This is a post by Sora Edwards-Thro, a 17 year old volunteer for Unleash Kids in Haiti. She is, even for this site, impressively young to be struggling with the complexities of development work. She will be using this site as a forum for talking through these difficulties and would be very welcome to advice from more experienced development workers.
I’m writing this from Haiti, with ten other laptops I’m going to be using to start an education project at my side and a Skype conversation with the board of directors of an organization supporting it open in another window. This blog is partly for you but mostly for me – no need for donor propaganda here; just some honesty about what it’s like to be plunging in to this sort of thing.
I’ve been in Haiti for a week. We’ll start the story at the first disaster (don’t worry: there are good parts too): I actually missed my first flight out, which could have been absolutely terrible. This project is completely supported by donors, and even if they would have been willing to pay for the cost of another flight to cover my mistake, losing that much of other people’s money that was intended to help kids in Haiti just because I couldn’t get to the airport on time would probably kill me a little inside.
Luckily, I just happened to be wearing a shirt that said “Apps for Edu” and told the lady about how I was late because I had been buying mice for laptops for charity. She managed to put me on the next flight out, enabling me to make all my other connections, and at no extra charge. So it all worked out, but it made me realize just how scary it really is to be responsible and accountable for donations, especially when those donations are intended to benefit other people.
Every dollar I have to spend to correct a mistake is one less dollar for the project.
This might just be part of how I work, too, though. I screw up probably a little more than someone who’s more cautious and I’ll expend ridiculous amounts of energy trying to fix whatever I did wrong. For example: after not sleeping for 48 hours (not the night before my flight, and not during my overnight layover in New York), I was too drowsy getting off the plane in Haiti to remember that I was supposed to be buying a NATCOM Internet stick [Ed: the first 3G plugin modem available in Haiti] and a Digicel telephone and ended up with a NATCOM phone and Internet stick. As soon as I realized my mistake I tried to return the phone and ended up talking to the cashiers for an hour, trying to convince them to take it back in Haitian Creole. They didn’t budge, unfortunately, but often that extra effort and a little bit of luck does make the difference and I can fix the things I break.
From the airport James, Junior and I went to Junior’s house. James is another young guy (19) starting another laptop project on a mountain near Port-au-Prince, and Junior is slightly older (25) and has been teaching a class with the laptops in Grand-Goave, a nearby town and another one in a nearby orphanage.
We were officially there to help Junior develop a newspaper at the Grand-Goave school but we had a lot of unofficial jobs as well. James and I worked together to develop lesson plans for the newspaper launch, and we figured out early on that we were learning a lot more from our experience than the kids would probably ever learn from those classes.
First of all, there were were a lot of unforeseen challenges: we were thinking we’d be teaching three classes with twenty kids each, bringing the total to sixty kids, but actually it was just three classes of twenty kids maximum, with the same ones showing up for multiple classes. There were also a big variety of skill levels, with some kids who didn’t know how to click and others who were ready to start some basic programming.
That, and we realized that our role wasn’t really to force the kids to generate some content but to expose them to new ways of creating content and new activities on the laptops. I showed Junior how to transcribe sheet music notes into XO keyboard notes that the kids can use to play songs. There were a lot of good moments throughout the week and the pressure was on us to then ensure that Junior would be able to reproduce them on his own after we left.
Early Sunday morning I said good-bye to Junior and started off on my 12-hour journey to Anse-a-Pitres,in the deep south-eastern corner of the country. I traveled with another volunteer, first in tap-taps and then perched on the top of an oil truck. Quite a journey!
We finally arrived, and it’s been an interesting two days so far. The organization I’m staying with is here to improve the environment , so there’s sort of a hippie flavor to everything (well, they describe themselves as productive hippies). I’m going to have to learn some things like going to the bathroom without toilet paper if I want to fit in here, but it’s interesting to spend some time being exposed to this perspective, and I’m actually enjoying the time I spend in the morning planting and watering trees. It’s nice to get dirty and to put something in the ground that wasn’t there before. I guess the only thing I really won’t get used to is how relaxed they all are – I’m used to spending all my time abroad rushing around from one activity to the next, and here most people actually relax all afternoon.
We had our first class yesterday – just kind of an intro to the five teachers I’ll be working with over the next month. Later tonight I go to a community meeting to speak about the project with them. There’s been a lot of enthusiasm so far, and a a local guy named Nixon who’s very involved had a long conversation with me about how excited he is and how he wants to see it continue. This week I’ll be spending two hours a day with just the teachers, trying to get them up to speed before we introduce the kids next week. Fingers crossed that the solar panels survived their tap-tap ride and can provide the power, and that everyone catches on quickly.
I know it’s going to be a lot of work to get this thing up and running, but it would be nice to have as few glitches as possible along the way.