When your friends get back from an island that no one seems ever to have been yet somehow supports 90,000 people–inhabitants who've been wholly neglected by mainland Haiti even before the earthquake, you don't expect the consensus report to be "there are a lot of donkeys." I don't know whether this is a good or bad thing. Certainly an abundance of donkeys indicates that the roads and transportation are poor. But it also means that the island hasn't been consumed by more frightening things.
Which isn't to say La Gonâve is fine and dandy. The island is popularly considered the "Neglected Stepchild" of Haiti. The electrical grid does not extend beyond the port town of Anse-a-Gallets–the powerlines having "burned up" in the eighties–and seven of the nine wells on the island are damaged and unusable.
Lyndia and Adam met up with a local nonprofit called AAE (Association Amis des Enfants, or Friends of Children Association) that is mostly supported, it seems, by Italian and Australian philanthropists (the relationship there is still a bit unclear). The leaders of AAE–Nadal and Sameul–are La Gonave natives with a vision: to make the island a self-sufficient economic engine. AAE has opened a community center in Anse-a-Galets to teach English and computer classes–a victory in and of itself but their ambitions lie to the interior of an island.
The village of Palma isn't much more that a couple clusters of tin-topped buildings and a grassless town square. However it serves as a cultural hub for an entire region. A market springs up every Wednesday, and a private school offers education to those lucky enough to afford it. Nadal took our crew to an L-shaped lot where a crop of sweet potatoes was growing. Some of the spuds would have to go to make room for the free school AAE was planning.
Nadal and Samuel want to bring education to every child in the area–and a free private school is the way to do it. Shrinking the sweet potato crop will be a loss–but a short-term one. The school's curriculum is to include an extensive agriculture unit. The people of La Gonave need to support themselves, Nadal relates. The islanders can't keep relying on old eggs from overseas and their babies need nourishment. Another AAE focus is their chicken and goat program–every family should have three chickens to support themselves, and goats milk for their children. Many new mothers on the island cannot breastfeed. Learning how to raise plants and animals is for the people of La Gonâve as important as studying science or history.
Nadal also envisions a computer training center–a challenge for a region not connected to a power grid. Architecture for Humanity thinks they can generate their own power on-site. "One of the benefits of living in an arid region is all the sun pouring in," Adam Saltzman, a volunteer with Architecture for Humanity and an MArch student at University of Cincinnati, says. "And there's enough wind to support a couple [wind] turbines. With the proper energy setup, including batteries and a diesel backup generator, we can get a computer lab going no problem. This could really be an incredible service to the community."
Another challenge is sourcing construction materials. On La Gonâve they're hard to come by. Cconcrete block is manufactured on the island (of questionable quality) and everything else comes in on freight ships from Port-au-Prince.
One fix for this is professional training. A group of volunteer masons with AIDG were along for the trip. They gave a workshop over the weekend on appropriate construction methods for local builders. These classes will ensure that concrete block manufacture, construction and repair will dramatically improve. But it may not help AAE's overall vision of the island's self-dependency if ingredients such as cement cannot be found on La Gonâve.
Architecture for Humanity, meanwhile, is looking around for more local materials. "A traditional building style here is a light wood frame with woven stick panels for walls." Saltzman observes. "We can propose using a similar technique with these materials." Wood is a local resource, but the deforestation that has plagued the mainland did not overlook La Gonâve. A longer-term reforestation project would have to land on AAE's plate to ensure the longevity of this resource. "It's completely possible, but it'll take some stewardship, and a full operation won't come online for another several years."
Fortunately AAE has some connections. A shipping company based in Florida has committed to supplying materials for the organization's projects. They've agreed to ship materials directly to Anse-a-Galets, so AAE won't have to endure a longer shipping process via Port-au-Prince. A good start. But it'll take La Gonâve a woods to get out of the woods.