Saturday, November 25, 2006

Filling the Water Jug

The details tell a story. Take the water jug in our little refrigerator, for example. The water that comes out of the faucets in Port-au-Prince is not safe to drink. So most mornings, the housekeeper fills the jug with purified water. Now, here’s the interesting detail: she fills the bottle as close to the top as she can possibly can. This makes it practically impossible to pour the first glass of water without spilling it, especially for a klutz like me. It’s not only the nice housekeeper who does this. So do the bartenders and waiters when I’ve taken the bottle to them.

So what does this tell us about life in Haiti? Here’s my theory: too many Haitians, including those who work at the hotel, clean water is a precious, precious commodity. Many of them have to walk miles each day for it, carrying bottles on their heads. It only makes sense, then, that one would fill the bottle as full as one possibly could. Each drop is valuable.

At the hotel, though, this scarcity doesn’t exist. In this situation, it would make more sense to leave a little space at the top of the bottle. The Haitians transfer the sensible rules from one situation where they apply to another situation where another approach would be better. This is a trivial example of a tendency we find often here, that of concrete, in-the-box thinking. We hear this from American educators all the time: their students only want to learn by rote and memorization. The idea of applying knowledge to different circumstances is foreign to them. On Thanksgiving, we dined with an American woman who is spending a year teaching 5, 6 and 7-year-olds. “I try to get them to use their brains, to think for themselves, to problem solve. They don’t know how to do this.” Prioritizing and thinking ahead to the next step seem to be difficult.

John mentions a medical example of the above. A medicine cabinet in a clinic is to be kept locked with the head nurse having the key. A one-year-old boy was having seizures and medicine that he needed was in that cabinet. The nurse left the room with the seizing baby and the medicine cabinet to do charting, and as per the rule, she locked the cabinet, while two doctors were
attending the child. The doctors did not have access to the medicine without spending time finding the nurse and getting her to open the cabinet. But she was following the rule.

The Haitians are resourceful in other ways. They can cook over open fires and get clothes impossibly clean by hand. And I guarantee you, they don’t spill water when they pour it from containers, no matter how full.

No comments: