It’s Sunday, New Year’s Day in Haiti. I have the day off. People have wondered what am I doing here, so perhaps this is a good time to lay out a day in the life of Mister Paul, l’architect, which is how I am known locally.
5:30 am – Gama knocks on my door at Mission of Hope guest compound. Gama is the clerk of the works for the Be Like Brit orphanage, a 20,000 square foot building that will house an orphanage for 66 children as well as a clinic, clean water, and other services for the surrounding neighbors. Be Like Brit is being built by Len Gengel, a home builder from central Massachusetts whose daughter, Brit, died in the 2010 earthquake while on a college trip to Haiti. The full story is at http://www.belikebrit.org. For our purposes suffice to say we are not just building an orphanage, we are building a remarkable family’s tribute to their beloved daughter.
5:45 am – Gama and I leave the mission house in his truck before others are up and drive along the river bed (it is dry season) as the sun rises over the mountains. The mountains in Haiti are not tall, 2,000 feet at most, but they rise right out of the sea, very steep. They are more picturesque than many a 10,000 footer. Gama is a Haitian-American, fluent in Creole and English, who was living in Central Massachusetts when Len enticed him to return to Haiti to run the project. Gama has no previous construction experience, but he is a great translator, a patient listener, a hard worker and a congenial soul. He is a pleasure from morning to night, which I know for fact because we spend that much time together.
6:00 am – We arrive at the site, halfway up a mountain west of town. The view of Bay of Gonave is breathtaking. The workers are already there, all seventy of them. If anyone shows up after 6:00 am they are fired, and jobs are hard to come by in Haiti; especially ones that pay four dollars a day and teach valuable skills. The workers are gaunt, pitch black men, we exchange bonjours, I am beginning to learn a few names.
6:15 am – Gama organizes the work crews, I go into the construction shack, turn on the computers and check the email. Email is our lifeline with Len and the engineers in the States.
6:30 am – Once work is in full swing I walk the site. Gama calls me eagle eye because I can see where the reinforcing bars were not installed at the proper spacing or the electricians forgot to grout the outlet box. When I return to the office Gama and I review the lists.
7:00 am – We have three lists. The white board displays the 12 goals that Len wants us to complete before he returns in two weeks. Our current priority is to have all the first floor walls in place before I leave so we can install formwork to support the second floor concrete the week of January 9. We won’t make it, but we’ll push to get close. The second list is my To Do’s, coordinate the expanded clinic with the doctor in the US, design the front steps and patio around the mango tree, determine how to terminate the second floor slab at the open courtyards. The third list is Gama’s To Do’s; demolish a wall due to clinic changes, add a switch where we need a three-way light, weld door anchors that were missed. Len creates the first list, I create the other two. This week, since I am just starting and we are playing catch-up on quality control; Gama’s list is long.
8:00 am – I am hungry and snatch some bread and peanut butter. The Gengel’s don’t eat much Haitian cuisine so the construction shack is chocked with snack food. I try not to indulge too much, but since Gama gets me up so early I miss breakfast at the mission house.
8:15 am – I work on my list. When we fantasize about building in a third world country we envision ourselves in shorts and bandannas laying concrete block or shingling a roof. The quake shattered that illusion. Be Like Brit is a highly engineered, sophisticated building. We are committed to ‘raise the bar’ of construction in Haiti, to build to the highest earthquake standards and teach local tradespeople better construction techniques. It sounds noble, but it winds up being as tedious as any other form of work. My role is to monitor, to observe, to anticipate what needs attention and make right what was built wrong. I make a lot of sketches and create a lot of spreadsheets – how many block do we need to finish the first floor (1,800); how much reinforcing do we need for the second floor slab (1,325 bars, 40 feet long, of various diameter); how many separate concrete pours will it take to complete the second floor (10 pours at 20 to 35 cubic yards per pour, hand hoisted in 5 gallon buckets).
10:00 am – I walk the site again. Gama’s list grows.
10:30 am – A pair of straggling boys, barefoot in torn T-shirts, knock on the shack door. We have a hockey bag full of shoes and they want a pair. I try to give only one pair per child, but they know how to confuse me, so I am sure many have gotten two pairs. We have mostly girl’s shoes left, but girls’ never stop by. Haitian girls stay home near their mothers. The boys roam free.
11:30 am – There are three women who have set up cottage take-out stands at the BLB site. They cook breakfast and lunch over small charcoal grills protected from the sun by a scrap of tarp. They sell food to the workers. Gama says a man can eat very well in Haiti in $1.50 a day. Gama usually buys something around this time and offers some to me. At first I declined, not wanting to take his food, but then I realized he was offering as host, so now I accept. He tells me MOHI food is ‘Americanized’ and I can tell the difference, though I like it all. One day he had cornmeal pellets with beans and a small fried fish; another day rice and peas with shredded beef. So far my iron stomach appreciates everything I’ve been dished
Noon – I walk down the hill, soaking in the view and chatting with the children along the road. Everyone knows my name and I am making progress at reciprocating. Route 2, one of Haiti’s four paved highways, is at the bottom of the hill. A few hundred yards towards town is the Mission of Hope School.
12:30 pm – Renee Edme runs Mission of Hope (MOHI) (www.mohintl.org) with her husband Lex. They are evangelical Christians, she’s American, he is Haitian. They are people of generous spirit and make me feel welcome despite my different beliefs. It is the work that matters. Renee has a small plywood framed office where Marieve, MOHI’s cook, delivers a pot of lunch. Rice and beans and a brothy sauce with onions with maybe a bit of chicken or goat left over from last night, a basket of bread and juice so sweet I drink it last, for dessert.
1:00 pm – More than half of MOHI’s property is a construction site where we are building a new school to replace the one damaged by the earthquake. Progress is slow since they do not have Len Gengel’s resources or construction expertise. They have cobbled together contractors from different parts of the US who come down for a week or two to spearhead the local tradespeople. Their concrete superstar, John Armour, will be down on January 15 for two weeks. In advance of his arrival I will determine all the reinforcing they need to finish the foundation and work with a local crew to fabricate 419 U-bars and 30 reinforced concrete cages. More emails and conference calls, more spreadsheets, inventorying what rebar is on site and determining what we need to order. Starting Monday, we are ready to cut and bend bar,
2:00 pm – I walk back to BLB. Len is building a beautiful stone retaining / drainage wall along the uphill side of the road. It is easy to see he develops tony subdivisions in the States; the wall is as opulent as anything in Sudbury, MA. The masons take a break to chat with me. When Len first introduced me to the group of laborers I made a pigeon Creole speech that I would help them build the orphanage if they would help me learn Creole. It went over well; they are always offering up new words and phrases for me test.
2:30 pm – Back on site for another walk through, more emails, keeping things humming.
4:00 pm – The workers knock off for the day but Gama doesn’t quit. He writes his daily report; I add my part. We photograph progress to post to the website. He is devoted to this project.
4:30 pm – I am tired and make my way back to MOHI. One day Renee left before I arrived so I walked home through town. I am still getting comfortable with navigating the streets; I say ‘bon soir’ to everyone and get smiles and nods in return. I have a car at my disposal but I have only driven it once. As Renee told me, if anything happens it’s automatically my fault, since I’m the blanc. Not words that motivate me to want to hop behind the wheel.
5:30 pm – Whether I walk or drive or hitch a ride, I get to MOHI’s ‘office’ a concrete house in the middle of town with a rear courtyard that has a giant tree and a collection of outbuildings where all the food for all the MOHI enterprises is made. Marieve and her staff cook for 50-150 people, every meal, every day. I load whatever pots and baskets and jugs of juice have to go to the mission house. Riding along the river bed with the sun sinking over the bay with the aroma of succulent food is a satisfying moment.
6:00 pm – I live like a prince at the mission house. There are four ‘private’ rooms with baths on the second floor and BLB rents one full time for their staff. The room sleeps five and when Len is here he often has an entourage, but I am here on the off-weeks and pretty much by myself. When I return my bed is made, the bathroom is clean; I shower in the cold water drizzle and wash the microfiber pants and T-shirts I wear to the site. I change into shorts and a fresh shirt, and hang my work clothes to dry. I have two sets and alternate them daily.
6:30 pm – We may be five of fifty for dinner, depending on the number of missionaries visiting. Right now there is group of four from Pittsburgh who are great fun and a new group of thirty from Ohio who are just settling in. We eat under a huge thatched hut called the choucoun, with a view of the bay and the sound of the ocean. More rice, more beans or peas. The chicken is good, the goat is excellent. Occasionally there is a pepper tossed among the onions in the sauce to keep things lively.
7:30 pm – I read or blog or do Suduko on the porch outside the room. I have become expert at the ‘Tough’ level and even completed some ‘Diabolical’ puzzles.
8:00 pm – Gama gets back to the mission house just before I head for bed. His room is next to mine. He turns his TV on loud and falls asleep to the sounds of American popular culture. I try to read for a few minutes, but the darkness feels like midnight, so I fall deep asleep.
Mister Paul, l’architect, at the BLB site