Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Day 20: BSF Community Assessments Begin

After spending the majority of my time here in the base working on the computer or helping train up our two supervisors, Reginald & Elivert, last week I was finally able to get out into the community and start hunting for a good place to deliver our biosand filters. It was an eye-opening experience in many ways. Everyone here knows people have serious problems finding safe drinking water, and the entire country is all too aware of the cholera epidemic, but to be out and see it first-hand makes it real. Elivert, Reginald and I spent all of last Friday out in two communities that we had heard had serious water problems. By the end of the day all three of us were a bit shocked by what we'd learned.

The first community is a larger one called Gressier. It is on the national highway, about twenty minutes east of Leogane on the way to Port-au-Prince. I was in Gressier a few weeks ago and talked to a man there who had lost his home in the earthquake, and was being considered as a recipient for our rubble clearing efforts. After Jen (the person in charge of doing rubble assessments) talked to him to get the info she needed, I asked him if he’d be willing to talk with me for a bit about water problems in the community. He obliged, and we did. He mentioned that Gressier had serious problems with cholera, and that he felt that biosand filters would be very welcome by the people there, so last Friday we went in for an initial data gathering mission.

A little boy sits outside his home in Gressier.
A small river runs through the center of Gressier so we opted to talk to the communities that lived by the river to get some basic info from them on where they get their drinking water, what they know about waterborne illnesses, and what support they were getting from NGOs in the area in regards to water, if they were getting any at all. While we got a lot of info, the thing that everyone mentioned was that cholera was a very real problem for them. Probing a bit deeper, we discovered that many of the people in the community relied on a natural spring for their drinking water. The spring water is contaminated, and it flows into the river that subsequently flows through the many communities downstream from the spring. We got directions on how to find it, and, after thanking the many people who were incredibly forthcoming and helpful with their information, we jumped back into our tap-tap to go find the source.

A woman in Gressier washes clothes as kids swim in the background.
Kids running away from me as I explored Gressier.
After a five minute drive upstream from the community we started in, we found the spring. It is semi-protected, with a large concrete storage shed built over it. Taps come out from the walls of the shed, and many people were busy collecting it in buckets and covered bottles. After collecting the water, they all lined up and, one at a time, their water was treated by two people that we found out were local hires employed by Oxfam. Using a small syringe, one of them, a young man, squirted the required amount of chemicals (a mix of Aquatab and bleach) into each container to kill the disease-causing microbes in the water, while the other, a young woman, talked to them about hygiene, sanitation and proper ways to use and protect their water. A large water bladder sat nearby, but remained unused, as it was only turned on after 5PM when the two Oxfam employees left for the day.

Reginald (left) and Elivert talking to one of the Oxfam employees at the contaminated source in Gressier.
Talking to the Oxfam team, we got a goldmine of information about the water challenges that part of Gressier was facing, and particularly about cholera. The Oxfam team had been there for the majority of this year working to educate people in the area about cholera, and how to protect themselves from it. Some of the numbers were shocking. At the height of the outbreak in that community, 240 people a day every day for three weeks were being taken to the local Red Cross hospital to be treated for cholera. They told us that the fear in the community had become so intense that one elderly man accidentally killed himself when, fearing he had cholera, he swallowed an Aquatab pill directly. Aquatabs are a mix of chemicals that are designed to be dissolved in contaminated water. A large dose taken directly would be very poisonous.

Hygiene workers painting the Gressier source with health info - "Don't drink river water." "Don't poop near the river." "Treat the water you use." 
A girl in Gressier waits for her turn to collect water.
The two Oxfam workers also told us that come June 30th, they were pulling out of Gressier, and handing their operation over to a local community-run organization called RAPIDE. We got contact info for James, the head of that organization, and after a phone call made yesterday, we're set to meet with him this Friday to see exactly what his plans are when it comes to continuing to make sure that community has someone helping them with their drinking water. His plan is to continue to do exactly what Oxfam was doing, but I have to wonder if he can pull it off. (Where is he going to get his funding? Is Oxfam going to leave the water bladder? If not, who is going to treat the water in the evenings? What is the long-term plan to try and improve the drinking water source rather than the individual buckets and galons of it that people are taking?) I think it's a great thing that the community has taken it upon themselves to try and deal with the problems they have, but I also know how difficult it can be for local community organizations, given they do not have the bank accounts that the international NGOs have.

After thanking the Oxfam employees, we stopped off for a quick bite to eat before we left Gressier en route to our second community - Carrefour Dufort. At lunch, once again the Haitians proved their warmth of spirit. The lady who made and served us our food at her little roadside shack was so happy when I told her I thought her food was great that she came over with another healthy serving of it and loaded up my plate for no extra charge. She was beaming as I wolfed it down, and followed it up with a complimentary sack of water for me. Really sweet.

We had chosen Carrefour Dufort as our second community to investigate because we had heard that many people in certain parts of Dufort were drinking river water. Reginald knew the specific community in question, so we once again followed a river to find it. The community is called Barrier Jeudi, and it sits on the outskirts of the city, in a very rural setting. It is nestled against a bend in the river, and from the beginning it was very clear that the river provided many of the water resources the community needed. People were washing their clothes in it, and bathing in it. While still dirty, the river was noticeably cleaner than the river in Gressier, which can be problematic because it can lead people to believe the water is safer to drink. Indeed, unlike Gressier, I saw many holes dug around the banks of the river in Barrier Jeudi, which is common when people are drinking the water from a river. They dig a hole near the water's edge, and slowly the water will flow through the sand into the hole, having some of the mud and silt and particulates removed in the process. Unfortunately, it does little to remove bacteria, viruses and other pathogens.

School's out and the kids head home in Barrier Jeudi.
We split up and spent the afternoon talking to people in Barrier Jeudi, most of whom admitted that the majority of the people in the community were reliant on river water for drinking. Unlike Gressier, cholera was not a major problem in Barrier Jeudi, but some cases had been reported. Also unlike Gressier, Barrier Jeudi has zero support from the international community and the NGOs working in and around Leogane. The people we spoke to said that NGOs had been in the community before, but never stayed. One organization built them toilets, but then left, so now they are unused as the community doesn't have the means to empty them once they fill up. Another organization occasionally delivers Aquatabs, but it is inconsistent so the people can't rely on it. A water truck does come by the community daily, but that is a business, not a relief organization, so they charge for the water. It isn't something most of the people there can afford.

A young woman and her friend washing clothes by the river in Barrier Jeudi.
We were introduced to Roselyne, a dynamic young woman and mother who also led the local community organization there. She verified for us that most of what the people we'd talked to told us was true, and gave us some numbers. She said the immediate community was 150 households, some in tents, others in permanent homes. She herself lived in a Shelterbox tent, which, in my humble opinion, is hands down the best tent in Haiti. Yes, it's still a tent, and that's frustrating after a year and a half of having to live in one, but Shlelterbox tents last. Sun, rain, wind. They hold up. At this point they're really the only pure tents that I see left in and around Leogane. All the others have succumbed to the elements, and their residents have moved into lean-tos - tarp and tin and wood boxes they nail together with whatever they can find.

A toddler in Barrier Jeudi washing clothing.
Roselyn toured the community with us and we got to speak to more people. In the middle of talking to an old woman who was telling us about the history of NGOs coming to help but then leaving, I saw a familiar face. Robinson, a local volunteer from last year, came out beaming. "Quinn! My man!" It was great to see him, and he reminded me that I'd actually been out to the community before, with him, to assess his home to see if it was the right kind of home for a filter. Unfortunately, it wasn't (he had a dirt floor and a leaky tarp roof, which he still has now), so we couldn't give him a filter, but having the chance to see him again was great.

Goats, girls and grass in Barrier Jeudi.
After saying our goodbyes to him, Roselyn, and the old woman, Elivert, Reginald and I bid farewell to the community and walked back to the tap-tap, snapping some photos. All three of us were excited, because while what we'd discovered that day was sad, even a little shocking, we all three also had that swell of energy and motivation that comes when you feel you can truly help people that need it. No final decisions have been made about which community we will start in, but Reginald and Elivert are on their way back out to Barrier Jeudi today to get more information about the surrounding communities. Hopefully soon we'll have our decision made on which community will be our beneficiary community, and we can begin to work closely with the community leaders to get the ball rolling and the filters delivered and installed. It's great to see things start to come together. To quote Reginald, grinning from ear to ear as we walked back to the tap-tap from Barrier Jeudi, "BSF rocks!". Indeed it does.

Celebrating with Reginald after a good day's work.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Day 12: Thoughts On Returning

I've not much time to write this morning, but I do feel the tug I sometimes feel when I get up, make my way downstairs, and sit on my computer sipping my coffee, reading the news or browsing emails or simply zoning out. Something wants to be said.

Haiti. This country continues to be one that inspires me and motivates me in the work I want to do. It also, as it did before, has a way of breaking my heart. I'm attached to this place now. A short stroll down the street to Little Venice or Jackson Bar to grab an egg sandwich or a Coke inevitably results in many of the locals calling out to me, "La Loz!", "Qwen!". It happened from Day 1. No reacquainting required. They remembered. La Loz is the name of a short Haitian song and dance I learned last year. I don't remember where I picked it up, I think from Berlyne, one of our translators who has an affinity for dancing. But once I did learn it, it was an immediate source of interest and enthusiasm from the many Haitians in the neighborhood, and indeed just about everywhere I've been in Haiti. It is one of those little cultural things that every Haitian knows, but doesn't expect any blans (foreigners) to know. I do, and because I do it results in immediate acceptance of sorts, and has become my nickname among many of the locals. Anyway, I digress. The point is, when I'm walking down the street, I'm reminded that I'm part of this community now. It makes me happy, but it also hurts. I'm distinctly aware of the options I have that many of these people never will. Having been gone for four months, which found me bouncing around as I pleased - New York, England, North Carolina, Los Angeles, Mexico - and then returning here to find everything exactly the same for the majority of the people that live here, well, it's a stark reminder of the lack of choice people in Haiti have. Most simply look to find something that works - something that allows them food on the table and enough money to stay off the streets - and once they have, they stick with it. If making egg sandwiches all day, every day makes that possible, do it. If selling cold sodas and beer all day, every day makes that possible, do it. Indeed, the old lady who sold cigarettes, popcorn and marinade (fried dough balls in a red onion sauce that I used to get for breakfast a lot) right outside the gate of Joe's Bar (attached to our base) spent all day, every day in her little lean-to stand until the day she died, which was just over a week ago. I didn't get to see her this time around. I wish I had. She and I had a fun rapport with one another. She was always wanting juicy details about my love life. It made her laugh to watch me try and deflect questions in my broken Creole. She had a great laugh. Full of spirit.

Paddy, James and I went to the local Red Cross base near our base yesterday, invited over by a group of pretty Haitian nurses. It was a fun little shindig - music, a Haitian MC, a bunch of different kinds of food. We lingered for a bit, had a smoothie and some local grub, then decided to head back. The path to the Red Cross base goes through a small IDP camp (internally displaced persons). As James and I walked ahead, Paddy stopped and looked around silently. Doubling back I called out to him, "You OK mate?". I stopped to stand next to him, looking around at the dilapidated shacks - tarp-covered tin boxes baking in the heat and dust. "It's been a year and a half." He said it, but it must be something anyone paying attention here has to think about eventually. A year and a half. Yes, it has. A year and a half, and still so many people in this place live interrupted lives. It can be disheartening. We took a bit of time, just looking at the families - women with their small children gathered near, scrubbing away at clothes in front of their once thought temporary but now proving to be more permanent homes. "Blan!" "Hey you!" The kids call out. They always do. There's something wonderful in that. You don't see the same fatigue on the face of the young ones. They're more adaptable. It's the adults that carry the weight.

So yes, coming back is hard, because while I know progress continues, it sometimes seems to crawl, if not all together stop. So much seems as it was before. The variety of my experiences since I left Haiti are humbled by the necessarily repetitive grind of the people who call this place home. It feels indulgent. I can because I want to. They must because they have to. Choice. A key difference. It reminds me time and again that, as ingrained in this community as I sometimes feel, with my nicknames and friendships with the vendors and popularity with the kids, I also know I'll never truly be part of it. I'm here until I decide I want to leave. That alone sets me far apart.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Day 9: Anpil Travay! (A Lot Of Work!)

No, I didn't die this second time around to Haiti, rowdy place that it is. On the flipside, I've actually been doing something most American workers can relate to at some point in their careers - sitting in front of my computer working on Word & Excel documents. Thrilling right? So thrilling.

Actually, it is pretty thrilling, because what I'm doing (along with Paddy) is putting the foundations of this new rebooted BSF program in place. After a few days of brainstorming, we've got our team structure in place, our budget down, our key numbers understood, our tools accounted for, our workflow coming together, and our job postings up and interviews scheduled. As of tomorrow our first two local Haitian staff members come onboard - a Community Supervisor and a Construction Supervisor. The Community Supervisor will be managing a team of other local staff (to be interviewed and hired next week) as they head out to our target communities to do assessments, community education, promotion and filter installation. It's a dynamic job, and one of the keys to success for this program. The Construction Supervisor will oversee a team of local hires that work here on base actually building and prepping the filters and installation materials the Community team will then take with them to install. Not quite as many moving parts on that end, but just as important. If the filters aren't built right, well, then we really don't have a successful biosand filter program do we?

I've been cracking away at designing the training program for the Supervisors, which kicks off Monday and I'll be leading, so yea, lots of PowerPoint fun. I'm really looking forward to getting to work with great people. Some of my friends, the local volunteers here, will be interviewing for our open positions, and to know that, should they be the right fit, I'll get to work with them, day in and day out, makes me really happy. They are an incredible group of people, and the energy created between me and them in our every day interactions is something that's always been special to me. I'd love to harness that to create a truly dynamic, motivated, and happy biosand filter team. Bon bagay! I'll go into more detail in a future post I'm sure, but as for right now I simply wanted to drop a quick update. That's done, so back to PowerPoint I go...

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Day 3: Back In The Swing Of Things

Lunch time here at base. Just got back from a run down to Little Venice, the bar at the end of the road run by one of my favorite families in Haiti. Paddy and I were fiending a cold soda. It's not half as hot here as it was when I landed in Haiti the first time (July 1st of last year), partly because it's been grey and rainy for the last few days due to a tropical depression southwest of the island, but also probably because I'm able to acclimate a lot faster given my prior stay. Still, "not half as hot" still means hot here. And the humidity never quits. Cold soda indeed.

Being back has been great, and strange. The base is largely unchanged from before. Sure, some familiar tents are gone, and familiar faces absent, but other familiar faces remain, and the flow of life around here is as it was before. There are far fewer people on base than when I arrived last time, and the volunteers seem a little more mellow this time around, but that is nice in a lot of ways. I've been largely focused on the work I'm here to do, so, while I'll never be able to totally relinquish my social animal, I'm also not particularly indulging it this time around. It's different to come in knowing exactly what role I'm taking on, and where my attention needs to be. I like it. I'm invested. I was before, once I assumed the role of biosand team lead, but now, with the major investment All Hands is placing in the project, and working in tandem with Paddy, one of my oldest friends who also came back because of the biosand project (he's the official biosand project coordinator and the newest member of the All Hands staff), I feel we're going to be able to really accomplish things that I couldn't before.

Right out the gate we've seen some positive signs. Yesterday Paddy and I and a small team went out to the Masson community to follow up on biosand filters that my team installed there back in January. We didn't quite know what to expect in terms of long-term adoption of the technology, but, with a few exceptions, we were really happy to see that most families loved their filters and were using them every day. The filters were in good condition, and the recipients knew how to maintain them. They told us they felt their water was far better both in taste and quality, and that they had seen far fewer illnesses since the filters had been installed. That made me smile. They told us their neighbors would come over to drink the water, and that the community was very interested in getting more filters installed. Alrighty then, we can do that. It looks like Masson will likely be the first community we install filters into for this reboot of the project. It's a good choice - the community is aware of what biosand filters do, are familiar with All Hands (besides biosand filters we also built them a school), and seem to have taken to the technology. The pieces fit. But first, Paddy and I are working on getting a local Haitian staff put together, and then need to retrain ourselves and train them. We're getting the foundation solidly in place before we begin executing. The goal is 250 filters installed by end of year, starting fresh (not counting prior installs), which is totally doable (we have the capacity to produce four a day) so we have the time to make sure the machine is well oiled before we turn the key.

Going back to Masson was great. The kids were out in force, as they were last time, when I took this video:

The rowdy ones.

They remembered me, and once again followed us around. I think at one point we had about ten of them crammed into this little house with us while we were checking out one of the filters and talking to the owner. Here's a photo of a few of them from this time around:

Where we go, they follow. That works for me.
I feel I've clearly made the right choice in coming back here. I feel like I've unfinished business in Haiti, and with All Hands. As I've said before, if Haiti Round One was testing the water, Round Two is all about swimming as far and as fast as I can. This choice doesn't come without sacrifices. I miss my pup, and my brother and family and friends in LA and elsewhere, and I'm guaranteed to be flat broke once I leave here, but I'm OK with all of it. And even though it was many months ago now, the original choice I made not to follow someone I met here last time to London and pursue a relationship with her has been something on my mind constantly. I think being here is finally beginning to give me confidence I made the right choice, and put something in its proper place. Yes, coming back here is sometimes intense in regards to her because of the simple fact that the entirety of our relationship happened here - the memories are planted in all the nooks and crannies of this place. It goes almost without fail that the first question out of the mouths of my local friends after we've hugged and said our hellos is "Koman se Mathilde?" (How is Mathilde?) but I'm OK with that. I'll lie in my tent at night, and think about our prior time together for a while, then pick up my book, read, and drift to sleep. Morning comes and I'm up, hoping there's still some coffee left in the pot, hunting down a spoon for my cornflakes and powdered milk, and then it's off to do what I came here to do, and what more and more I'm feeling is exactly what I should and need to be doing right now.

Life affirms.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Day 1: Returned

So here it is, Day 1, again. I'm sitting in the All Hands office, after quiet hours, covered in mosquito repellent. Managed to find a decent plot on the roof. Tent is up and dry and full of my scattered belongings. Not the messiest tent I've ever seen, but it's in the running. It's been raining all day, and promises to continue for the next few days as Haiti's hurricane season begins.

Strange to be back, and wonderful. So many memories of this place. It's completely different now, and yet exactly the same. Saw some great friends I haven't seen since my trip to London or before, and am getting ready to soon retire to my sleeping mat, see if I can't perhaps get WiFi signal from the roof.

I love speaking my terrible Creole again. This time around, I really need to get around to improving it.

Day 1. A good one.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Day 0: Goodbye Los Angeles

Well, the day is here. 4:12PM now. 11:30PM and I'm on the runway en route to New York's JFK and then down to Port-au-Prince. Needless to say, I'm excited. And, as usual when it comes to my dog and my brother, there's some sadness too. I have to say goodbye to both of them soon, potentially for a while. My brother isn't so hard. He and I can still communicate when I'm away, but Mac (the pooch) is a different story. He obviously can't Skype me, or write me an email. He just gets sad, but he's got his Uncle Cort with him, and Cort does have the tendency to spoil Mac rotten, so I think he'll be OK.

Quite a few thoughts about my time here. It hasn't been the easiest stretch in the world, but a lot of that didn't really have to do with Los Angeles. Relationships are everything in life, and this time has largely been about accepting some of the realities that can surface when you let other people in, and then have to let them out again. Between wrapping my head around some of that and figuring out what my next move is, LA has been a largely internal adventure. But it has been an adventure, and one I'm glad I took. I feel focused now, in some ways more than I've ever been before. I am clear about what my goals are for the immediate future, and for the next few years. That has been the result of taking the time to let often uncomfortable feelings and thoughts just pass through, and see if there's anything of value to be gained. There was. There always is.

So then, thank you to my family, my friends, my pup, and this city for being there for me. Much appreciated. Thank you to those of you who have opted to help sponsor me for this return trip to Haiti. Your generosity makes the work I want to do there possible. I very much look forward to keeping all of you up to date on it all, and to keep sharing.

Tomorrow then. Day 0 ends today. Day 1 awaits. Again.