Our first full day in Haiti yesterday was exciting and informative, but also exhausting – I actually fell asleep while writing this last night, so let’s give this another try this morning, hm? We started off by going to DINEPA, or Direction Nationale de l’Eau Potable et de l’Assainissement, which is the national Haitian drinking water association – they organize a lot of health campaigns as well as water testing at the source, although most of the distribution is done by NGOs. Our first, rather impromptu meeting was with a man named Jean Francois, who was in charge of the sanitation campaign aspect. Jean Francois told us that most of the campaigns involved putting up posters, broadcasting public health announcements through radio and sound trucks, and going into the camps and putting on plays on the importance of boiling your water. He also gave us samples of the promotional material, a lot of which we had seen as posters on/above the streets; unfortunately, he didn’t have too much of the information we wanted, since we wanted to know how effective these measures had been – data he had yet to analyze. Still, it was fantastic to finally talk to someone in person after weeks of emailing, trying to get in contact with people working with water distribution in Haiti and having no luck.
Jean Francois sent us to Madame Elise, a woman involved in the testing aspect of DINEPA, whom we showed our testing kits. She told us she had used our method before and would be interested in helping us distribute them but needed to call around for us, which was again, really exciting – our biggest problem thus far has been trying to get in contact with people on the ground here, so to be offered instant help by the biggest water organization in Haiti was definitely a plus. We told her we’d be back on Wednesday for the WASH cluster meeting, a big organization put together by the UN based around water and sanitation issues, when we’d speak to her again.
DINEPA was actually not the first organization we went to – we’d also stopped at CAMEP, a company that distributed water to several camps, but were turned away because the man in charge there did not have permission from his bosses to speak to us, and as such didn’t want to say anything that could misrepresent the organization. His reluctance to answer ANY of our questions, even the seemingly innocuous ones like “where do you distribute”, was explained to me as fairly representative of business culture in Haiti by one of our Haitian professors, Professor Michel DeGraff. Our other professors are Dale Joachim, a visiting scientist to the media lab and a Haitian American, and Barry Vercoe, who works in music processing as well as with One Laptop Per Child.
After DINEPA, Amritaa ’10s noticed a radio/TV station across the street, where she wanted to go since her original project was in health education programs on Haitian Radio. So she and Marvin ’10 ventured in with Professor DeGraff, who returned outside shortly afterwards full of excitement. “You have to come in!” he told us. “The wife of the man who owns this radio station is my childhood friend, and she wants to meet you!”
And so, by complete coincidence, we entered the building to receive a tour of the station. The station was run out of a pristine-looking house, in sharp contrast to the other buildings we’d seen throughout the city center. The people working there explained to us that they’d been based more inside the city until they’d bought this house, and had been in the process of moving everything up when the earthquake hit. They also asked about our projects, and the man who ran the station (who incidentally looked and sounded a LOT like Quincy Jones – anyone? anyone?) said he liked what we were doing, and that we held a lot of power as young people, and that he wanted to broadcast us speaking about our projects for television. And that is the story of how we’re going to be on Haitian television. (!) I wish I brought something other than free t-shirts and sweaty jean shorts. Oh well, it isn’t like MIT’s hygienic image is getting much better.
After this fortuitous meeting, we stopped for lunch, after which we wandered around town for a bit more. We also visited Dale’s cousin’s house, whose husband is a dean at the state-owned university, and whose students will be visiting us on Wednesday. These students have been out of school since the earthquake hit, and the dean mentioned that although many of them wanted to help after the earthquake – as many of them were civil engineering students – the government has not issued any request for help from these students, so they haven’t done much. Dale’s cousins also showed us how their house gets power – basically by ten big batteries that get power from the city during the day, and at night they use an inverter. The city shuts down power during the night to save money since not many people can afford an inverter, and so most people go without power. I should also mention that many people have told us that there isn’t a great feeling for the government here. Many people don’t believe the government is doing everything they can to help the people, and are hoping for more significant action come the October elections.
From Dale’s cousin’s house, we returned to the hotel for our last meeting of the day, with three Americans who work with WakePlace, an organization that has a series of programs for the XO. These people had distributed forty laptops each to seven different schools in Haiti, teaching a drawing/storytelling/programming program called eToys for a period of six weeks. We spoke to them for over an hour about their stories from working with the children here – one encouraging fact is that the laptop does belong to the children, who take them home and often play with them with their families. After a long night of playing with the computers, however, many of them run out of power in the morning – and electricity is a major issue for these laptops. Dale had brought a solar panel from the United States to help with the electricity issue, but its power can only be used for so many computers.
Our final meeting of the day was another random encounter, in which we met a bunch of ER nurses who are actually from about five minutes away from my hometown. They told us that said they were with some program based in Southern California that sends nurses to help out for two weeks or more. One of the most difficult things about the experience, though, is that many of them don’t speak Haitian Creole, which is much more commonly used than French here. On top of that, since many of the Haitian doctors and nurses are no longer getting paid, many of them abandoned their posts after the earthquake. The nurses also told us they see a lot of tetanus, rabies, machete wounds (apparently machete is the weapon of choice here), and gun shot wounds, as well as hypertension and high blood pressure – since now people know they can get free care from these volunteer health workers, they just get sent down to the ICU.
After speaking to the nurses, we finished up our water tests and headed upstairs to tend to our sore feet and many mosquito bites. Today we’ll go to an XO school in Dalebrun, at the epicenter of the earthquake, to work with the children and see what they’ve come up with. We’ll also bring one of our water kits to potentially teach some of the children at the school how to test their own drinking water. Michel is also teaching us a little Creole, so – N a w√® pita! (See you later!)