers ready for class, the teachers have to start charging them as soon as the sun comes up. Without a way to store power, cloudy skies can cancel classes.

It takes 6 hours to charge the XOs with our current system. That's under the best conditions.

It takes at least 6 hours to charge the XOs with our current system.

Our current system has served us well, but now it’s time for a more permanent solution: a single panel mounted on a roof and connected to a battery. With that new set-up, satisfying the laptops’ appetite for electricity won’t be such a struggle, so we’ll be able to use them for more time every day. Jean Albert and James will be able to teach a second class to another group of students. Others can use the computers outside of class for independent research and projects. We’ve got big plans – but none of them are possible without power.

When I first selected Ansapit as our site, I knew working there wouldn’t be easy. It’s rural, difficult to reach, and there’s no electrical infrastructure. But I also know it’s in places like Ansapit where the XO laptops can make the biggest difference. “We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” I don’t want any more classes and opportunities to be cut short because of laptops dying. Thank you for donating what you can to help power Project Rive.