One Day in Haiti
A Different Reality Strikes
by Ray Pruban
I am a home builder with a background in mechanical engineering. As an American, I have often looked at third world countries and thought “they should just” do this or do that. Recently, I had the chance to go to Haiti with our church and World Wide Village.
On the second day, a few of the team members were asked to build a rain water catchment system for two homes. We toured the homes and saw that they had metal standing seam type roofs, but were built so poorly; there was no easy way to do this. A group of us made sketches and came up with ideas of what we thought would work. The next morning we made a list of tools we would need, (e.g. Generator, power tools, ladders, level, hammers, hand saws, nut drivers, extension cords, etc.). We also made a list of materials we would need. About 8:00AM four of us went off to the local home store, which was the Haitian equivalent of Home Depot, except it was about 1/10 or less the size. I would say it held 1/20th or less of merchandise, and I am being extremely generous with these estimates.
Then we began to look for the metal strapping we needed for the gutters we were going to make from 4″ PVC pipe. That’s when we were confronted with challenge two of the day…the home store did not carry the metal strapping we were looking for. Again, we began to scan the entire store to find something to “make it work”. I learned the Haitian term for this is called “degaje”, which basically means “jerry rig it”. After about another thirty minutes of looking for options, we found another bracket we thought we could make work. The brackets cost a few dollars a piece and we needed twenty-five of them. Again, the brackets cost much more than we were planning on spending, but we confidently paid for our merchandise and headed up to the town of Williamson, about an hour or so away.
Once we finally arrived at about 11:30, before we could begin work we needed to haul up the tools and materials to the job site, which was about 50 yards up the dirt path. No big deal, but then you notice…it’s really hot in Haiti. Sweat is ever present and the need to stop and take frequent breaks is not optional. You just have to move a bit slower when the heat index is 113+/-.
We decided to make a four foot sample to prove out our proof of concept and see if it would work. The first step was to start the generator, so we could cut the PVC pipe into a four foot lengths and cut it length wise to cut a channel out to mimic a gutter. That’s when challenge three hits. We went to pull the pull rope on the generator and the string breaks clean off. That’s when it hits me; this might turn into a very long day.
I’m the builder in the group and also happen to have a mechanical engineering background, so I self assess that I am the most qualified to trouble shoot the generator. I look at the tools we are going to need to attempt the generator repair and that’s when I discover it is a good thing we bought the whole nut driver set, because as luck (or God’s provision) would have it, the nut driver set we just bought will do the job. Even though things are not going to plan, we all feel a bit encouraged that maybe God is in the middle of all of this. It wasn’t a major miracle, like someone getting healed, but it was exactly what we needed in that moment.
I began to find the right size nut driver so we can attach it to the nut driver wrench. That’s when I noticed the wrench is sort of taken apart in the box. I try to screw it back together, but the wrench is broken and does not lock counter-clock wise making it impossible to take the nuts off the generator to fix the rope. In my head, I am began to think…how many things can go wrong in a day? That’s when I remember packing a pair of pliers just in case we needed them for “something”. Little did I know that that “something” would be this critical. If the generator is not fixed, there will be no water catchment system, at least not that day. Maybe it was just more luck…or had I heard God’s voice telling me to pack those pliers?
Within a few minutes we got the recoil off the generator and begin to feel hopeful we could fix it and all was not lost. Even though the rope was getting short from what appeared to be prior breaks, it seemed it would be long enough to start the generator. Two of us team members worked to put the generator back together. It was now approaching noon, it was getting hotter and nothing material had been accomplished thus far.
Once the generator was back together, I gave a pull and that’s when we are confronted with challenge five of the day. The rope broke again. We realized the rope was dry rotted and was no longer strong enough to start the generator, not to mention getting pretty darn short.
One of our team members was a cameraman and didn’t look like his shoes had been ever been dirty much less used at a building site. However he was the only one with shoes with long shoe strings and he suggested using one to start the generator. I dismissed the idea thinking we would have to run to town to buy rope (I am the engineer after all) and decided to wait until our Haitian team member, Roberson, returned and tried to move on with building the proof of concept.
We marked off a four foot section of pipe and cut it with a hand saw designed to cut metal, but it does the job anyway. We couldn’t cut it length wise without the power saw, so we decided to begin working on the attachment system.
The three team members began to position the PVC pipe at the roof with the clamps we bought and it immediately became evident that with the angle of the roof the clamps will not work as anticipated (challenge six). We were sort of in the middle of nowhere; so we just had to adopt the Haitian way of doing things which is to “degaje” or jerry rig the brackets. In the US, it would be unthinkable to hammer on brackets trying to reshape them (especially for a new install), but that is exactly what we began to do.
In the meantime, Roberson got back and we shared with him the news about the generator. He started to take the generator apart again while the rest of us focused on the brackets.
Another challenge we came across is that the brackets are quite thick and were not going to be easy to bend. I tried using the concrete steps as a base but the concrete was not strong enough and chipped the concrete. Roberson pointed to some rocks on the ground and suggested using them. There really wasn’t any other option, so we were reduced to hammering the metal brackets against rocks we found on the ground.
Just then the generator started. The cameraman provided his shoe string to Roberson who used it to start the generator. So much for my engineering background. Anyway, we celebrated the noise we would probably otherwise complain about. It was then about 1:30.
We hammered two brackets into the new shape, but the wood we brought was too thick to use as we had planned. What was another challenge at that point? I told the leader from World Wide Village to bring the 2 x 4′s, but somehow a one 1 x 6 got added to the pile of materials loaded on the truck. It turned out the 1 x 6 would work perfectly. We determined how long the boards needed to be (10″ each) and that we needed eight pieces. The board was 84″ long so we had four inches to spare. Was that another divine intervention by God or just dumb luck?
Time was ticking on and by 2:30 PM, four American men had succeeded in installed one four foot piece of gutter. At our disposal was all our American ingenuity and experience. We also had all the tools we thought we would need, transportation and money to buy anything we thought we needed. That’s when it hit me, how hard would this have been with no money, no education, no transportation, no tools, no generator and little money to buy any materials? It’s no wonder the Haitian people have learned to be so resourceful — “degaje” wasn’t about simply jerry rigging anything, it was about making whatever you had work to accomplish what you needed to do.
What I learned in one day in Haiti gave me a context that was extremely important. Even though we only brushed up against what the life of a Haitian must be like, it taught me we should tame our American attitudes and our “they should just” opinions. Until we are willing to walk in the shoes of another person, we really have no idea what we are talking about. I am grateful for the glimpse into Haitian life and the opportunity to learn this lesson and will try to listen and watch more.
By the way, the rain water catchment did not get done that day with 24 man hours invested, in fact other than the four foot proof of concept, nothing got installed. I think God got some work done though.