I am sitting at a picnic table under a bare bulb in the middle of Mission of Hope. It is 6:45 pm, which in Haiti means it is black as midnight. I will try to describe the scene, but it is so bizarre I will fall short
Mission of Hope is a walled site along the highway, 100 feet wide by 200 feet deep, but not actually a rectangle. The site slopes up to the south. At present the entire center is excavated deep for the new building. Narrow paths wind up each side of excavation, to reach the toilet stalls that line one side or the storage buildings that line the other. The storage buildings are the only ones that survived the earthquake intact; plywood sheds have been added to their roofs where the children attend school until the new building is complete. The paths are as little as three feet wide with a vertical drop of over ten feet in some places. During the day children scamper along the treacherous paths and through the construction site, the girls in pleated skirts with lace epaulets on their anklet socks, the boys in blue slacks with homemade belts cinched around their thin waists. The site would give OSHA apoplexy.
The students are gone now, but there are still dozens of children milling around. To my right, towards the highway, the site is relatively flat. There is a wood and metal roofed lean-to that serves as the church these days. Right now there is choir of young girls singing praise, swaying and clapping. Next to that is a temporary wood framed building that acts as the office until the new school is complete. Dinner for the missionaries sits in there on a folding table, pots of rice and beans and fresh baked bread that has a smoky anise taste to it; sickly sweet juice I only drink as dessert. Behind me a local woman is cooking for the workers in a gigantic pot on an outdoor charcoal stove. No one is eating though; there is too much action to my left.
Fifty or sixty people fill the construction area, most of them young Haitian men, a few blans like me to guide the process. I was hard at it all day but once night swept down active construction felt unsafe for me. I pulled rank as the oldest blan and will sit out the rest of the night. The big concrete mixer churns; there is a quintet of guys loading buckets of sand, another quartet shoveling in buckets of gravel and cement. Each group forms a brigade and flings the five gallon buckets from the piles of sand or gravel towards the mixer. They chant as they toss, which creates an odd duet with the girls’ choir.
At the other end of the rotating machine is a bin about six feet square that accepts the mixed concrete. One tall man in hip boots stands in the green concrete and shovels it into waiting buckets with the grace of a dancer. There are eight, maybe ten laborers who hoist buckets of concrete to their shoulder and snake through the excavation to the back wall. We are pouring a section of wall three feet high by fifty-six long with seven pilasters that will serve to hold back the hill when the rains come and the earth shakes. It is about 16 cubic yards of concrete. In the States it would be an easy day’s pour for a crew of six or eight. Here it is a major undertaking.
We started before six this morning, at first light. First everyone was in a prayer circle; then we broke into crews. I worked with two Haitians most of the day cutting and bending several hundred pieces of rebar into different shapes. Two crews of agile climbers mounted the walls and installed the reinforcing, using metal twist ties to connect the bars, extending them upward to connect to future pours. Another crew removed the forms form the lower section of concrete, oiled them, repaired them, and reinstalled them at the higher level.
The last step is pouring the concrete itself, dumped from buckets held overhead on a ladder and then vibrated into compaction. We will transport close to a thousand buckets of concrete to fill the forms. Right now the rebar guys are gone, the reinforcing is in place and the final formwork is being pounded to fit. The mixer is rumbling, the temporary lights are burning, and the vibrator is humming against the dark. It is a very noisy place.
I just took a break in the action while the power went off. Twice. In between a gaggle of young boys stormed my computer. They hung on to me as I showed each of them how to type their name on a keyboard. They loved watching the letters appear on the screen. Three and four year olds in the States know how to use keyboards, iPads, all range of technology, but here a laptop is exotic and they are not familiar with a mouse or a click or a space bar. After they typed their own names they prompted me to type and just stared at my fingers gliding over the keys.
Ten p.m. The concrete pour is finished. The workers are eating piles of rice and beans and soft drinks from the wheelbarrow full that Travis the electrician bought for all. Lex makes a speech of appreciation for the hard work, and then sharpens his voice to make sure everyone cleans up; the site will be full of children again tomorrow. After all the workers have left, the blans congregate in the office for a design meeting. Some key construction people are heading back to the States tomorrow and we have to coordinate the patchwork of materials and schedules to continue progress. We leave after midnight, tired but content in a job well done.
Concrete batching area
Pouring the concrete into formwork