Posted by Karl Johnson on Jul 24, 2010
Related program: Haiti Rebuilding Center
Four people crammed in the back of a pickup truck cab doesn't make the river stone road climb any easier. I sat by the window with my daypack weighing in my lap. I had overpacked, and on jostles the bag kept pinching my hand against the door. At one point I opened the whole window and stuck my shoulder into the whistling air and rain pellets to give David more room. I lowered my SOX cap over my brow. All the people along the roadside gave me the same look. It's strange but true: you can't make a white guy sticking halfway out a charging pickup to blend in in Haiti. I indicated a series of gabion retaining walls along the roadside. Gabions are basically rock-filled cages that stack into massive but effective walls. These looked new. Linda remarked that the roads actually used to be better. On a jostle the daypack bit the web of my hand.
Linda was leading us to a village ironically called Vallée de Jacmel. It was a 40 minute drive from the river crossing just outside Jacmel. The people walking on the road could reach town in 3 to 4 hours–provided the waters weren't impassibly high. It was astonishing to see so many houses, some very impressive, and think of a fully-laden truck ascending the mountain.
We turned off this main road and quickly go to the site, which was shared by an abandoned concrete house and a corn field. A mud path continued one to a vista of a treeless valley strung with footpaths and dotted with shacks. A man or two would come down the path and split off, bounding down the slope to get to one of these houses.
What were these people doing out here? How could these communities possibly have formed?
I've heard a couple explanations. One is that the country is very much a frontier, that Haitians are moving farther out to stake land. The other story I heard is more of a collective reaction to periods of civil unrest. Whatever the reason, people living in these remote places should have the same access to proper education. Exactly how to approach this is still up in the air.
People at the Rural Haiti Project think they have a solution. We stayed with a team from New York visiting Jacmel for the weekend. They were investigating remote communities like Vallée de Jacmel to find the right place to set up an antenna. Rural Haiti Project thinks it's possible to broadcast an education, sending an entire school not by the truckload but through the airwaves.
Would it work? As an architect I see buildings serving a complex range of explicit and "invisible" functions. A building can do more than host a congregation of students or communities but furnishes very immediate and physical interactions. Teachers double as a community adhesive and must be local, familiar and personal. However an online people could reach a lot more people a lot easier than the schools we're accustomed to building. Maybe a hybridization between building and bandwidth can be figured out.
Having finished the site survey, we headed back, but not before picking up some folks to shuttle down the mountain. Schendy, David and I moved to the truck bed and settled in with a guy perilously holding a cup of milk with a paper napkin draped over it. It didn't rain while we were back there but we saw the water's effects on the mud-clay side roads that had caked our tires. At the base of the mountain we saw how the river had risen. People were clustered at either bank. An SUV was tenuously crossing from the other side, breaking the brown waters with its bumper. It passed a piggybacking couple. As it reached us our truck edged forward, honking, into the current. People looked at us for a ride as we pulled away.
The Rural Haiti Group weren't so lucky, having been denied access to Terre Rouge due to impassible rivers. We would leave them the following morning as they headed back to try again. I wondered how their project would advance if they couldn't make it.