Haiti is a country of teenagers. I did not originate that saying, Renee did, but it is the best single description of the place I’ve heard. Teenagers are unformed yet egotistical, lack competence yet are overconfident, wound others recklessly yet are so thin skinned they bruise easily. Teenagers are fiercely defensive of their clan, prideful beyond reason, focused on narrow desires and clueless to other interests. Their bodies are drenched with passions that flash and burn to the limits of their world, but unfortunately their consciousness ends about two inches beyond the surface of their skin. They are self-absorbed, self-centered and oozing with potential. Just like Haiti. I am one of those rare parents whose favorite period of child rearing was the teen age years. Perhaps that is why I love Haiti so much, the land where teenagers go on forever.
The superintendents at our two projects provide good insight into the Haitian inclination of perpetual teenagerdom. A superintendent is the person who works across all trades and makes sure that people, materials and tools are in the right place at the right time to keep construction moving. He is responsible for building the project according to the drawings and ensuring quality. A good superintendent needs to be able to manage people and time, be skilled in construction, accept criticism and give direction. It is a job for an adult.
Fanes is our superintendent at BLB, a guy with a solid gut and a firm handshake. Chronologically we are the same age, but our world views are decades apart, which cause us ongoing stress.
My first run in with Fanes spans over two trips. As the crew is forming and installing the reinforcing for the second floor slab, I ask for one section to be finished for review – everything in place so we can understand problem areas and develop realistic expectations for progress. Fanes nods at my request but does not do it. I ask again, I get the same nods and zero action. Every time I find an error in construction he tells me they aren’t finished, yet he will not finish anything. Eventually, as work proceeds and unresolved errors pile up, he tells me that all I do is complain and that my demands are unrealistic. By this time he is right, because the list of unsatisfactory work has grown so long I am a complete nag.
I change my approach and apply enlightened management techniques to work our way out of this quagmire. I wrap Fanes in the cloak of senior management; I spend extra time reviewing the drawings with him to make sure he understands the intent and the details; I insist that Fanes join Gama and me whenever we walk the site. Fanes responds to my inclusiveness like a trapped rat frantic for escape; he chases any excuse to be absent.
On my following trip conditions are worse. In a confrontation Fanes yells at me to stop chastising him for the bad work because he didn’t do it. Yes, he tells me, he is responsible to get the work done, but he is not responsible if the work is bad. I recall similar logic from my thirteen year old. I realize, too late, that Fanes takes every criticism personally. I have wounded his honor. ‘Why don’t you ever tell me what’s good?’ he pleads.
American muscle may no match for Haitian strength, but our hides sure are tougher. We focus on the work; we give a passing nod to the overall product and then dive right into the meat of the issues. In Haiti, where the meat is so close to the bone, that approach is a disaster.
Over time Fanes and I have built some trust but we will never be simpatico; he is simply too high maintenance for the results he delivers. Like most teenagers, he puts off whatever can be put off, he winds up creating more work down the road and then he pouts at the fallout, storing it in his personal arsenal against me. Still, things have improved. I start every conversation with Fanes by asking about his family, I begin every discussion by praising all aspects of the work that are good, and though it seems a waste of time to me, I have learned that when I sugar coat the criticisms he can digest them, which is not to say he actually acts on them.
Huguener arrived in Grand Goave almost twenty years ago, a shrimp of a kid who looked four when he was eight; yet another of Lex’s cousins emigrated from La Gonave. Despite Huguener’s small stature his mind was quick and he soon became top of his class. He grew tall and sprite and became a soccer star. Then he picked up a guitar and laid down a good lick. He became a hit in the church band, pushing the limits of loud twangs and sliding across the stage on his knees before screaming, quivering girls on Sunday mornings. His studies slipped, but genius is not a prerequisite for the ultimate teenage fantasy of being a rock star.
Unfortunately Huguener’s fame did not extend beyond Grand Goave and his music brought him no fortune. Six days a week he worked for Lex, doing construction or driving errands or whatever chores appeared. Reality is no match for a heady fantasy and Huguener did not apply himself to his work. A clever lazy guy is the worst possible employee; much more creative in his evasions than a lazy guy who is just plain stupid. Lex and Renee bristled at so much potential frittering away in a country that needs every bit of talent it can muster. Huguener was none too happy either.
Once MoHI decided to capitalize on my regular visits to Haiti and increase construction, Huguener became a natural interface for me. He was a serviceable carpenter, but I needed his obvious intelligence and excellent English to act as my translator and keep the project running in my absence. He was magnificently lazy, disappearing at all times of day, shirking any accountability. I have no patience with a bad attitude and was not about to play the ridiculous Fanes and Paul game with a guy twice as smart and half my age. During the first stint Huguener and I worked together I told him straight out he was the sharpest guy on the site, the laziest and the most disappointing. I told him he should be running things, but his attitude was holding him back. I don’t think he much liked me, and I didn’t blame him. I am not here to be liked; I am here to nudge Haiti forward every way I can; and the most effective nudge carries bite.
Two weeks later I return and MoHI has met our most ambitious construction targets, the site is clean and tidy, the workers focused. “I don’t know what you told Huguener, but he is a new man.” Lex tells me. This is Huguener’s doing, not mine. Still, I capitalize on the momentum and stoke Huguener’s engine. I tell him everything he has done well along with what needs to get done better. He listens to both with equal care. We review the MoHI drawings, the construction details, the spread sheets. I add him to our email distribution list. He organizes meetings every day before we start work, he has an agenda planned, he even wears nice shirts to address the crew and then changes into construction clothes after the meeting. He confides in me the pushback he is getting from the guys who used to be his peers and now have to take his direction. We become confidantes. The project, Huguener, and I all benefit from the change.
I can’t take much credit for Huguener’s transformation. He just needed the right nudge at the right time to step into his own. He is bright and confident, unburdened by superstition and able to separate constructive criticism from personal wounds. Fanes is a nice guy, but he will never transcend the myopic vision common among many Haitians and fourteen year olds. Huguener represents a more promising breed. I hope he can continue to grow into a capable, confident man and benefit himself, and his country, in the process.