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Haiti Day 3: Koumon ou rele? by Jess K. '10

Which is Haitian Creole for "What's your name?"

Yesterday was one of those days where we were fortunate enough to have a cloud covering, so though most of the day was hot, it wasn’t stifling. Today was stifling. Today was sauna in an oven on the sun. Sweat poured down my face and into every crevice of my body. On top of that, the streets of Port-Au-Prince are extremely dusty, so by the end of the day we were so grimy that Amritaa ’10 wiped her face with a cotton swab and found it to be pitch black. Mmm.

Today began with a trip to the mechanic at the Technique Club Garage, about half an hour away from our hotel. Darryl and Marvin ’10 are working on a project that uses pedal power to generate electricity through an alternator, to be used to charge a cell phone battery at bodegas or local shops, so they’d planned to visit a Haitian mechanic to discuss the feasibility of the idea and put the machine together. Our mechanic was a really friendly guy who picked up on the idea right away. In fact, he even began adding his own contributions to the project, drawing out alternate designs that they could use. The limiting factor was, as usual, electricity – his power had gone out that morning and wouldn’t return until the afternoon, so since he didn’t have the capability to weld anything we told him we’d return back before the day was over.

We had one particularly awesome moment with him when he kept saying “facil,” meaning “easy.” Marvin asked “If it’s so easy, then why haven’t you done it yet?” To which the mechanic replied, “Because I didn’t have the idea.”

After leaving the parts that Marvin and Darryl had brought from MIT behind, we headed off to Darbonne, the epicenter of the earthquake, to see the school where the Waveplace pilot program was being executed. We were a bit early for the meeting, however, so we stopped by the side of the road to look around one of the tent cities and wait for our friends from last night. While we were waiting, a fourteen-year-old boy wandered up to us and began speaking to us in Creole. Marvin, who speaks French, asked him if he spoke French as well, and the boy said yes – but he couldn’t understand most of the things Marvin was saying to him. He did, however, understand when Marvin asked if he liked music – and replied with “Akon!” So Marvin handed him his iPod, and then we were serenaded with Akon’s “Beautiful” by a fourteen-year-old Haitian kid. Which is probably one of the top ten things I’ve ever experienced, save for surviving Mt. Fuji and flying an airplane. (Shortly thereafter, our professor emerged from the trees and was like, “WHAT are you doing to that poor guy?”)

(I should note that we have extensive photo and video documentation of all this, but it’ll have to wait until I get back to more stable internet connection. Aaand literally as I just wrote this, the power went out.)

The Waveplace people – Beth, John, and Bill – arrived to take us to Darbonne, where we sat in on a meeting with several of the mentors who worked with the kids and the XO laptop. Most of the meeting involved discussing the educational goals of the program, but we also talked about the structure of Haitian education as a whole, as well as the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program in Haiti. The Waveplace program, which is distinct from the OLPC program, lasts six weeks and is the third of its kind. Its main focus is to see how children learn best using the eToys software – a programming and storytelling software – and how these programs can be improved in the future. After the program is over, the XO laptops stay with the children forever, although there is the problem of energy – most all of the children do not have electricity at home, and as such can only use it for a limited time after school, where most of the exploration and self learning happens.

After the meeting, we headed over to the school, where we hung out with the children during their class time and used the bare minimum of Creole we had learned (mostly just “Koumon ou rele?”, or “What’s your name?” I also learned “Kilaj ou?”, or “How old are you?”, but since my French is pretty lacking I couldn’t always tell what they said in response. Should’ve paid attention more in school..) Watching the curiosity and creativity brewing there was amazing. As I mentioned, Waveplace is separate from OLPC, but the programs share a lot of similar goals in getting the children to love learning – which is especially important in Haiti, where many schools still use rote memorization techniques. Professor DeGraff also told me that when he was a child most all schools were taught “to be silent in French”, since using French is seen as a status symbol here, and even though everyone speaks Creole most schools still teach in French. These classes, however, were all taught in Haitian Creole, and the children were as raucous and joyful as any fourth or fifth grade class in the United States might be.

We said goodbye to our new friends and returned to the mechanic, where we dropped Marvin and Darryl off for two hours while the rest of us went to a university-turned-camp. There we met the president of the university, who is also Haiti’s leading expert on earthquakes. He told us that there were 20,000 people living at the camp on their campus, or about 4,000 families of around 5 people each. He also explained that the camp was run by ADRA, an NGO, and that the university had not been in session until about two weeks or so ago. Now that the students were coming back to school, both refugees and university students attended classes together.

We returned to pick up Darryl and Marvin, and made the long trek home, where I incubated our water samples from yesterday. During dinner, we sat with a group of nurses who were working with International Medical Corps, who told us that they had been working for around two weeks and were mostly leaving the next day, although one was planning on staying until June. They told us about their major problems – infrastructure, access to reliable lab results, lack of equipment and specialist physicians – as well as shared a few crazy stories, such as the man who had taken a machete to the head and had to have a craniotomy performed right on the ER floor, since the OR was too dirty. They also invited us to come with them one day and observe, so hopefully we’ll get to go either Thursday or Friday.

Professor DeGraff’s brother and sister-in-law also came and met with us for dinner, who told us a lot about Haitian politics, and Clinton’s involvement in the relief effort. What I found most striking was that the current president, Preval, has been in power for ten years – and is the only Haitian president to have served out a full term without being overthrown or driven out of the country – but there’s still so much dissatisfaction with him, since people believe that he hasn’t accomplished anything in his two terms. There are rumors that he’ll try to revise the constitution to serve a third term, since there’s a two term limit – to which I asked what the restrictions were to revising the Haitian constitution, and Professor DeGraff’s brother replied: “All you need is the political will, and a signature.”

Shortly after I put my samples to bed and headed up to wash off all the dirt – you know it’s bad when you blow your nose and it comes out gray – and jump into bed. Tomorrow, we’ll return to DINEPA for the WASH cluster meeting, as well as meet with students from Dale’s cousin’s university and go to the Haitian television station for the broadcast. For tonight, I’ll keep trying to get the dust out from between my toes. And fingers. And ears.

4 responses to “Haiti Day 3: Koumon ou rele?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This sounds like an amazing experience. But, how are you going to catch up on your other classes when you return to MIT?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Wish you all the best over there. But you may not want to use this Blog as your diary. smile

  3. Anonymous says:

    @Anon: from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/blog:

    Main Entry: blog
    Part of Speech: n
    Definition: an online diary; a personal chronological log of thoughts published on a Web page; also called Weblog, Web log