Notes from the Field: From Haiti, With Love

By Jon Becker, TWP Board President

A short 2 hour flight from Miami delivered me from the order and predictability of the United States into the bedlam, rubble, and breathtaking resilience of this Caribbean nation who’s remarkable history rivals any on planet Earth.  It’s not hard to imagine the tropical island paradise that must have originally existed here – before Columbus, colonization, slavery, sugar cane empires, revolutions, wars, invasions, coups, and the earthquake of January 2010.  The people here have lived through everything, tend to have very few things (from a material point of view), and somehow seem to get up every morning to do the significant work that the day brings to them.  The streets are packed with people walking; heads often loaded high with baskets of food, clothes, or other goods.  The capital city Port-au-Prince isn’t just hilly – it’s like San Francisco on steroids.  And of course the roads are bad, and overcrowded with cars and trucks and motorcycles and Earthquake debris, yet people are swarming all over like ants, going where they need to go, doing what they need to do.  Did I mention that it regularly pours with monsoon intensity at this time of year, which of course doesn’t slow people down a bit?

VJ Jahangiri inspects a component of the Zanmi Pye Bwa cookstove

Yesterday, TWP Deputy International Director, Sebastian Africano, picked me up at the airport after my arrival at 8 am.  He was already moving in fast forward (including Central America full on chaos driving mode).  We battled our way through morning traffic to the new United Nations base (the old one was thoroughly destroyed, at great cost to human life, in the Quake).  We met up there with inimitable  International Lifeline Fund field leader VJ Jahangiri.  VJ has been the feet on the ground launching and directing ILF’s pioneering stove work in Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and now Haiti. We had one sit down with a UN staffer we wanted to see, the second office we went looking for had vanished.  Typical Haiti story I’m told.  The neighbors think they moved to another town, maybe we’ll find them.

Next stop is the ILF office and stove manufacturing site.  How Sebastian finds his way through the insane maze of streets, and without getting swiped by a truck or bus, or running over a pedestrian, is totally beyond me, but I’ve quickly learned not to question and to look down at my feet when it looks like collision is imminent.

A busy ILF office in Port-au-Prince

ILF headquarters is in a moderately converted house high on the hill overlooking the Gulf of Gonave.  Lots happens here, most exciting is probably the boys out back – hammering, cutting, shaping, riveting, coaxing sheets of steel into the Zanmi Pi Bwa, the “Friend of the Trees” cookstove.  Some would call them craftsmen, I prefer artists.  They’re a dozen or so young men recruited from off of the streets by TWP and ILF who create these beautiful, technologically sophisticated, life and environment altering stoves.  Everything is made totally by hand, not even a single power tool (both because these guys prefer it and electricity is not something to be so relied on here).  One gentleman cuts the disk that will be the stove’s base, he passes it to another who hammers the edge into a 90 degree bend that will mate with the sides.  Other groups work on the charcoal basket, a crucial component that needs to hold the fuel, supplying it with adequate combustion air, withstand the rigors of 1000 degrees of so temperature, last long enough to keep the cooks happy, and be easily replaced when it finally wears out.

Hard at work!

  And there’re stations for making the handles, the ash door, the pot holders, etc.  Finally, by some miracle (called production management), in the end there are the right quantity of each of these parts so that stacks of completed, ready-to-go stoves accumulate at the house rather than inventory of components.  As I write, I hear the BANG SMASH CLANG of these men at work.  It’s a beautiful sound to me (although I send my deepest sympathy to any neighbors within earshot).

 From here, we set off in a caravan that included ILF’s Patrick Chevalier and Dagne Casseus.  Dagne is one of ILF’s sharp and valuable field monitors.  One of the great lessons learned at TWP over the years is that the best technical stove design in the world isn’t worth the tin (or tile or mud) it’s made out of if it doesn’t suit the cooks’ sensibilities, which usually (but not always) means the women of the house.  The field monitors perform the indispensably crucial tasks of surveying, educating, and following up with users so that we can learn what’s working, what isn’t, and how we can improve operation, desirability, and ultimately sales of cookstoves.  We had the very deep pleasure of visiting two homes of families who not only use but are involved in the sales of the ZPB stove.  So, it wasn’t surprising that they spoke highly of them, but they also communicated (through Patrick, translating from the Haitian Creole) with real honesty and thoughtful articulation.  We got feedback on cooking, as well as pricing and marketing.

Seeing the working stoves in place in homes, and hearing how they had significantly reduced charcoal costs and improved lives was an absolute thrill for me – first day here and the trip is already more than worth it!  I reconsidered this conclusion during the two hours it took to make the trip back to our home base through rush hour and the rain, covering a distance that might take us 20 minutes back In the USA.  After dinner and a shower, I stand by my earlier impression.

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Trees, Water & People is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to developing sustainable community-based conservation solutions.

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