Building Connections

Sean Hayes:

Replenished by a hearty breakfast spread of oatmeal and fresh fruit (pineapples, mangos, bananas), the ‘engineering contingent’ of our team crammed into a flashy red pickup truck and set out for our most critical mission of the week.IMG_7165

Having spent much of our previous days testing our shredder design, constructing a wooden stand and demonstrating its functionality to Ralph and Dayana, it was now time to take our design to a local trade school. For our vision to be realized, it is essential that we build local partnerships that can provide the resources, skilled labor and cultural know-how required to implement a sustainable briquette-making program. Leaving the densely populated main streets of Les Cayes, we entered the more rural countryside on our way towards the trade school.


Passing by market stands, grazing fields and rice patties, we took an abrupt left turn down what had to have been the bumpiest, rockiest, sorriest excuse for a road I’ve experienced in a looooong time. To our great relief, the trade school Ateliers Ecoles in Camp Perrin soon emerged from the among the trees. Towering warehouses dwarfed the surrounding vegetation as dozens of Haitians moved to and fro constructing metal frames for a school building, welding giant metal pipes and (as expected) staring at us, the strange new visitors.


We were quickly greeted by the director and founders of the trade school. After giving us a brief explanation of the trade school’s vision and history, we talked about the challenges of implementing our bio-briquette small business and discussed the possibility for future partnership in implementing scaleable, sustainable solutions in Haiti. Much to our surprise, they were already aware of this briquette making process, and showed us a machine they’ve manufactured for the shredding of the vertivert root (one of Haiti’s main exports, used as a binder in perfumes)


They reciprocated our enthusiasm for partnership in the creation and implementation of future solutions. We left this fruitful introduction feeling very hopeful for the future opportunities this partnership. We hope to work through Ralph and Dayana in the upcoming months to refine our shredder designs and see our next model fully manufactured in Haiti.



Star Party



Mars was the orange beacon among the stars of Scorpio, just rising above the palm trees in the East, Saturn hiding in there somewhere closeby, Jupiter directly overhead in Leo, and the crescent moon glowing low in the West. A perfect parade of planets for the first Les Cayes – UMass star party at Sainte_Marie des Anges school. As dusk came on, a large block of chairs were arranged on the basketball court, two telescopes set up, and children and their parents (mostly fathers) began to arrive. We had wondered if anyone would show, and were pleasantly surprised (if a bit overwhelmed!) by the turnout. Was I ever glad I’d scouted out the sky the night before, and memorizing my “sky tour” – can’t have people knowing that we astronomers don’t carry the current position of all celestial bodies in our heads at all times!



As 7pm arrived Ralph and I began our spiel – working closely with this accomplished Haitian astronomy expert was a blast. Somehow he was able to keep an engaging banter going between us all despite my infamous language skills. The audience had so many questions, and were eager to look though the long-touted telescopes. They were not disappointed, as the narrow crescent showed many mountains, craters and ranges along the terminator– plus a spectacular impossible-seeming peak at the moons pole, poking up into the sunlight from the shadowed side.

The audience had to wait patiently for everyone to get a look, but it was beautiful evening and everyone sat or chatted in small groups. A pale owl and several bats flew above us. Some of the younger kids had to be lifted up to the eyepiece or stand on the table -something we all got an added kick from!



Dayana and Tom were busy with a second telescope trained on Jupiter while Andrew took pictures of the night sky.

In between bands of clouds we explored Jupiter and it’s moons, we discussed the various constellations along the ecliptic, counted the stars in the Dipper to find the Alcor-Mizar double. My claim of 7 stars being quickly overruled by a group of girls that counted 11 – all agreed it was due to the much more beautiful skies of Haiti compared to Massachusetts.

By “home time” we had thoroughly discussed the finer points of interplanetary flight (how fast – how many times faster than a bullet? How DO you slow down again? How long does it take? – everyone still wants to go!), the latest news from Mars and the prospects for life in the solar system. Several kids and parents had clearly come armed with questions they wanted answering, and were not leaving without getting satisfaction! One of the most engaging and interested audiences I‘ve presented to anywhere.

After the kids had left, this being Haiti we *had to* put the party in star party! -a little late-night round of champagne with Principal Fr. Lesly and his staff. Prof Giles gave a fine speech and only half soaked the scene with his celebratory uncorking technique…..

Return to Haiti – a drive through the country.

Boarding our direct flight to Port Au Prince (with its name “Big Blue Bus” emblazoned on the nose) I was looking forward to the trip, and hoping that our new crew we’re ready for it. The flight was filled with a mix of Haitians returning home, and a couple of other groups heading down to run clinics in remote mountain areas, and install solar energy systems. As the plane began its decent I glimpsed the familiar scenery: the Turks and Caicos islands with their luxury resorts seemingly a stone’s throw from the deforested and desolate landscape of Haiti.


In the terminal a local band was playing a catchy tune, and I felt excited to be back. The warm air was a welcome after the long New England winter and not so warm spring!

We were met by Stephenson, the driver (and much more) from UMass Haiti development studies center. Stephenson smoothed our way through the throng of men trying to pick up passengers, one “Mr Big” (I kid not, he had a nametag!) being particularly insistent. I remember my rising fear on previous arrivals to Haiti, and Peru. I reminded myself that these are just people trying to make a living, and walked out in to the even more chaotic parking lot following our friend to the waiting mini-van. I could sense that our group had mixed feelings, but they all kept a stiff upper lip and soon we were on our way.


Into the chaos of PaP with its bustling streets packed with colorful market stalls –or what passes for stalls – but this is not your hipster farmers market. Fruit, old clothes, vehicle parts, roasting meat, live chickens, broken stuff of every description occupied every surface. All of it for sale. Dogs running around, pigs and goats cooling off in the open stream/sewage channels choked with trash. But beneath it all a kind of order and ordinariness could be discerned. Something I hadn’t noticed at all on my first arrival last summer. This is life here, and the people going about their business were clean and clad in clean clothes, they had nicer haircuts than me (although that’s a low bar!). Teenagers chatted with friends, boys gave girls rides on mopeds. The sense of threat and menace that had surrounded me last time was absent. I saw carpenters making doors and chairs, using traditional tools just like my dad, in their open-air workshops.


Mechanics fixing cars so wrecked that it was hard to imagine bothering to try. Probably risking their health constantly for lack of proper tools or safety equipment. How do you even get a tire off the rim with no power tools? A large group sat on the ground weaving baskets, hats, but no time to stop and buy any today.

We all noticed the sole foreign business – an improbable Mercedes dealership, and the nearby fortified UN compound –whose own website says they will not leave the compound under any circumstances – without armored cars and soldiers – makes me wonder if they’re exactly on the pulse of the nation.


As we progressed into the countryside we saw a lot of construction. Always rough cinderblock structures, most with the appearance of having been abandoned halfway through. From work on my own house I could recognize the often frustrating gap between the initial vision and how the job actually goes. I wondered about the families that had imagined moving into a new home. Are they still waiting? Did they move away? Will someone return one day and keep building?

Spectacular views crossing the mountains and rounding the coast. Frequent slow downs for villages where it was always market time.


Eventually after 5 or so hours the bus lurched and bumped its way into Le Cayes. A jubilant reunion with our friends at the center. A very different feeling from my arrival a year ago when I had closed the door to our room and told my wife Christine we’d obviously be leaving at first light next day. Luckily we didn’t, and ended up finding a wonderful city, despite its obvious challenges, and many new friends. Its only a week and no one has easy solutions to Haiti’s problems. I hope the UMass Lowell students spread the word about Haiti, and continue to build the friendship between our countries.