One hallmark of Haitian culture is gathering together to mark the start of an event. A collective pause or prayer precedes daily meals, laborers gather before each work day; and we mark construction milestones with impromptu but elaborate ceremonies. At the start of MoHI’s recent concrete pour dozens gathered on plywood stretched across the rebar to join in prayer and to photograph the ceremonial dumping of the first bucket of concrete, as well as the second and third and fourth…
A little pomp goes a long way for me; guiding wobbly benefactresses across construction and watching them tipple aggregate tries my patience when I am itching to get into the real work. But I understand the importance of a ritual beginning to dedicate energy to the task before us, and, in our social network frenzied world, to keep activities of needy organizations prominent in the public eye.
Over the past two days Be Like Brit poured 450 cubic yards of concrete, the largest concrete pour in Grand Goave by some margin. We utilized a technology foreign to this region – ready-mix concrete. Ten cylinder trucks from Port au Prince traversed back and forth Route 2 for 39 hours straight delivering green concrete to a pump truck that sent the mix thirty feet over the top of the building and deposited it on the roof by means of a giant hose. Ironically, the pour took the same length of time as the wheelbarrow-based pour the previous week at MoHI, but that was entirely due to the inability of the trucks to get to site more quickly. The crews, accustomed to placing concrete by bucket and wheelbarrow, were amazed at how easy it is to have concrete powered on to the roof and then simply trowel it in place. Pumped concrete is less strenuous to pour and many a mason caught a nap waiting for the next truck to arrive.
Capping off the orphanage with this ‘new’ concrete technology warranted not one, but two occasions.
On the afternoon before the pour Gama gathered all the workers. Len made a speech, outlining the history of the project, describing Brit’s journey to Haiti and her death at the Hotel Montana, finding the site almost two years ago, and eighteen months of active construction. I had the misfortune of following Len (never a good slot on the roster) and tried to explain to the crew what was going to occur. They had never seen a concrete truck, let alone a pumper, they could not fathom pouring seven yards of concrete in ten minutes. I framed it as an opportunity for them to learn how concrete is placed in the rest of the world, how we hoped to increase their construction skills with this experience. Then Gama delivered the details of schedule and logistics, which might have been dry except that the men would receive premium pay for night work, so they listened carefully.
The real occasion happened the following night at 9 pm, just before the first truck arrived. Len, his son Bernie, Lex, Renee and I stood on the roof surrounded by the crew, illuminated by a magnificent full moon. I expected a reiteration of yesterday’s words but was pleased when Len turned the focus to the workers who stood before us in their rubber boots and discarded tee shirts holding their trusty shovels and trowels while the giant pump truck hung above them like a tentacled alien. Most of them had worked seven days straight; this was their third all-nighter; yet they listened in attentive good cheer, eager to discover this new way of working. Len told the crew how much we appreciated them and how important they were to making Brit’s dream come true. I don’t know if his words meant as much to them as receiving premium pay, but I was glad to hear their contribution affirmed.
Lex’s invocation also took a different turn, describing the project in the larger context of Grand Goave. He moved beyond the usual recitation that the project would bring jobs and house children and provide clinical services in a safe building – all true but all said many times before. Instead, like all great politicians and preachers, he staked the broader view. He described the project as setting a new standard to Grand Goave, for all of Haiti. Then, after a resonant pause, he ended by saying, “Future generations will remember what we do here tonight.”
I doubt that a concrete pour deserves the same gravity as Normandy on D-Day, but it made for a heck of a memorable event. The moon lifted higher in the sky, the first truck arrived, and the concrete fell from the sky.