Saturday, January 22, 2011

Radio Silence

Over the next few days, I will be travelling with Mitch and Stephen to the coast for a day at the beach before returning to Accra for our flight home.  Over this period, I wouldn't have access to internet, so I wouldn't be able to blog.  However, once I get back to the United States on Tuesday night (January 25th), I will make sure to post about my experiences while travelling as well as some more general posts about various aspects of life and culture in Ghana.  Check back in a few days (and there will be pictures finally)!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Day 19 - Pouring conrete under moonlight

Yesterday was an eventful day at the factory.  The production kiln with capacity for 50 filters was fired for the first time and the foundation for the 60,000 liter rain water storage tank was poured.  These two events are the culminations of many days of works this January and before.  From preliminary results in looks like both events were successes.

The production kiln is made of red brick and is amount the size of a big closet with a 15 foot (from ground level) chimney attached.  It was custom design and build by Manny.  I think I have mentioned Manny before, but as a reminder, he is an expert ceramicist, previously a professor as well as an industrial designer.  He has an incredible sense for how to design and construct nearly anything.  Because of this ability, we are constantly asking him for help with the myriad of different projects going on at the site.  To prevent him from getting distracted while he trained the factory manager in the ways of the kiln yesterday, Susan told made a morning announcement that any questions for Manny should be directed to her for the day and she would write them down until the end of the day.

The firing process is quite delicate.  It took nearly 10 hours and started with a low temperature pre-firing, which helps remove all the moisture from the pottery to prevent cracking during the actually firing.  Once black smoke billows from the chimney then the actual firing can begin.  There are two goals with the actual firing - to have as even a distribution of heat as possible and to reach 900 Celsius.  At 900 degrees, the tiny pieces of rice husk that are in the clay mixture incinerated leaving microscopic holes that allows the water to filter through.  Even distribution of heat is important to make sure that all the filters come out as standardized as possible.  The kiln, as you might expect, is powered by a wood burning below the main chamber.  Mitch, Stephen, and I cut into 2 foot sections and weighted all the pieces that went into the firing.  We estimated the total amount of wood, so that we can figure how much each firing costs.  We have some final measurements to do today, but I expect nearly 350 kilograms (or about 770 pounds) of wood was used in total.

The other major event of the day was the pouring of the multiple layer foundation for the massive rain water storage tank.  The goal of this tank in conjunction with the gutters on the west side of the roof is to catch and store nearly 60,000 liters of water during the raining season to be used as the source of water for the site.  When we arrived on the site on the first day, we were greeted by a massive hole - 6 ft deep, 15ft wide, and 20ft long approximately.  From there, a foot deep trench (from ground level 7 feet deep) for the exterior wall of the the tank was dug, an elaborate rebar structure for support was bended and placed, forms for the pouring were made, a center 4 inch pole was erected to support the roof as well as ensure that the tank is nearly perfectly circular.  And as of last night, the foundation for everything was poured.

Pouring the foundation was quite the endeavor.  First it involved pouring and filling the entire circular trench, then required a 3 inch layer across the entire tank, followed by a 6 inch raised and foot wide exterior lip for the concrete block wall to rest on.  All of this concrete had to be poured at once to prevent cracking and breaking.  I'm sure my description of the design is confusing.  Hopefully once I can post pictures those will help to clarify what I mean.  Due to some unexpected scheduling delays, we weren't able to start poring until nearly 3 pm yesterday.  Once we started there was no turning back.

We had quite the crew partaking in this production.  Stephen, Mitch, Shanti (a graduate student), and myself were there along with nearly 10 of the factory workers, and Frank - a local expert in these type of tanks.  We set up a conveyor belt line of people.  3 or 4 of the laborers backbreakingly mixed the concrete by hand, then filled buckets.  Those buckets were carried by 4 or 5 more people to the hole.  From there the buckets were passed to down into the hole and transferred another few sets of hands before being poured where needed.  While I don't know (yet) the number of bags of cement used or the total volume of concrete poured, I do know based upon my soreness that it was a lot.

While the work was physically tiring, the attitude of everyone made the experience great.  Everyone had a positive, can-do attitude and there was plenty of laughter to keep spirits high.  Once it got dark, the only sources of light we had were the high-beams of a truck, a few headlamps, and a full moon.  This experience will definitely be one that will stick with me.  A few months ago, I never thought (literally the thought never even crossed my mind) that I would ever be pouring concrete under moonlight in rural Ghana.  Now that I have done it, I can (add and) cross it off my bucket list.  Check!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Day 15

A Death
Saturday was a day notable in particular, because two very different experiences were juxtaposed in the span of just 12 hours.  In the morning when we got to site, I noticed the usual local workers (Shani, Sadat, Zack, etc) were not there.  This was surprising, because they were always there by the time we arrived.  I couldn’t figure out why.  The mystery was solved at the morning meeting.  John Adams (the factory manager) informed everyone that Zack’s mother had passed away the night before.  i can imagine that losing a parent at any age is difficult; however, I really felt for Zack because judging by his baby face he couldn’t have been older than 18.  John said after the meeting we would all go over and pay our condolences.

When the meeting was over, we (about 15 in all) slowly migrated over to the village.  I saw for the first time what was beyond the point where we had always turned off the main road.  We arrived outside what I guess is considered the center of the village, where several of the PHW factory workers who live in the village greeted us.  We exchanged the customary Dagbani (the predominant local language that is spoken where we are) morning greeting of despa (“good morning”) and the customary response of naa (“I agree” or “Same to you”).  While the greetings were like any other day, there was an unusually solemn tone. Then we waited for a few minutes before the mayor of the Taha village came over and greeted us.  As usual, John acted as our cultural intermediary conveying our intentions as well as presenting a small donation towards the burial costs.  The mayor led us through the village to a hut before signaling with a wave to enter.  Before entering the mayor took off his flip flops adding them to a pile outside the door.  When we tried to take off our own shoes, he shoed us off.  Traditionally, shoes since they get quite dirty in this dusty country are taken off before entering a household.  The mayor allowing us to keep our shoes on was him demonstrating a sign of respect for us as visitors.

The hut was similar to the others in the village from the outside with its compacted clay walls and thatched roof.  Inside, there were a dozen or so of the village elders (all men, of course) sitting down on mats on one half of the structure.  We all got down in a crouch to be at their level another important custom to indicate deference.  John, in Dagbani, introduced us.  One of the elders expressed their appreciation for our visit and our condolences then encouraged us to go back to our “very important work” at the factory.  john and another one of the workers stayed behind for the morning until the burial was complete, while the rest of us returned to work.  Interestingly (and foreign to me) was the fact that while we were paying our respects we did not see Zack or anyone else I could recognize as members of his family.  Instead we interacted solely with the leadership of the community.  I would imagine this custom stems from a belief of the village being more of a collective, holistic unit instead of individual families living next to one another.  While I don’t know definitely if this belief is true, if it is I do appreciate this community centric view.  I can only imagine what Zack and his family is going through, and I feel for their loss. I guess one small silver lining  is that it allowed us all to see how another culture grieves and handles death.  I personally thought the custom of the entire factory paying condolences was very kind and encouraged closeness among the workers.

A Night out on the Town, Ghanaian Style
On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, we went that night out with some Ghanaian friends to the Tamale night club - Royal.  Iyad picked us and Amin (a Ghanaian friend we have made and previous PHW worker) up in his truck to hit the town.  Royal is off of the major thorough fare that runs through Tamale; it is 3 lanes in both directions.  However at night, there is little traffic so people literally park in the lanes.  We arrived at the club, and Iyad parked the truck in the left most lane. After we paid our cover of 5 cedi each, we walked down a short hall way to enter the club.  The club felt similar to a small, run-down establishment you would see in an American city.  It was darkly lit with black lights with a DJ both and a laser light show, even the occasion strobe light flashing.  Initially it felt like a flashback to my middle school years, because all the music were American songs from back then.  Sadly as the night went on, the American music was replaced by more local rap/dance tracks. When we arrived at 11pm, it was pretty deserted.  There were about 5 guys, including one dressed as a cowboy (don’t ask me why), breaking down some moves on the dance floor.  Notably, the bar only served beer, ciders, and other non-alcoholic drinks.  There weren’t any mixed drinks or shots on their menu or any visible handles of hard alcohol.  Over the 2 hours or so we spent there, Royal slowly started to fill up.  By 1 am or so, it was pretty packed.  We clearly started the party… or more likely didn’t get the message that places don’t start getting good until late.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Day 13 - Neglected Tropical Diseases

This week so far has been characterized by many visitors to the factory and the house.  Chris Schultz, an engineering consultant by day and passionate pursuer of water solutions for developing countries by vacations, arrived on Sunday to spend a week helping out.  Mary Kay and Charlie Jackson arrived yesterday (Wednesday) morning to conduct some business in Tamale as well as do site related work.  Wednesday night all 13 of us were graciously invited over for dinner at our neighbor’s house.  They are an Indian family who emigrated from their home country to Tamale nearly 20 years ago.  What is surreal about their house is that it smells like an Indian household (with aromas of far east spices streaming from the kitchen) even though it is in the middle of Ghana.  The daughter, Bhavne, is very gregarious and outgoing becoming a friend to us all.  And tonight Jim, who works for the Carter Institute to Eradicate Guiana Worms, was a dinner guest.  Since 2006, Jim has been the country coordinator for the effort funded by former President Carter’s foundation to rid Ghana of this water transmitted parasite.  Guiana Worms is a disgusting worm that is ingested by humans by drinking contaminated water.  Once inside of you, the worm grows for approximately a year before painfully exiting your body through any part, except your skill.  It takes several agonizing days for the worm to slowly inch out of your body.  According to what I understand, what draws the worm out is water.  The worm exits your body and enters the water source depositing larva.  The parasite propagates contaminating the water source and any future drinkers of the water.

This medical monstrosity is one of several infections that falls under the umbrella category of neglected tropical diseases.  Like the name suggests, these diseases are found in tropical climates (such as Ghana) and have gone historically untreated.  In many cases treatments exist; however, for one reason or another (lack of funding, difficulty in disseminating it to rural areas, etc) has not been used widespread enough to eradicate it.  While some of these diseases in particular are very difficult to rid the world of because they have many ways of transmitting, Guiana Worm luckily is not.  Guiana Worm can only be transmitted through contaminated water.  Because of this important fact in the crusade against the disease, clean water sources are critical.  It is using this fact and a persistent multi-facet approach that Jim has been able to deliver impressive results in Guiana Worm eradication.  In particular, Jim has had great success by working closely with international aid organizations that specialize in water sanitation projects to get funding towards villages at high risk for the disease.  

Before Jim came to the country in 2006, cases per year in Ghana had been stagnant at about 4,000 per year.  With no real change in funding, he has focused the Carter Institute’s efforts on going from the defensive to more aggressive offensive tactics in eradicating the disease.  His approach so far has set a new record for the reduction of cases with the last case (fingers cross it will stay this way) having bee reported in May of 2010.  Jim’s experience and story reminded me of the importance of innovation and creativity in solving any problem, particularly a persistent one.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Day 9/10 - Ulimate, Expats, and Harmattan

(I have a bunch of pictures I would like to post.  Unfortunately, the internet cafe that I go to is painfully slow.  Its a small miracle I am even able to write this blog post.  Because of these connection issues, I wouldn't be able to share any pictures most likely until I return to the states.  When I return to the lovely USofA, I will update each post previously written with relevant pictures.  I hope you will check back on this and future blog posts again after January 25th to see the pictures.)

I realized on Sunday (Day 9) that the color of my feet at the end of the day is a great indicator of the activities I did that day.  After a work day, they are covered in gray, redish dust.  On Sunday, they were not nearly as covered (I could still see some parts of my skin), and the parts that were covered where darkish instead of the usual shade of gray.  This coloration change marked a day of leisure with some running on a semi-grassy field.

Day 9 (Sunday) was my first day off.  I slept in by my Ghana sleeping schedule not waking up until nearly 10 am.  I spent a lazy morning and afternoon around the PHW house, reading a little and catching up on some much over do journal writing. The highlight of the day (and the inspiration for the title) came in the afternoon.  Susan has become friends through her many trips to Tamale with Iyad, a mid twenties Lebanese businessmen and general contractor.  He invited us to play ultimate frisbee with him and some of his friends on Sunday afternoon.  He came by at 4:30pm and we all loaded into his truck.  We drove for about 20 minutes before arriving at the VRA Clubhouse. The closest Western approximation to the VRA would be a gated community with recreational facilities.  As we entered, we drove past 40 or so houses, before arriving at a few fields, tennis courts, and even a swimming pool.  When we got there, his friends were waiting for us.  They were nearly all expats from various countries around the world - Daniel and Mena were from Canada, Jack was from China, Beth was from Michigan, etc.  We played ultimate for nearly an hour.  By the end, I was parched and exhausted.  My throat felt completely dry from running around breathing in the incredibly dry air.

After the game, we went to dinner at Luxury Catering.  Luxury serves a mixture of Western and Ghanian foods.  By the prices and menus, you can tell it clearly caters to expatriates.  To give a perspective on prices, the entire meal including sodas and beers worked out to about 15 Ghana cedi per person (or about 10 USD).  In my opinion, the meal was worth every penny or pesces (which is the Ghanaian equivalent;  100 pesewa equals a cedi).  The table ordered a bunch of french fries to share.  While the french fries tasted like anything you could get back state side, the sauces that came with it added a local flair.  They provided the staple fry dipping sauce of ketchup (or tomato sauce as they call it here), but there was also white sauce and beef sauce.  While I tried the sauces and they tasted alright, I mainly stuck to ketchup.  For my main course, I ordered a chessburger.  It tasted like a burger I would get back in the states, except for the cheese, which tasted distinctively different then the traditional burger diary topping of Cheddar or American cheese.  While still a yellowish color, it had a bit of a bite.  Others got more traditional meals.  I tried for the first time Guinea Fowl, which is a bird similar to turkey in size that is very common around here.  While I know its a cliche, it indeed tasted like a stringy piece of chicken.  The combination of the leisurely speed of the service (Ghana Maybe Time in action) and the great conversation caused the meal to last nearly 3 hours.

Monday was the first day that Harmattan was really noticeable.  Harmattan is when western winds blow sand from the Sahara causing the area in Ghana, particularly the Northern Region, to become very hazy.  Harmattan is most pronounced in January.  From the time I felt the house, it was noticeably less sunny (and hot).  There was a haze over the entire sky.  On the drive out to factory, visibility was significant reduced.  On a clear (non-Harmattan) day, I can see for miles and miles over the flat terrain.  Yesterday, I could not.  By the end of the day, my throat was drier and more irritated than it has been.  On the plus side, the haze significantly reduces UV rays (one of Susan's previously students calculated by nearly 80%) so sun screen becomes much less necessary to prevent sunburns.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Day 8 - Responsibility at a young age

In Ghana, saturday is still a working day.  Like any other week day, we were at the factory by 9am this morning.    We were greeted by all the workers as if it was any other day.  Worked progressed on nearly every project, the foundation got poured for the latrine, the hole finally got finished for the rain water storage tank, the metal poles got cut and fastened together for the tarp support structure, and Big Red and Forman (the welders) continued to work on the drying rack shelves.  For the day, I helped Jonathon (one of the Susan's graduate students who is writing his thesis on his work in Ghana) to pour the concrete foundation for the composting latrine he is building on site.  In terms of working, Jonathon and I were doing relatively little; the real work horses were Swali and Shani.  Swali is a mason, while Shani is called an unskilled laborer.  While Shani isn't directly skilled in anything, he is an incredibly hard worker.  By the end of the day, we had nicknamed him the beast, because despite his short stature, he could lift anything and was constantly doing the back breaking task of manually mixing concrete.

At the end of the day, a herd of cattle came through the work site.  While goats and chickens are regulars around the factory, I have only so far seen one other herd of cattle.  This particular bunch numbering about 100 heads came incredibly close.  As the cattle were slowly passing through, I saw a young boy who seemed to be standing around carrying a stick.  I hadn't seen him before (occasionally kids from the local village, Taha, will come and watch the work at the factory).  Then I saw four more boys and realized they were responsible for herding the cattle.  None of these boys were older than I would guess eight years, yet they were entrusted with the vital task of managing and protecting presumably a village's herd.

Almost immediately after the herd past through, Manny (a former professor and expert potter, who is currently on his third trip to Tamale to help PHW) showed us the dug out where the local villagers fetch water from.  Dug outs are depressions that collect water; this is the common water source for rural Ghanaians.  As you might imagine, the water that is retrieved from such a source is very dirty.  The hope of the PHW is to provide such villagers with water filters that could be used to make such dirty water safe for drinking.  Walking to the dug out across the plains with cattle surrounding us and the sunsetting felt like a scene out of The Lion King.  Manny couldn't remember exactly where it was, so we followed two young girls with giant buckets.  In Ghana, women (and girls) are responsible for fetching water for the household.  When the girls got to the dug out, they loaded probably 50 pounds worth of water in each of their buckets and then placed impressively carried it back to their village (probably a mile away) on their heads.

Both of these experiences gave me a glimpse of what rural life is like, in particular for kids.  I was struck by how these kids (boys and girls even though their respective tasks differed by their gender) not even 10 years old were given critical responsibilities, like ensuring their was water to drink and their dinner was safe.  Additionally, I noticed how happy and stress free everyone we meet on our voyage to the literal watering hole seemed to be.  From a Western prospective, these people had nothing and most of their daily tasks centered around making sure they had just their basic necessities.  However in this simpler way of life, they also seemed to lack the stressors inherent in living in a complex and fast paced world.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Day 6 - Tour of Tamale

Today was my third day actually working.  The morning was relatively slow, because basically everyone was waiting for a shipment of aggregate gravel (for concrete) and river sand (for concrete and rammed earth blocks).  Unfortunately, Ghanaians relationship with time differs from Americans.  A phrase I have heard from other westerners summons it up with a dash of humor - GMT (Ghana Maybe Time).  In the meantime as we waited, everyone found other projects to work on.  The chi phi boys (Stephen, Mitch, and myself) brainstormed and decided upon the best location and way to install a big trap to provide a shadowed area for working.  Additionally, we lent a hand on other small projects like sifting corn husk to be used in the mixture for the filters, helping with the cutting of steel polls for drying shelves, and various measures to be used later to determine the cost of materials for filters and rammed earth blocks.

In the afternoon, I left the site to visit other sellers of building blocks (cement blocks, bricks, etc) to get a sense of how much they sell them for.  The purpose of this price information is to see if it makes sense for Pure Home Water as a side business to sell rammed earth blocks.  Driving around the city on the back of a motor bike (of course I was wearing a helmet) was really interesting.  I got to see a wide variety of different communities throughout Tamale, included in this tour was the Tamale Football stadium, the Tamale Radio Station headquarters (91.25 FM which rebroadcasted BBC radio from Accra), and outdoor markets.  I also got a better appreciation for the wide spectrum of living conditions from relatively western style homes to thatched huts along the side of the road.  One of the more memorable sights I saw was a cellphone retailer that was named Dallas Phones!

When everyone got back to the PHW house at the end of the day, we went out for the now constitutional end-of-day drink at the Humanity (or maybes its humanitarian) Inn, right down the road.  Keeping with tradition, the only light at this hole-in-the-wall watering hole was a blue compact florescent light, which needless to say sets an interesting mood.  Afterwards we had a delicious meal prepared by our cook of chicken, a tomato soup with an interesting kick, french fries!, and salad. 

In other developments, tonight will be the Chi Phi boys last night at our guest house.  After an interesting (and at times almost horrifying experience) we will be leaving our residence for the past 3 nights (along with hopefully the plumbing and locking issues too...more to come on these stories in the future when I have more time) to move into the PHW house.  We aren't entirely sure where we will sleep, but regardless we are excited and looking forward to being under the same roof as everyone else.