Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Lesson Learned in Haiti

My time here is swiftly winding down. Two weeks ago I found out that I would be going home in mid-June. It seemed such a long ways off. I was in the middle of parent and child endline surveys and measurements – a seemingly never ending process that literally made May disappear in the blink of an eye. And now mid-June is here and I have less than one week left.

It is quite sad how time passes so quickly, whether I am here in Haiti, at school in St. Louis or home on Hidden Ln. I was just getting in to the swing of things; I had my routines, friends, activities, a to-do list, apartment decorating – all things that make you feel at home, comfortable and relaxed. A place that you know is yours. And now, just like that, this nomad packs up and is heading on to the next place.

Despite the short time here, there are plenty of things I will be taking back with me in one form or another. Some sentimental, some not so much and others pretty critical, I know these lessons will travel with me wherever I end up.

Smiling. Being polite even when others are not. It’s amazing thing, manners. You’re taught at an early age to say please and thank you, address adults with respect, etc. But living in a country where manners are not nearly as common, you learn to appreciate them. Greeting a market woman selling vegetables before buying them instantly gets me a smile, “wi cheri” and a “bon pri”. Smiling at a stranger in my line of walking will get me a smile in return. Greeting the hoard of children shouting “blan!” will get me a more polite line of questioning. Granted, it doesn’t always work. There will always be people who are rude, impolite and downright rotten. But I’ve found here that being openly friendly – dropping the standard guard most North Americans have can lead to a nicer and happier exchange and day. So smile.

History. Caribbean history is pretty much glazed over in North American history. Columbus ‘discovered’ it, there were pirates, and now there are golf courses and resorts. It leaves out so much – Haiti in particular has an amazing history. It is a country built on the only successful slave revolt. There is such a legacy of freedom and liberty here that stems from that. It was once the richest country in the world, building an empire on its exports of sugar, rum, coffee. The colonization of Hispaniola itself is remarkable. Here, history is everywhere. Cap-Haitien is right in line of sight to the Citadelle, a huge fortress built by Henri Christophe that contains some of the most impressive canons I’ve ever seen. Although things are not preserved here as they are in the states, there is something beautiful about the presence sites like the Citadelle have. They haven’t been turned into turned into a tourist trap or twisted into the ‘best’ fit history – they just are.

Control issues. There’s one thing to be organized, on time, and hard working. Then there’s another thing to be controlling, in charge, demanding. Like in Senegal, it is impossible to have control over how things operate here. Letting go of control and realizing that things happen when they do is how things get done. I don’t mean just becoming completely disinterested or invested in the work that is going on. But I mean recognizing the fact that in developing countries there are an infinite more numbers of obstacles inhibiting timely, organizing and efficient work. Yes, it’s partly the country’s fault for their crappy infrastructure and corruption, but issues go deeper and are much much complicated than that. Imagine a sequester that never actually ends, or driving over a fiscal cliff that is over a pool infested with everything that could possibly tear you to pieces. So there is another holiday in which schools are closed. Yes, it impacts our study in two major ways; kids don’t eat and we don’t get to complete some measurements that day. Instead of complaining to the school administration, the government, and the woman selling coconut water, you have to learn to deal, adjust and work within an environment that is always changing, and hardly ever going the way you want it to.

Accountability. This next one is a huge issue for me. And it’s a little soap boxy. Maybe a lot. Definitely a lot. But I’ve lived in several developing countries and I’ve seen organizations and governments working together, doing good things, making a change in the health and well-being of its people. And I’ve seen organizations and governments doing complete crap. Literally, creating shit for its people to live in. And there is much much more of this in Haiti. Yes, Haiti is poor. Yes there is hunger, extreme poverty, disease, death. But – and this is a big but – there are also hundreds of organizations here doing nothing that really is developing Haiti. Because the country is literally run on foreign aid, organizations such as UNICEF, World Bank, WFP, CARE, USAID determine the priorities and policies of the country. And these organizations are usually about making money, not developing a country. For example; food aid. Over the last fifty years, Haiti has been flooded with food aid, mostly rice grown in the States. The problem with this is that Haiti had a stable rice market; they were growing enough rice but the distribution and infrastructure of trade wasn’t there. So rather than fixing that, organizations flooded the market with imported rice, increasing its price and devastating the agriculture economy. This has resulting in a failed economy which Haiti has never – and perhaps – will never recover from because the same organizations are still here, doing the same work. There is no accountability from the government, people, and organizations themselves to take a step back, recognize what is going on, and demand change. Similarly, at a smaller level, organizations that run schools, orphanages, etc also take advantage of the system. I was shocked to learn that the ‘orphans’ from the earthquake in 2010 often have parents. They just don’t want to care for them, or the parents know that their children will be better provided if they send them away. Some children are even kids from influential and wealthy families and are used as a pawn in the political/organizational infrastructure that runs local municipalities. What culture of parenting and family is that creating? And these organizations know this and are doing nothing to address the issue because it makes them money.

Now not every organization is like this. And often, many organizations start out from good causes. There really want to make an impact, a difference. The problem is that there is no accountability to keep these organizations in line or create standards of operations, responsibility, etc. As a result, anyone can literally come down to Haiti, start and organization and make money. That’s not even touching on what this surge of organizations is doing to the capacity and empowerment of the people of Haiti. Why work when I can get everything donated and free from this organization? Why raise my children when this organization will take them? Why should I be interested in my government when they don’t actually run my country? Huge implications for the best intentions led way way way off the path. Like I said, a little soap boxy, but development work is a bit more complicated than just donating some old clothes.

I realize leaving this post like that seems that I’m jaded and that I didn’t enjoy my time here. Far from it. I really loved Haiti and spending time here and working here. There is beauty here that is often ignored. Humor that is often over-looked. Passion and drive that is turned away. And pride that runs deep. It is a place of strength and working with my team, I’ve seen that strength. Despite my best intentions I will always be an optimist at heart. And I see that there are good things happening to here – like in other places in the world, you just never hear about it. Development work is a tricky beast – and there is never ever one right answer or a cure-all solution. But the important thing is to have passion and commitment. To have an honest desire to create sustainable change so that every person has the opportunity to be happy, healthy, and live a good life. I’m still leaving Haiti a dreamer and still wanting to do my part.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Part deux; Ayiti remix

Continuing on the theme of last post I will continue on the many things I love, find entertaining or just makes me smile about Haiti. Here goes!

Tap taps: not the most comfortable ride, but these vehicles are a country in themselves. Stick out your hand, one magically appears and you hop inside. Maximum capacity is 21 people, although I’ve seen some with much more. And that’s not including the goods and belongings packed on top. And I should mention that these vehicles are 1980s Toyotas… Tap taps are the cheap public (though privately owned) transportation. They’re everywhere and can get you anywhere. I love that each one is decorated differently. They’re all painted – usually bright red or yellow but you see blue and green too (my favorite). On the sides will be flowers, birds, trees as well. My personal favorite touch – without fail – is the prayers that are written all over the front. Most even have prayer stickers over the better part of the windshield so that the driver can barely see. These prayers, sayings, phrases and what have you vary greatly in their content and what they’re asking and it is always fun to read them while traveling around OCap. A few of my favorites; God help me, deliverance, grace of God, trust me, sexy love, sexy baby, psalms 90, Christ capable, thank you mother, good God good. Another bonus – music is always playing the tap taps so you get updated with the latest kompa hits. It’s basically a traveling top forty radio show.

Baby animals: Yes, my obsession with goats has continued from Haiti to Senegal, but seriously, if you looked out your window and saw baby goats jumping and kicking around, you’re cold cold heart would melt too. I love the baby animals here. I mean, everything from the people to the goats, dogs, chickens, horses are stunted here to begin with. Sometimes I feel like I’m in Lilliput. But that’s what happens when you are chronically malnourished for generations; you become shorter and never reach your genetic potential. Anyways, I digress.

Baby animals. So fun to watch. And there are so many here. Baby goats will always be my favorite. But the puppies here are also something to behold. And often, I get the two confused from far away. They look exactly the same; shaky legs, floppy ears, noncommittal directional walking. Baby cows are another favorite, mostly for the eyelashes and the over-developed sense of dependency to their mothers. Chickens are okay, but so many chickens live right next to the road and so watching a mother with sevens babies slowly lose them to road kill is kind of depressing. Baby pigs are a newfound favorite. These didn’t exist in Senegal, for obvious reasons, and they are everywhere here. Given Haiti’s history with pigs (I’m not explaining here – if you’re curious, look it up, it’s a great example of horrible development ideas) I’m even more fascinated. The little guys move in a pack and they move fast – who knew pigs were like the marathoners of the farm? Little ears flopping, curly tails wagging they are so fun to watch.

And watch them often I do. My office has windows that look right out to a beautiful field. There is a huge mango tree and lots of grass. Pigs, cows and goats roam free and there have been lots of baby animals prancing around to distract me.

Tropical fruit: When was the last time you bought fresh mangoes, pineapple, or coconut water? When was the last time you bought all that for less than a dollar? Now I am not a fruit person, I don’t like to eat it, and rarely do back home. Fruit is often just too acidic or sweet. I prefer to eat like a rabbit – the more veggies the better. But here I love the fruit and right now is one of my favorite times of the year – mango season! There are dozens of varieties here but I have a few favorites; Rosalie – perfect for juice making, Two Duc – super sweet and juicy, Fransique – Really big and kind of tart, Baptiste – Lots of fruit, sweet and hardly any strings. These days I can get six mangoes for 25 Gourd – about 70 cents. It’s great. Another favorite to buy off the street – coconut water. It being the Caribbean, there are coconuts everywhere. For 10 Gourd – about 26 cents and entire coconut is mine. Each coconut has between a half liter to three fourths of water. Super cheap, super refresher, and so much better than the expensive processed coconut water the health nuts buy in the states.

And finally, mountains; There is a famous Haitian proverb – dye mon, gen mon – beyond mountains there are mountains. It really means there is more to Haiti that meets the eye. And the mountains here are perfect examples of this. OCap is surrounded by them and each one brings its own little surprise. Climb one and bam! There’s the ocean. Climb another and you are at the Citadelle still standing guard to invaders after hundreds of years. Drive over another are there is a little village shaded by mango trees with vendors selling mangos and yams on the side of the road. Pass many more and the plateau opens up. The mountains here are beautiful. The rise literally right out of the ocean, the clouds always hang close. They’re protecting and silent, yet imposing and unforgiving. And they offer a wonderful view from my balcony.

So that’s just a sampling of a few tidbits I encounter in my daily life that make it so fun to be here. Hope you’ve enjoyed!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What I like about Ayiti

I can’t believe how quickly time is passing here. It’s been a while since I’ve posted last time – and an even longer time since I’ve posted something that isn’t related to my work here. So here goes; a post about a few of the things that I’ve come to really love and appreciate about Haiti.

Fast food; I don’t mean mc d’s or arby’s or kfc or anything just as explosive – ahem – taco bell. I’m talking straight up can’t get it anywhere else Haitian street food. It comes in all types – always hot and fresh, very cheap and my favorite part; every vendor has a different recipe so you always get something different. A few of my favorites; plantains. These are addictive. Seriously, I go through withdrawal almost daily. And I justify the amounts that I eat because I know that I can’t get plantains on the mainland and seriously – where would Wisconsin get plantains? These guys come in all shapes and versions; chips, pressed, cooked and all are delicious. Another goodie; pate. Not pate as in ground up questionable meat you eat with a cracker at the hideaway. Pate like a stuffed with goodness fried hot pocket. There are all types; pate with cabbage and tomato, onion and chicken, mushrooms, hot pepper – each one is a little surprise. And finally; piklis. The wonder topping that goes on anything. It’s made from cabbage, carrots, hot pepper, vinegar, garlic and sour orange. Again, everyone makes their own version so some are pretty mild in hotness while others can be very spicy. It’s a great topping that goes on literally everything. I love it and eat so much of it my lips usually go numb.

I have my favorite vendors of course. There are two sisters who have arguably the busiest stand in all of Cap-Haitien. And yes, I am a VIP client. Their pate is so delicious and it is mystery meat free – a rare feat here. Plus, if they are out of something they will rush to make some more of it just for me. And I always get a little extra piklis.

Music: There are tons of different types of music here and the influences abound; there’s the rhythms and drumming styles of West Africa (holla back Senegal!) the percussion of the Caribbean, North American a la hip hop, classic folk via blues and blue grass. Yet, it is specifically Haitian. There’s the romance of kompa, the crazy Karnaval tunes of rahrah, and my favorite – Haitian folk. Yes, it’s traditional but there’s always a modern spin to it. Each of these songs tells a story whether it is happy, sad, funny – so if you got time check them out. A project that a few friends are working on; Lakou Mizik. There are some wonderful videos online by some wonderfully talented musicians. Just a warning, the videos are beautifully done but pretty damned catchy. They will be in your head for days.

Beaches: I’ve said it before how surprisingly amazing the beaches here are. And they still are. Breathtakingly beautiful, clear blue water that is every shade of blue to green you can think and then ten more. White sand, quiet, wind rustling through coconut trees, hidden coves. It’s beyond fantastic. My particular favorite is a beach called plage paradis – it’s only accessible by boat but once you get there fishermen greet you with crab, fish and lobster they just caught. (and the lobster is the size of my dog. Not. Joking.) the water is shallow so you can walk out almost 100 yards before you can’t touch. Flowing into the sea is a freshwater natural spring so the water is always cool. It’s idyllic and I get to go there every weekend. Oh, and there are waterfalls too.

Everyday people: You know that feeling when you move to a new place and you start venturing out to eat, drink, be merry and finally – finally! – you become a regular and everyone knows your name? I got that status immediately in Senegal, mostly because there were only two toubaks for literally miles and one was small and blond and the other was big and brunette. Easy to keep track off. In Haiti, for many reasons good and bad (which I will not get into otherwise this will turn into a very long post) it’s different. There are foreigners everywhere. We’re called blan – white – and are shouted such wherever we go. It’s annoying, but again, I’m used to it and my ability to tune it out is still one of my eight superpowers.

However, there are a few people who have come to know me more than just another blan. These are people I see and interact with on a regular basis. They usually provide me food in way or another (pate, plantains, coconut water, veggies, mangos…) but still, being able to walk up to them, greet them and talk with them and known as just another customer is a great feeling. I’m not singled out, charged twice as much, hassled – nothing. I am someone looking for a mid-day snack. A few of my favorites; Ivrose who is my snack vendor. See the paragraph above about fast food. Enough said why I love this woman. A few additional snack vendors at my schools – these women are great. Always friendly and happy to see me. And they’ve both been pregnant while I’ve been working so being who I am, make sure they are a) going to their prenatal visits b) taking their prenatal vitamins c) having birth assisted by a trained midwife. There’s also my drink family who I stop and grab a limeade about three times a week, the two young bucks who fill my drinking water for me, the happiest money changer in the world, my phone credit guy who always asks about my family back home since he knows he provides the credit which allows me to talk to them. I love interacting with these people and they always make me happy and put me in a good mood.

And finally… my apartment: Not just the palace that is where I live. No mud, no termites, but rather a balcony, kitchen, working bathroom, living room and bedroom (WHAT?!) My apartment is just one of about eight buildings in a larger compound. Each building has about four to six apartments and most are filled by UN workers, development workers, or other foreigners. We even have a small restaurant that serves some of the best food I’ve had in country. What I really love about this place is the sense of community it provokes. There are Americans to be sure, Canadians, Africans, Europeans, and more. Everyone is friendly to everyone else and it’s not uncommon to be impromptu invited to have tea or dinner someplace. It’s peaceful and quiet and beautiful. I have an exquisite view of the Citadelle – the most famous site in all of Haiti from my rooftop. I can see parrots play in the trees from my balcony and I can hear gatherings going on as I fall asleep at night. Spoiled really, but I am so thankful for this little oasis.

That’s all for now, I’m off to the schools to begin our last month of the study. It’s crunch time! More things I love to come next post as well as a project update!

Cheers!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Differing Environments

Being the social scientist that I am, I am fascinated and always amazed at the environments the kids in my student learn in. Like most developing countries – there are the standard crowding, lighting and circulation issues, but each school has these issues in so many different ways. To illustrate, I’ll compare our two mamba schools; Henri Christophe (HC) and Oasis.

First, what these schools have in common. Every student in every school wears a uniform. Each school in Cap-Haitien has a different one in order to tell which kid goes where. The uniforms for HC are blue checked shirts with blue pants. Oasis has orange pants and beige shirts. The school day starts at 8 am and goes until 12 pm. There is one recess. Subjects taught include geography, science, math, French, Creole and history. Three times a year students take week long tests. The grades they receive on these tests dictate whether or not they pass and move onto the next grade. This is for all schools. Now onto the differences.

Oasis is one of our largest schools in terms of enrollment. There are roughly 600 students in the school with just over 300 participating in the study. Each grade has two classes and there are also the preschool and kindergarten versions. Every class has between one and two teachers, plus there is two administrators and two groundskeepers.

The school is private, part of Baptist church in the area. This means that families pay a larger tuition for kids to attend. While almost all schools will have a tuition, private schools are more expensive but often offer better teachers or other perks like sports, school lunch, English classes, etc.

The school is located just on the outskirts of downtown Cap-Haitien. It’s on a busy road that leads to the market so there is always traffic. Just outside of the school are vendors selling snacks, food and other household items. There are three buildings which make up the school. Two are within the school’s gates and one is on the other side of the road. There is electricity, a water pump, and three flush latrines for the students to use. The classrooms are decorated with paintings and posters.

HC on the other hand is a public school located in Petit-Anse, a low-income neighborhood on the outside of town. There is no tuition for students at this school because it qualifies for a new government program in an effort to start free education nationwide. There are just 140 kids in the school – 110 are in the study. There are five teachers and one administrators for six grades. There is also a groundskeeper who will help out with repairs around the school.

Here’s the kicker. HC is a modern-day one room school house. The entire school is open to each other so there are no barriers between the classes. There is no water source and there is a hole in the back corner for kids to use for their latrine. The front of the school is a bridge over an open sewer. And there isn’t much in front of the school and only one lady selling any sort of snack or food for the kids.

So there’s some huge differences. Oasis is adequately staffed and HC isn’t. Oasis has separate rooms for classes while HC has every class hearing every other class, causing huge distractions. One of schools has water – for drinking (especially when schools get hot) and washing their hands and one doesn’t. There are latrines at Oasis so students are able to go to the bathroom cleanly while HC basically uses a spot in the back of the school. Not sanitary. One school benefits from being in a high-income area while the other is in the middle of one of the poorest areas within the metro area. Big differences.

While all of the schools in my study are lacking many things that ‘we’ (North Americans) think are vital to have in order to have a positive, effective, nurturing school environment they don’t have them here and still kids learn. And they love learning and they love being in school. I guess I am just amazed at the resilience of these kids and that they will sit in a hot, crowded, noisy room every day without eating or drinking anything just to learn some grammar.

Out of Our Control

There are many barriers to implementing and research project. In studies such as the one I am working on, you want to be able to control for as many things as possible. Control basically means keeping things as equal between the groups as possible. This includes factors inside and outside the school; number of students at the school, economic position of the students’ families, number of boys vs. girls, ages of the students. But in real life, there is very very little you have control over in your own life and even less in a study such as this. Take a little thing like Mother Nature…

Snow days. Every child’s fantasy once that temperature goes down and the days get shorter. For kids up north, hardly ever realized because as much it may snow, there exists plows, salt, and the infamous two hour delay. But every once and a while, out of sheer volume of blizzard-like proportions there’s a snow day. Here in Haiti, it’s rain.

And not just your lazy Sunday morning rain, sip a pot of coffee all day long rain, read a few chapters, knit a few scarves rain. No. More like monsoon rain. I’m talking rain that pours and pours and pours for hours on end. Rain that creates flash floods, mud slides, gorges down the mountains. Lots of rain. And what happens the next day? Cap-Haitien literally becomes an island in itself. There’s nowhere for the water to go except downstream. But what happens when that stream gets back-up or cut off from the ocean because of construction, trash and debris? It floods roads and more importantly, people’s homes. They can’t go anywhere or do anything until the water eventually recedes. This can take days.

And schools close. If teachers don’t want to brave the flooded roads – or can’t find transportation to take them through the flooded roads, they can’t teach. If parents can’t – or won’t send their children out into the flooded street to go to school, they can’t learn. If the school itself is under water, creating a breeding haven for mosquitos (which carry malaria, dengue and other horrible shit) it can’t be open.

This doesn’t just happen once or twice a year, but drastically affects the amount of school days that are actually open. Haiti has two rainy seasons. The big one is in October/November and comes with hurricanes. This school year, for nearly two months the kids had maybe a week or two of school because there was just that much rain. Which seriously hindered our ability to begin our project and in fact, delayed the start of the distribution until after Christmas break. This shortened the project from the original length of the school year (none months) to just five. Ugh. Now, April and May – the second rainy season. Although smaller, the rain is now unpredictable. It can come at any time and no one knows for how long it will rain. It could be for twenty minutes like two nights ago. Not a big deal. Or, it could be for four hours like this past Saturday, flooding everything. A big deal.

Again, it’s unpredictable so some schools on Monday could still be flooded and others not at all. And rather than a school district deciding whether to close all schools in an area, it’s up to the school director to decide. So if you happen to go to a school with a not so passionate, actually kinda lazy director you won’t have school and you won’t get mamba and you won’t be learning the same amount as other kids.

As you can imagine, this is a much larger problem than just for this study. But for us, it’s frustrating. We want the kids to be eating the mamba as much as possible – but in order for that to happen, they have to be in school. And we want every kid to be eating the same amount as any other kid, aka we want ALL the schools to be open when ALL the other schools are. When they’re not, the kids aren’t benefiting from getting an extra food source and it makes the data we collect harder to show an impact. We could have a great product here; it could be an amazing program that can seriously impact child micronutrient deficiencies. But we may also never know that because there are so many things out of our control that keep the kids from getting those benefits. A big hurdle that we have no control over what-so-ever. So while you have to accept Mother Nature’s wrath or blessing, you also have to realize what you’re giving up.

On an unrelated note, this March my study had some great visitors from Edesia, the company that makes mamba. They were able to come and visit the schools, hang out with the kids and watch as we collected our midline data. If you're interested in seeing some of the great shots their photographer snagged, check out the link to their Picasa page. Also, check out their website to learn more about mamba and other products that they make. Great people, great work and a pleasure to have worked with them.

Pictures: https://picasaweb.google.com/EdesiaGlobal/EdesiaVisitToHaitiMamba#5859271158546230594
Website: www.edesiaglobal.org