Since the 2010 Haiti earthquake I have made sixteen trips to design and supervise construction of an orphanage and school in Grand Goave. Haiti is a poor, backward, corrupt place, but it is also magical. Mysticism runs strong here where ancient voudou merges the physical and the spirit world. This mysticism offers solace for people with so little control over their daily trials. Time and again, when my American expectations are upended I remind myself that like magic, Haiti is not rational.
No one would describe Ohio as magical. It is sensible and grounded, rooted in fertile soil and industrious citizens. It is the epicenter of the United States’ most enduring and traditional values, a practical place where logic and reason prevail. Two summers ago I bicycled through Ohio, Cincinnati to Conneaut, passing through Xenia, Columbus, Mount Vernon, Akron, and Cleveland. I developed a strong appreciation for Ohio’s generous people, hearty food, exuberant cycling community, and its citizen’s faith that the products of our hands and minds, infrastructure and technology, are the tools that build successful lives.
I was pleased when a group of 23 Buckeyes from Akron came to Haiti to construct the growing compound where aid workers stay. They painted banisters and walls, laid out foundations for guest cottages, and built a roof on the new kitchen. After a frustrating day of demonstrating earthquake resistant construction techniques to Haitian crews predisposed to attribute the tremor to the revenge of angry gods, I appreciated the planning and handiwork required to build a roof of both logic and craft in three days.
The new kitchen is a structure with one right angle and three odd angles nestled into a corner of the compound. In pre-earthquake Haiti this out of squareness would hardly be noticed; most buildings got flat concrete roofs with cowlicks of reinforcing popping out for an eventual second floor. Since those roofs crushed many people, post-earthquake structures often have sloped wood joists with metal roofs. A wood frame will not last as long as concrete in a country susceptible to decay, but it is too light to crush when it falls.
The Buckeye’s new roof is a beauty. One of the guys explains its logic to me. “The metal roof needed to be about 3 in 12 slope. We set the ridge four feet above the dividing wall in the kitchen, so it could be sheathed in full pieces of plywood. We had to sister the joists, which were only 16 feet long. We set the longest rafter perpendicular to the ridge and the top of the wall. Then we laid out the other rafters, some parallel, some not, to determine a consistent slope. Finally, we built up the angled walls as much as needed to meet the rafters.” The result is a simple yet consistent roof sitting atop a skewed box.
I asked him about hurricane clips to protect the roof from ripping off in a hurricane. “We couldn’t find any anchors to drill in the concrete block walls, but we found a spool of metal tape and some through bolts. We set the bolts through the top course of the masonry, anchored the metal tape to one end, wrapped it over the rafters, and pulled it tight to the other side of the bolt.”
This story demonstrates fundamental differences between Haitian and American cultures. Take a dozen guys from Ohio, throw them in Haiti, give them an assortment of tools and materials, a jumbled problem, and in three days they develop and build a rather elegant solution. Our ability to problem solve is great, we relish the challenge.
On our construction site, where we are building a larger yet more regular building, every step is an arduous process that must be repeated and repeated. The crew trowels grout into ten walls, but unless we tell them to grout the eleventh, they might not.
This lapse is not due to laziness; Haitians work very hard. It is simply that their minds work differently than ours. We look for pattern, for logic, we apply order wherever we can. Haitians are less analytical, less inclined to assign effect to cause. They are more comfortable with magic.