It turns out that not everything in Haiti is improving.
I was headed back from Lagonav this morning. It was in a good trip, because I had had a decent night’s sleep. Rather than getting up in Matenwa at 2:00 AM, I had left Matenwa Sunday afternoon, and slept at a friend’s in Ansagale, the port that boats for the mainland leave from. This meant that I could sleep until 5:00 or later and still get the 6:00 boat. It also meant I got to spend a very pleasant evening with Freda and her three kids.
When I got to the wharf, I bumped into some friends who were heading in the same direction as I was. We got onto the boat together, and then got the same bus to Pòtoprens.
One of the annoyances of these bus rides used to be that you were likely to have someone stand up and deliver a long, loud sermon. You’d be expected to keep quiet so that he – it was almost invariably a man – could give a version of the same old talk about putting oneself in Jesus’ hands.
Now, I don’t object to people having strong religious beliefs. On the whole, however, I’d rather not hear about them. I’m much more impressed by the wonderful things that many of the people around me do for one another every day than I am by a speech about convictions I’m supposed to hold.
For awhile, though, these sermons were replaced. Especially on mid-length bus routes like the one from Karyès, the port of entry from Lagonav, to Pòtoprens, what you would hear is pharmaceutical salesmen – or, rarely, saleswomen. They would stand up and try to generate interest in their various Haitian and foreign wares: a wide range of pills, liquids, and creams ranging from Haitian cough syrup to Chinese pain ointment to Indian or Indonesian antibiotics. You could never be certain what you might come across. They might have various Haitian herbal or folk remedies, and, like American drugstores, they would sell soaps, lotions, and toothpastes as well. I was never that interested in the items, but the sales chatter was easier to listen to than the sermons had been. And, like the sermons, they meant that the driver would not be blasting loud music over the radio.
In the last couple of weeks, however, things have taken a serious turn. Now before starting their sales pitch, the hawkers deliver a long sermon. I’m not sure who it was at Abdai, the company that employs many of them, who decided that sermons would increase sales, but I hope it’s not true, because now I have to listen to a whole lot of both.
Of course, that’s not much to complain of. There are more serious problems in Haiti. I was thinking about all this as I walked through putrid mud, two inches deep, along the road that leads between the Okap bus station and the base of Route Delmas, where I would get a tap-tap up the hill. It’s been raining regularly in the Pòtoprens area for the last couple of weeks, and the water descends from above Petyonvil, through Delmas, to this road. It doesn’t drain well, so the area can be quite a mess.
Even this used to be much worse, however. When I first starting visiting Haiti, the road was only spottily paved. Ditches and puddles of mud a foot deep or more were common. And “mud” fails to express how nasty the goop really was. And last year at this time, the road was more-or-less impassible on foot because it was such a dangerous part of town.
But one serious problem that just seems to be getting worse is the water situation on Lagonav. I spent much of Sunday in Twoulwi, a seaside village in lower Lagonav with Benaja, a Matenwa teacher and community activist who’s involved in trying to address the water situation, and it was an experience worth sharing.
Benaja invited me on Saturday. He hadn’t known that I would be on Lagonav that weekend, but neither had I. It had been a last-minute decision that Abner, his principal, and I had made to take advantage of time freed up by another plan that fell through. Benaja would be getting a ride in a truck belonging to an NGO called Concern Worldwide, and the truck would return all the way to Ansagale, so it would be very convenient for me. I had only been to lower Lagonav once, when I walked there with Benaja’s colleague Robert to visit his sick brother, and I had not been nearly as far as Twoulwi. So I was glad to have the chance to see more of the island.
The truck got to Matenwa at about 8:30, only ninety minutes late. I knew that the plan was to hold a community meeting about water problems with Twoulwi residents after they left church. Benaja had hoped that we would get to Twoulwi before church was over so he would be able to announce the meeting to a captive audience, but the late start had killed that idea. He and his colleague from Concern would have to do their best to collect folks when we arrived mid-morning.
The ride to Twoulwi is long and hard. Twoulwi is on the island’s south coast, only about 20 kilometers from Matenwa through the Lagonav hills, but the road is so bad that, even in a very rugged-seeming Landrover, it’s almost a three-hour trip. It’s hard to describe just how bad the road is: narrow, winding, rock-strewn, steeply-rising-and-falling. Under the best of circumstances – and riding in the back of the Landrover were pretty much the best circumstances – you take a beating as you bump along the way.
It can be much worse. Later that night, Freda told me about the trip she made there with her older son, Egens. Their motorcycle broke down on the way home, and they had a six-hour hike just to get as far as their rural home in Ti Palmis. There’s very little shade along much of the road, and water is extremely scarce, so it must have been a miserable walk. Egens is 20, and he was a boy at the time, but he remembers the trip well.
On the way, we passed through mountain communities like Ti Palmis and Plezans, and Benaja began to tell me about the water problem they were trying to address. It has been a wet spring in Petyonvil and Pòtoprens, but lower Lagonav has seen no rain since September. In Plezans, he said that folks might have to walk two hours each way to find potable water. When I joked that I hoped they all had donkeys to help carry their load, Benaja simply replied that, during the dry season, donkeys die in route. They don’t eat enough to carry their burdens.
The water situation in Twoulwi isn’t quite as bad as Plezans. There are a couple of small springs in the area. But the water quality is poor: It’s salty and none too clean. Benaja’s organization, the Association of Peasants and Activitists of Lagonav (AAPLAG) and Concern were thinking of investing resources in helping to solve the problem, but they needed to get a good sense of the situation first. Not only do they need to know as exactly as possible what the water situation is, they also need to understand the community well. They need to know who its leaders are, who might be counted on to take an important role in managing a local water project. If outside organizations don’t do a good job of linking up with well-respected members of a community where they want to work, their efforts can end up doing as much or more harm than good.
When we got to Twoulwi, Benaja spent a few minutes generating interest in the meeting he wanted to call. He spoke to a half-dozen or so young people who were just hanging out, and waited. Within a half-hour, there were two meetings running. One was led by the colleague from Concern. It involved about forty adults. Benaja himself led the other, for almost as many kids. Both groups met in circles, and both meetings were focus groups, or group interviews. They were attempts to gather information about the community in general and the water situation in particular.
I spent most of the time in the group with adults, watching and listening. It was clear that they weren’t used to meeting for discussions in such large groups. At various times, I counted as many as 14-17 speakers either trying to talk over one another or talking to those closest to them rather than listening to what was being said.
The most interesting part of the meeting was when the group stopped simply talking and got to work. We had brought large sheets of paper with us, and the man from Concern put them in the middle of the circle, with a bunch of colored markers, and asked the group to draw a map of their area showing all the sources of drinking water and the paths to those sources. About a third of the group crowded around three or four men who picked up magic markers and started to draw. The discussion that ensued was lively – just as the argument had been up to then – but now it was very much focused. All the various questions of detail that are involved in mapping came to the fore, and within about fifteen minutes the group had produced a complex map which had the support of nearly the everyone there.
Benaja was finishing with the kids at about the same time. He had been asking them to talk about the sorts of difficulties they have because of the water situation, and they had a lot to say. Before we left, he spoke to the group. He talked to them about AAPLAG, and explained that the reason he was there with them is that the organization had no members in the area. AAPLAG members are dynamic community organizers, scattered all over Lagonav. The absence of an AAPLAG organizer in the Twoulwi area makes it something of an exception. Benaja explained how one qualifies to become an AAPLAG member, and let the group know that he hoped, in the not-too-distant future, they would have an AAPLAG organizer of their own.
It’s not yet clear what, if anything, the Concern/AAPLAG partnership will do about the water situation in Twoulwi or in other areas of lower Lagonav. Freda, who was my host that evening, is a former AAPLAG president, and she assured me that there are parts of the island much worse off than Twoulwi.
One gets so accustomed to simply turning on a faucet. Even in Ka Glo, where there are no faucets, safe, cool, good-tasting drinking water is never more than a few feet away. It’s a little hard to imagine how my life would change if securing drinking water became a major part of it. Much less if such drinking water as I could secure was never very good.