“Haitians love to drive backwards. They just look over their shoulders and gun it.” Renee Edme laughs as she says this, the two of us staring down Route 2 as one of the Mission of Hope staff speeds backward in the SUV for about two hundred feet before screeching to a halt, flipping the vehicle around and taking off up the dirt road to the new orphanage. Renee is an American who has lived in Haiti for ten years, the grounded half of ‘Lex and Renee’ who run the Mission of Hope, the one who instills Western concepts of time, schedule and order into the operation with middling success and has a hearty laugh the many times her attempts come up short.
The Be Like Brit Orphanage (BLB) is officially under construction. The objective of the two week ground breaking effort is straightforward – excavate the site, get it level, stake the building and begin foundations. Eight of us here from the States – Len Gengel, his son Bernie, and his nephew Ross arrived on December 24, along with Gama, the onsite supervisor who will remain in Haiti for the duration of construction. I arrived on January 2 with my daughter Abby, her boyfriend Khaled, and Len’s excavator Duke. I had told Len there was no reason for us to arrive any sooner as the first week would be lost on setting up. I was right.
Week One was a flurry of hurry up and wait. Bernie and Ross organized the truck that had arrived by freighter from Miami loaded with everything required for construction, including power tools, a generator, a Mule (Kawasaki off-road vehicle), picks, shovels, hammers, screws, stakes, orange paint, latrine plans, and tampers, as well as an eight foot propane grill they brought for the mission house where volunteers stay and an immense carton of lollipops to win the loyalty of local children. Len spent the week making arrangements – getting the bulldozer he rented to the site, getting the site staked, getting the soil testing firm he hired to show up, meeting with the three tall Haitian men who loiter at the site. They wear ID tags and matching shirts and Len refers to them as the ‘Neighborhood Association’, though it is not clear who they represent beyond themselves.
As I predicted, when we arrive on January 2, the bulldozer is unaccounted for in transit and the site is still pristine.
The dozer arrives on Monday. It is delivered to the wrong site, so we have to negotiate its release from a group constructing a local elementary school who considered the machine manna from the heavens. By noon we wrest it back to BLB, by one it is at the base of the road, by two we are dozing the road, and by three the Neighborhood Association has mobilized into a contingent who demand a halt in the construction. By four, Lex is on the hillside negotiating with the abutters exactly where the road will go; the Americans advocating an S-shape that works with the grade, the Haitians insisting on straight up the hill. By six, resolution is achieved, though of course by that time it is too late to do any more work.
Tuesday morning brings an aftershock of Neighborhood Association activity – new abutters to be placated – but by noon there are hearty handshakes all around and the bulldozer carves a road straight up the mountain. One stretch approaches a 25 degrees grade. It will turn into a rapid in the first heavy rain.
Simultaneous with road building, Abby, Khaled and I build a latrine back at the mission house in parts that could be loaded into the box truck and hauled up to the site. Len is intent on having this for job site sanitation. We are convinced he will be the only person who uses it.
By Wednesday the dozer is pushing dirt on the site. The box truck makes it up the steep grade; we unload and assemble the latrine. We have a regular audience of twenty or so. A dozen children horse around the site, hovering for a lollipop; silent men nap in the shade in the hopes of getting hired as day labor; a few women sit on low stools and watch the dozer scratch across the land. Whenever it unearths a sizable root they scamper across the site and collect the snarled wood. By the end of the day they have large piles of roots that they haul off to turn into charcoal – a profitable day indeed.
Len hires two men to dig the latrine pit and Baptiste, a young bilingual Haitian, to sit the site all day and ensure that tools do not walk. Four dollars a day is the going rate. By Wednesday afternoon I am able to stake the site. Duke and I lay out the extents of the building from the magnificent mango tree. The ideal layout we had hoped for puts the building too close to one property line so we rotate the building ten degrees. The grade is steeper than we had eyeballed back in September; a lot of excavation is required.
Thursday is more of the same except for the foreboding sense that the more we move earth, the more earth has to be moved. At most, there are six hours of productive work in Haiti. No one starts until 8 or so, break occurs at 10, lunch hour is spent sitting on machines, quitting time is four. As much as possible, I sit in the shade. If I try to read a magazine I am swarmed with children who want to page through the pictures. Sometimes I do that, other times I hold my pages firm so I can actually read. By the end of day Thursday Len realizes we will never get close to having any foundation grades by Saturday, he calls the machine rental guy in Port au Prince and rents an excavator to work alongside the bulldozer.
Miracle of miracles, the excavator shows up and on Friday we have two machines, which means twice the opportunity for delay. The bulldozer has a bum battery; once it stops it takes about 30 minutes to caress back into action. The machines chug and heave due to impure oil and dirty gasoline. Directions involve English and Creole and arm waving, some Haitians work in feet and inches, others in centimeters, the bulldozer operator is taciturn and scowling, the rail thin excavator operator wears a heavy wool hat and amused detachment. Finally, they reach one corner that is the proper depth. The soil is good, very good, but we won’t be able to level the entire site before our group leaves in two days.
An ancient man arrives with four mules, each saddled with a pair of woven baskets. He begins to pick some of the smooth unearthed stones and burden his animals. One of the root collector ladies jumps up and berates him in a torrent of Creole. He replaces all the rocks and leaves empty handed. A translator tells us that Lex has given approval to remove roots but not rocks. The woman is now part of our team.
Saturday. We continue to set temporary stakes as the machines work, when they work. There are moments, when they sing a duet of productivity. I peer across the land. A carpet of green trees foregrounds the blue, blue sea. The water is a vast plain of swirling patterns, smooth and stipples. It mirrors the shallow sand formations beneath the surface. White specs of sailboats hover in the blue expanse, the horizon blurs by the rise of Isle de Gonave and the misty sky. Beyond the poverty, Haiti’s beauty is breathtaking.
I have brought picture books to the site today to distribute to the children. The adults tear through them with equal interest. Baptiste spends an hour carefully wording through a book on Antarctic penguins. His pronunciation is good, his comprehension is sketchy.
I spend two hours reviewing the drawings with Gama, who will remain when we leave. I outline how to do the final layout, how to understand column lines and detail references. I make a diagram of all the key points and how they relate to benchmark mango tree. He is shocked that we actually use the triangle theorems he avoided in high school geometry to lay out the building.
We get as far as we can. About one third of the site is at foundation grade. Gama gets 100% on my little quiz questions about where to find information on the drawings and how to measure the diagonal dimensions I have laid out for him. Our benchmark is painted. Two permanent stakes are in place. Len will be back in three weeks. Perhaps progress will have been made. It might be square, it might be skew. Perhaps the site will look then exactly as it does now. Our work plan is ambitious, our expectations are realistic.
By American standards the two weeks have not been too productive. By Haitian standards, we made mammoth progress.