Worth It

More than halfway through our time here in Lascahobas, and the question that keeps running through my head has to do with value. We’re doing a lot of work here: installing network and solar systems, conducting training seminars, repairing large quantities of machines. I don’t mind that we’re not being paid for it, but I do wonder how much we should be paid. How much are all of these things worth to the people they’re supposed to be helping?

First of all, allow me to complain about the condition of the computers. The first thing Jeanide decided to do with them once we’d gotten the sack open was clean everything with a damp rag – these things were pretty filthy. Okay, maybe the kids were scared of using water to wash them. But the computers are damaged in other ways as well. Smashed screens, missing antenna, keys peeled off from keyboards, cracked batteries. Not all of them are that bad, of course, but these are definitely the worst cases I’ve ever seen.

One school's storage center.

One school’s storage center.

I know in a way this is a good sign. There’s such a thing as a computer that’s too clean, and I’m glad these machines aren’t suffering from that. They’ve clearly been used. And I love how the kids make the laptops their own by adding personal touches like writing their name on the front and drawing little pictures on the keyboard.But in the end, you have to start wondering how much the students really respected the computers when they return them in this kind of state.

No excuses because they’re kids. If I’m working for a group called Unleash Kids, that means I have a basic belief in people’s ability to look after the things they value, no matter what their age. And don’t tell me this is because they’re Haitian or because they’re poor. People tell me my ideas about taking care of things are very American. Not many people here own nice stuff, so apparently it’s a foreign concept to maintain something that costs a lot. Except, I’m not buying that. Most Haitians I know dress better than me – shining their shoes, keeping their white dresses spotless for church. And when people depend on something for a living, like their motorcycle, they take pride in making it look as good as possible.

So you begin to wonder why some people don’t have the same attitude about their computers. Maybe we’ve all got messed-up concepts about the value of technology in general, actually. Every time we put the laptops on display at a tech fair, people come up and ask, “Oh, are these the $100 laptops?” That’s what they remember about them. The price point.

But again, it’s not price that’s important. It’s value, and value only happens when someone puts in the time to make it. The other day, while I was carrying computers down the road to the school, a kid called out, “If there’s one that’s not good, just give it to me!” Then he realized that a broken machine would be useless, and added, “If you want to fix it first, then give me, that’s OK too.” It’s easy to see the problem when we’re talking about whether something’s broken or fixed. But there are so many other opportunities that you miss unless somebody ensures that they happen.

Even when you take out the fancy machines and we’re just talking about teachers standing in front of blackboards, it can be hard to make people see and respect value. I just helped translate a long conversation the other day about teacher salaries. We were asking Bernadette why parents can’t chip in a little bit to pay for their students to attend her school.

Bernadette responded that it’s not exactly an issue of money. It’s not like the parents have absolutely nothing, and it’s not like they aren’t grateful enough for the education their kids are receiving to be willing to pay for it. She’s tried to collect fees before – she had one of her teachers stand in front of the gate on the first day of school so that no one could get past unless they’d paid. But that didn’t work, because no one has the money on hand to pay everything up-front.

Saving money is hard here. Bernadette tries to advise parents to dedicate one chick at the beginning so that once it’s a chicken at the end of the school year they’ll have funds to cover all the kids in the house. But ultimately Bernadette doesn’t have the ability to both educate the parents in smart finances and the children in how to read and write, so she chooses to let the kids attend for free, and Ben’s church raises money to keep everything running.

The school down the road, L’Ecole Mixte Classic, also received laptops from One Laptop Per Child. When we went there to talk to the director, he emphasized that it’s impossible to teach computers if there’s no money to pay the teachers – his term for this is “encouragement.” In all of my reports so far on old One Laptop Per Child projects I complain about how they didn’t bother trying to find local support. But training local teachers means paying local teachers, and it can be really hard to identify whether you’ve got someone competent in each school. So, OLPC decided to just pay a “consultant” to travel between the schools in an area, conducting classes at each one and getting compensated more per week than most of those teachers make in a whole month. But taking the school out of the equation has other consequences, of course. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of who you can trust. Who’s become valuable to you because of the time and energy they’ve given to the community.

Contract for the local guy who OLPC employed

Contract for the local guy who OLPC employed

After all this talking, Jeanide and I go to the corner store to get a drink. There are two ways to buy drinks in Haiti: glass bottles that you return, or plastic that you throw away. The glass ones are cheaper, since you’re only paying for the liquid inside. That night at dinner, the priest we’re staying with explains to his friend another reason why glass is better. When you buy the plastic bottle along with the drink it contains, the government receives some tax money. The money is supposed to go to education, but everyone knows the government teachers are overpaid and don’t even show up to work if the school is far away enough from the inspector’s office.

Computers are a tool for carrying information, just like a bottle carries liquid. And you often see trucks loaded up with boxes of bottles, just like I’m getting used to peering into school storage rooms and seeing boxes of computers. I’m glad we’re going the “glass bottle” route and reusing old machines, instead of the “plastic bottle” route of letting time and money go to waste. But it’s still not enough. I guess what I mean is, that famous quote: “Education isn’t the filling of a vessel. It’s the lighting of a fire.” It’s not just a “you get out what you put in” sort of thing: at some point, someone has to be inspired to go even further than we expected with all of this. Only then will any of this actually become worth it.

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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.

Special Report: Thomazeau

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.

Path from the orphanage to the town.

Path from the orphanage to the town.

Cactus specimen.

Cactus specimen.

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.

38 boxes, 1 truck.

38 boxes, 1 truck.

“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.

Jeanide and I hard at work  on our assembly-line.

Jeanide and I hard at work on our assembly-line.

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.

Half-finished house.

Half-finished house.

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.

Ghosts of Projects Past

One of the hardest things to explain about what I do is the fact that it’s been done before. I’m coming on the scene late: the first XO computers came out seven years ago. Some of the first users have already hit adulthood. The point is, there’s a history here, composed of all sorts of stories: successes, failures, and lots of headscratching along the way.

One of my goals for this trip is to take a look at some of the projects that got started long before I came along. I’ve talked to some of the people involved, but there are some questions you can only answer by going and seeing it for yourself.

So far, I’ve gotten just a taste. Example: my friend Bill Stelzer tried to bring 10 laptops via the Dominican side and they got held up in customs. Since I was in Santo Domingo the other night, I was able to pick up laptops from the guy who had been storing them for us – after three years, they’re finally going to get into the hands of some kids.

Letter that came with one of the donated laptops.

Letter that came with one of the donated laptops.

More interestingly, on my way back to Port-au-Prince I stopped in Lascahobas to evaluate everything in preparation for the program launch in a few weeks. Ben Burrell, a computer professor near my home in Virginia, has gone to Haiti a few times to work with a school that received 400 XOs a few years ago. I met with the director, Bernadette, to get some useful info.

She talked very openly about the difficulties she’s had since the computers first arrived. In the beginning, there was a group that was going to do some training, but with no money to pay them that fell apart pretty quickly. So, the kids and teachers never really had the chance to learn the computers – sure, they figured out on their own how to take photos, draw pictures, chat, but there was never a complete curriculum like the one we’ve developed for Unleash Kids projects.

Then, of course, electricity to charge them was an issue. The solar charging system was never delivered, so they hooked up power strips to the unreliable city power in order to charge computers whenever it happened to come on.

At some point, they stopped using them completely and just stuck them in storage. As you can see, there’s a ton of computers stuffed into sacks. That’s what most Haitians carry their belongings in, by the way – certainly helps keep them dry.

Sacks full of computers.

Sacks full of computers.

Unfortunately, thieves broke in to the room and stole some of the sacks…including the one that had all the chargers inside. So now there is literally no way to power the machines that remain. There’s about 150 left. Some were stolen, others were never returned by the students using them, and others broke.

So, in a few weeks we’ll swoop in and see what we can salvage. We’ll try to do it right: train a group of both teachers and younger student interns, give them a curriculum, install solar power and a server to provide additional interesting content…the whole nine yards.

What gives me hope this time around is, it’s not just about all that technology. The university professor launching this project, Ben Burrell, has been working with the women’s group that started the school for a few years now. His church wasn’t involved in the original XO deployment – if they had been, things might be very different today. People need a number to call when machines break, they need a step-by-step curriculum guide, and they need to be given a voice when we’re arranging every detail of the project. I’m excited that we’ve got a good team together, both Haitians and all of us outsiders, working to get it right this time. The school and Bernadette wants to put these computers to use – they just need someone willing to go on that journey with them.