I am spending more time at the Mission of Hope School site this trip to Haiti. The Be Like Brit orphanage is moving along very well; there is so much repetition now the crews need less supervision while some work has slowed down as the rains prevent material deliveries up the hill. The school, however, which has moved in fits and starts, is now surging forward. There are so many similarities between the two projects; same design team, same construction crews, shared tools and materials, one would think the experience on one site would be like the other. Yet the culture of each construction site is remarkably different; as different as their owners, Len Gengal and Lex Edme.
BLB would be considered an efficient job site by American standards, in Haiti it is a phenomenon. We have a construction shanty with a plan table and work space for four people. It is headquarters for Len, Gama and me, Tito, the accountant, and Frankie, the gofer. It is air conditioned, though when Len is gone I discourage using it because the breeze is pleasant all day long. Fanes, the job superintendent, is the only person who enters the shanty without knocking, yet even he never uses it as a place of work. He only enters for morning meet & greet and scheduled meetings. If crew members have a question, they knock on the door and wait for us to come outside. They cross the threshold only once a week; to receive their Saturday pay.
The trades at BLB are well organized. Every crew has a boss, and there is a clear hierarchy of communication, from Len to me or Gama to Fanes to the boss to the crew. If I am spray paint marking locations of electrical or plumbing fixtures on the floor and pick up a broom to clean an area, a crew hand will always come over, take the broom, and sweep for me. No one allows me any manual labor. At BLB, pay is tied to performance. Masons are expected to lay ninety blocks per day, and since the flow of blocks, mortar, and reinforcing are continuous, it is an achievable target. If they don’t achieve their quota, they receive short pay.
Three women have set up makeshift breakfast and lunch establishments on site, the Haitian equivalent of the lunch truck. They serve competing versions of dire et pwa (rice and beans), embellished with chicken or goat or fish to suit any wallet and any palate, and I can attest that their food is very good. Workers have their preferred options; during lunch they cluster by trade at their kitchen of choice.
MoHI is less hierarchical, both by circumstance and by design. There is no construction shanty. I set up my drawing and computer on a picnic table under a lean-to, surrounded by school children and an arm’s length away from the concrete mixer. When Lex is present he wanders the site, his primary tools being his voice and his cell phone. Since the site is so compact and the children are everywhere, the crews cannot segregate as much; everyone works everywhere.
Crew designations are less clear at MoHI. If I am marking something up, no one volunteers to assist me; yet if I need someone to hold the end of the tape while I measure something, I just grab the nearest guy and he is happy to help. People are paid by the day. If the daily productivity is low, Lex gives a pep talk the next morning to inspire the men, but output expectations are less stringent than at BLB. MoHI is a more complicated building with more challenging conditions; if masons lay fifty blocks a day, they are doing well. No one grouses when asked to do something outside their usual task. The laborers work hard, but the output is not as remarkable.
MoHI provides lunch for the workers at mid-day or, if we are pouring concrete, whenever the pour is finished. Sometimes they even provide soda. The food is standard Haitian fare, cooked in giant pots and served out of five gallon paint buckets. Today is was diri et sauce pwa, a variation on rice and beans where the beans are pureed into a thin gruel and ladled over white rice. Delicious, but simple. The delicacies available up the hill are not on the menu here. Lex and Boss Pepe serve the food; everyone jams under the lean-to escape the sun. We talk and joke. The cliché of the happy native is so politically incorrect I shudder to use it, yet these guys have so much fun with a half an hour and a plate of rice that my spirits rise even though I understand only a quarter of what they say.
Before my work day ends, I ask Renee if they pay workers less since MoHI feeds them. No, she replies, MoHI pays the standard wages, but feels that feeding the workers has the benefit of making sure they eat and making them more receptive to working late when needed.
As I walk home I consider these two variations on a theme – the proto-capitalist BLB site versus the Social Democratic MoHI site. As management, whose salary (?) is independent of either system, I should be able to make an objective assessment. But I cannot. On each site I have enjoyable, productive days. At BLB I feel very productive; at MoHI I feel very good; which pretty much sums up Lex’s and Len’s primary drive.
Boss Pepe ladles out lunch at MoHI
Paul, thank you for continuing to educate us about life in Haiti and on the job in Grand Guave. We appreciate your honest and unbiased observations. You bring the reality of life in Haiti into our homes and help us appreciate the true value of the “mission”. Safe travels, you all are truly making a difference!
Mike & Sally
Thanks for your kind words. I am very fortunate to have such a life changing experience and I am happy to be able to share it with others.