Sunday, November 23, 2008

Children and Farms

It’s really amazing how beautiful the Bayonnais Valley is. It’s lush and filled with banana trees, rice fields, and rows of sorghum blowing in the wind. There’s always water gurgling down the irrigation canals (at least during the wet season). The people are beautiful and always quick with a smile. Even the sternest of face, which is quite uncommon, can be turned with a quick “Bonswa”.

Of course, that is not to say that life is easy for the people of Bayonnais. Even though the valley is covered with crops, and there are three growing seasons a year, there is still not enough arable land to feed everyone. This problem gets even worse when you have, as they did 2 months ago, 3 hurricanes in a row that wipe out crops, destroy houses, kill people, and wash away what little belongings people have. The loss of crops is particularly devastating because that can mean that the farmer has no seed left with which to plant crops for the next season. The floods accompanying a hurricane, or even heavy rainfall can wash out the unpaved roads and bridges, cutting the community off from the rest of the world (as happened in September of this year).

This means that the nearby city of Gonaives is usually much better off than the valley, although this is not currently true. While the hurricanes caused great devastation in the valley, things turned out much worse in Gonaives. The city is in a basin on the ocean, and all of the rivers in the nearby mountains drain directly towards the city. This meant that, in the aftermath of the 3 recent hurricanes, Gonaives was completely flooded, with mud up to 10 feet high in places. This has completely shut down the city, including all of it’s services, such as electricity, water, and the local hospital, which apparently looks like a bomb hit it. Even though Bayonnais was damaged significantly in the floods, the valley has rebounded: new crops are planted, the road has been repaired, and things are more or less back to normal.

Besides the rich cropland and abundant water, Bayonnais’ biggest asset is it’s social strength. It is a small community, where everyone knows everyone else, and this leaves the community significantly happier and safer than in places like Port au Prince, which has more food and material wealth. There are no strangers in the valley, and if a new person walks in, they will quickly be asked why they have come. Since there is not much past the valley, they will probably either be here to sell goods in the marketplace or visit a friend or relative, in which case they will be quided to the right place. The people here don’t show any of the guarded wariness of the people in Port au Prince, or even in the small towns along Route 1 down the coast.

There is no need for a hi-tech communications system, since news flows quickly here. For instance, if Pastor Actionelle announces something in church, the whole valley will be aware of it in a day or two. One day when we where here, it rained in the morning and school was cancelled because the teachers couldn’t make it in from the city of Gonaives. When we asked how the children would know if school was cancelled or not, they didn’t really understand the question. After all, growing up in a farming valley, the children would simply know if they would be able to safely walk the 2 or more kilometers to the school. While students in America hope and pray for a snow day, I think the difference here is that the children here feel very privileged to be able to attend school, often as the first in their family.

My first experience with the kids in the valley was when I sat down on the front porch of the guest dorm at the school the first day. I quickly had several small children snuggled up to my sides, with the older children seated nearby, all eager for a glimpse of the newest strange blanc to visit their valley. The small children stroked my arm hair, and pointed at my earrings and tattoos, all rareties in the valley, while the older ones asked “What is your name?”, a refrain that would quickly become all too common. It was also very difficult to avoid slipping into the formal English that they had learned in school when replying that my name is Don, asking them “What is your name?”, instead of the more natural “What’s your name?

If you stop anywhere for long, you will quickly gather a crowd of interested children, the smallest of whom will reach up to hold your hand as you walk along. There is actually quite a bit of competition for the hand-holding, with the rule seeming to be that first come is first served, for the duration of the trip. That afternoon when we went to visit the newly constructed granary, we all walked with 3 or 4 children in hand, and several more crowded around; our own personal entourages.

The young girls seemed particularly interested in my earrings, since while many of them had their ears pierced, they rarely seemed to have earrings to wear. Quite a few simply had loops of string through their ears, while many just left them empty.

Aside from learning your name, the biggest thing that the children wanted was to be photographed. If you even showed the tiniest bit of camera, they would gather around you crying “foto, foto”. It was also almost impossible to get a picture of a single child in the school campus, because as soon as they saw that you were taking pictures, children would come running to make sure that they were in the photo, so a shot of a single child quickly became a group photo of between 6 and 12. After the photo, an even larger crowd would gather to look at it on the camera, with each child pointing in turn and saying “Moi” excitedly. Given that there are not a lot of mirrors in the village of Cathor, this may have been some of the few times they saw themselves. They all loved to pose, the boys with a googly-eyed hand sign, or simply the classic claw hands. The girls loved to squat down on the ground for their pose, or stand with jutting hips and arms akimbo.

One of the other engineers from San Francisco, Blake, had learned the national dance of the year the previous year, called Gai Pai, and would dance for the children. They loved it and instantly there’d be a throng of children twisting and spinning around him. Walking outside the campus, having heard of the Gai Pai’ing blanc, children would come up and ask me to Gai Pai, whereupon I would usually point over at Blake, not being as advanced in the local dance styles as he was. Several of us became known for several things; me for speaking Spanish, Blake for the Gai Pai, and Terry, our drag racing battery expert from North Carolina, for the balloons, chiclets, and recorders (fifa) that he handed out, and the children would come up to us hoping that we were the one they had heard about, causing numerous cases of mistaken identity.

Consistently, the one thing everyone can agree about in Bayonnais is that the children are the highlight of the trip, with their bright faces, beautiful smiles, and incredibly friendly demeanor. The adults are also among the friendliest people I’ve met, but they don’t walk down the paths holding your hand. Some might argue that we need to help the people of Bayonnais move towards a more sustainable future so that they’re not dependent on outside help, which is an excellent goal. However, these people fail to take into account the child cuteness and general friendliness trade imbalance between the US and Bayonnais. Everyone who comes there is glad to be there and tries to find excuses to come visit as often as they can so they can enjoy the cute child mobs and the relaxed atmosphere of the village of Cathor.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008


This week I travelled down to Haiti to volunteer with Engineers Without Borders at a local school. The school is located in the Bayonnais Valley, near Gonaives. It's about a 4 hour drive from the nearest airport (Gonaives is completely flooded after the recent hurricanes), and the last hour or so is up a winding unpaved mountain road that crosses several rivers. The bus drives through 2 rivers, and then finally crosses a bridge that EWB (Engineers Without Borders) built.

There is no electricity, sewage, or paved roads in the Bayonnais Valley. There is an irrigation system that provides pretty clean water from a local mountain spring, but that's about it.

The school and church was founded in 1993 by Actionelle Fleurisma and others, and has been helped for the last decade or so by the South Mecklenberg Presbyterian Church (SMPC) from North Carolina, along with several other churches. Amilore, one of the people that helps run the school told me that when Actionelle drove the first school bus into the valley, everyone stopped what they were doing to watch the amazing sight. They couldn't believe it when the school actually opened, and they were really blown away when SMPC flew a helicopter with emergency food into the valley after Hurricane Gustav this year. They had seen helicopters passing overhead before, but no one ever expected one to land in the valley.

Engineers Without Borders installed a solar system at the school to power reading lights for the students and a computer system for the school administrators.

We came down to do some repair work on the system, as well as survey work for some repairs on the road to the bridge and soil tests for the septic system for the new hospital.

OFCB (Organisation de la Force Chretienne des Bayonnais), which is the Haitian group that runs the school and church (Orginizacion Force Chritian de Bayonnais), has been sending students away to college to come back and help in the valley. They already have several students who've returned, and their first nurses and doctor are about to come back. EWB is planning the hospital/clinic building, which is very exciting. OFCB has the land, but it's up to us to figure out how to create a hospital in the middle of an area with no electricity, sewage, or real running water. Which, as I'm sure you can guess, is kind of difficult.

But we're engineers, so we like that.

It's been really amazing coming here to the valley. It's a beautiful place, and the people here are very friendly and kind. It's a small community, so everyone knows everyone else, and they all know who we are and why we've come. Within a day or two, people who'd never even seen my face were calling out my name and trying to talk to me in spanish, since they'd heard through the grapevine that I speak it. Haitians mostly speak Creole (Kreyol) and French, although the students also speak English, and some people speak Spanish so they can go work in the Dominican Republic.

Every where you walk, people greet you with a friendly Bonjour or Bonswa (same in French and Creole) and a really big smile. Of course, some kids do want candy or balloons or recorder flutes, or whatever it is that someone gave away during their visit, but mostly they just want to know your name.

It's really been a joy helping out down here, and I only wish I had more time to do it.

Which leads me to my next point. I've been up and working since 8 am, and now it's after midnight. Time for me to finish this post, shower, and go to bed.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Freedom in Tibet

My friend Tom just made a nice Free Tibet music video based on his filming during the Tibetan Olympic protests. Check it out.

Here are some of my thoughts on a free Tibet:

It's sad how quickly worldwide attention has fallen away from the Tibetan cause after the Olympics.

After having lived in China for a year, I personally think the only way to actually achieve anything is to aim for cultural and religious autonomy as a special cultural zone still within the chinese borders. It's not what everyone wants, but I don't think a free tibet is possible within the next 50-100 years, whereas a special cultural zone (similar to the special economic zones already in place in China) is actually feasible.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Politics and Government

As I sit here wondering who I'm going to vote for today, some thoughts cross my mind.

If people like Obama say "My religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman", then shouldn't marriage be sanctified by the church, not the state? Due to the separation of church and state, the state should ratify civil unions, and individual churches should ratify marriages, which would leave churches free to choose if they want to do gay marriages or not.

Wouldn’t that solve the problem?

Also, I think California's proposition process should be reformed by requiring that signature gatherers be unpaid, which would hopefully put an end to big companies paying for signatures to put some junk on the ballot and return it to grassroots movements.

Finally, I hate it that smokers tend to leave cigarette butts on the ground everywhere. While I don't necessarily want to outlaw smoking, I think it would be interesting if we had a law that forbade people from smoking anywhere there were cigarette butts on the ground, even if they weren't theirs. It might at least get people to pick up after themselves.

Now, off to the polls.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Riding across India

Well, I'm about to leave on what promises to be a pretty insane trip. A bunch of my friends are running in a charity auto-rickshaw rally (tuk-tuks) across India, and I'm going to go with them and ride an Enfield Bullet. We've raised a bunch of money to support Mercy Corps in some of their India projects and we're going from the south in Cochi (about 200 miles from the bottom) to Kathmandu in Nepal. No route other than that.

Wish us luck.

You can see more about it on the web page and our blog.

We are Crazed Weasels (Max, Don, Rachel, Matt) and the QuakeCityMadCaps (Annie, Dain, Adam).

Monday, September 10, 2007

Steampunk Treehouse

I just got back from Burning Man. It was an amazing experience, because this was the first year I participated in creating a large-scale sculpture. My high-school buddy Max pulled in on this project, and I am eternally grateful. Together with about 40 other people, we built a 30 foot steel tree with a Victorian treehouse in it and various steam whistles and effects.

Sean Orlando is the man with the vision, and he brought everyone together. One of the most amazing things about this project is that even though there were so many people involved, and the project was of such a large scale, there was basically no drama. People bought into Sean's vision, pitched in, and made things happen. Things just got done. A lot of the other large-scale projects had problems with budget, or volunteers, or just getting things done in time, but not the treehouse.

I didn't really do anything artistic on the project; I just did basic metal fabrication. I worked on the frame for the trunk, the skin on the trunk, the roof, and the branches. I really learned a lot about working with metal on this project. Some of the things I learned are:

  • One of the hardest things about welding is getting everything in the right place.

  • The other hard thing is the positions you have to get into to properly weld something.

  • Make it fit right.

I'm a little bit regretful that I didn't step up to own some tiny piece of art in the tree and make it my own, but not that regretful. I just showed up and did what needed to be done to get the tree finished in time, and I had a blast doing it.

I'm really excited to do more art, and more metal fabrication. I'm also really grateful to have met the other steampunks in the crew. It's a really amazing group of people and I'm just glad to be able to spend time with them.

You can see more about the treehouse at or at

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Micro-loans with

I've been thinking lately how I want to do more to help the world. Since I love living abroad and studying other languages, I've been thinking about moving somewhere, probably Southeast Asia, for a while and trying to start some kind of program to help people. One of the things that seems to make a lot of sense is micro-credit. This is where you loan small amounts of money to poor people who don't normally have access to credit. They can then use this money to start a small business, fix their home, or any number of things. Often, poor people are involved in production of some product or food item, but they have to borrow money from local moneylenders to buy the raw materials they need. The moneylenders often charge ridiculous interest rates of 100% or more. This ensures that they will recieve barely any money back from their efforts, since most of the profit will go to the moneylender. By lending to people at a normal interest rate, these people can take control of their lives. is a site I just found out about that allows people to be micro-lenders. Local partners find people who need micro-loans and post profiles of them and their businesses. People can view these profiles online and loan money to them. When enough people have loaned money to supply the full amount needed, Kiva sends the money to the local partner, who disburses it to the recipient and collects payments every month. They also send out occasional updates so you can track how the businesses are doing. Kiva tends to loan out larger amounts than a lot of micro-credit organizations, probably because it's not worth it for the partner organizations to post profiles for people who only need small amounts.

I'm really interested to see how this works out, as this is right inline with what I want to do, so I've donated some money to see how it goes. You can see my Kiva profile at

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