If you build it – they will come

The past few days have been some of the longest that I have experienced here in Ghana. After a successful chief meeting we set out to build our structure – the home of the solar center. Having a solid structure is necessary because a lot of the solar equipment (batteries, inverter, sockets) need to stay dry and be in a well-ventilated area. So what was originally imagined as a small storage box to hold all of the valuable equipment has since transformed into a mini hut about 7 feet tall, five feet wide, and four feet deep. In the end it will be good to have such a big space for the solar equipment, which will allow us to keep all of the cell-phones and lanterns inside while they are charging, provide a shady place for the women to run the center and hang out, and create a central social point for the community. While I’m feeling positive about the end result and our decision to “go big or go home,” the process itself has been a case-study in patience and a friendly reminder of what it means to be working in Africa.

Saturday was our first day building the hut, and after picking up a lot of the essentials

The village mason and his team constructing the foundation.
The village mason and his team constructing the foundation.

like cinder blocks and cement, we laid the foundation. It still amazes me how resourceful and skilled the masons and carpenters here are. What they lack in formal education and resources, they more than make up for in ingenuity using sticks and string to make detailed measurements while working non-stop in the pounding African sun. We were able to choose the exact location for the center, and build a strong foundation, but from there we had to let the cement harden and head home until the next day.

Making progress on the solar center, but it's hot!
Making progress on the solar center, but it’s hot!

The following day, we hoped it would be a quick process of just adding layers of cinder bricks to the foundation until it was the appropriate height, but nothing is ever as easy at it seems. I’m still not sure why, but it took us about 5 hours in the sweltering heat to add the additional layers to the building, bringing it to it’s final height. I’m laughing thinking about it, although I wasn’t laughing yesterday; how could it possibly take an hour to lay each layer of brick (12 blocks)? But to be fair, my involvement in the manual labor was limited, so I’ll try not to judge too harshly. Also, it was a million degrees and I’m either burnt to a crisp or 10 shades darker.

This morning we were back at it, picking up additional supplies in town, including zinc metal sheets and wood for the roof and door. Once again, it was slow going as we proceeded to melt like figures at a wax museum. The roof turned out to be really nice though, and we took some time to explore the village and visit the CWS water center, which was a nice treat. As it stands now the structure is 90% complete. All that’s needed is a final coat of plaster, a cement floor, and the door attached, all of which the village assured us would be completed by the time we got there tomorrow…only time will tell but I’m not too optimistic. The hut has become my Waterloo, sapping my energy, not too mention my wallet. People say a buying a boat is a money pit, they clearly haven’t tried to build a house in Ghana. I’ll be thrilled when it’s finished and honestly it looks awesome, just part of the process and you can tell how appreciative the community is which helps keep a good attitude.

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Mark, Shak, and Ben standing in front of the Solar Center.
Admiring our (almost) finished product
Admiring our (almost) finished product

As we’ve been preparing to open the center, Ben and I have spent a lot of time thinking about how access to electricity will hopefully spur entrepreneurship. We’ve talked about sewing businesses and refrigeration, hoping that individuals would take initiative to turn electricity into a new sustainable business. So far most people in the community have been asking about being able to watch TV – which yes they will have enough electricity to power. Ben and I have been laughing that they finally have access to electricity and all they want to do is watch the football match but today we started to realize the power behind that idea. There are individuals in the village who already own a tv, despite not having access to electricity. They are eager to plug it in and stream the games, charging individuals to watch, kind of like a movie theater. So things don’t always happen how you expect them, but they have a way of figuring themselves out, and in this case much sooner than we could have hoped for! We can’t wait to see how things continue to grow once the center is officially open for business.

Some people own a tv in a village with no electricity.
Some people own a tv in a village with no electricity.

Tomorrow is a big day for us. We will finally be finishing the solar center and even more importantly, meeting and training the women who will be operating it. It will be up to them to install all of the equipment, under our supervision of course so that they have first hand knowledge of how it all works. We can’t wait to get started and meet them; the potential profits from the solar center are sure to transform their lives for the better. Check back soon to hear how it goes and meet the women!


Jarayili: Results and Reflections from Abby

I’m contemplating my last two weeks in Tamale as I sip my favorite African cider, Savannah Dry, at Accra’s airport while waiting to board my flight to Johannesburg.  My time in Ghana was wonderful and I am really sad to leave. On Thursday, Peter and I went to Jarayili to present our results to the community. I was so excited! My lab tests showed that rainwater collected in Jarayili households is almost always contaminated with both total coliform and E.coli, which in turn makes rainwater entirely unsafe to drink.  In addition, my tests indicated that polytank water is very rarely contaminated, which is exciting because this means that Suayba and Awulatu are doing an excellent job as co-owners of Jarayili’s water business!

Abby in Jarayili
Abby and Peter hanging with community members in Jarayili

When I first began the project two weeks ago, I assumed rainwater would be the cleanest because it falls from the sky, whereas the polytank water comes from a muddy dugout infested with mosquitoes, total coliform, E.coli, and who knows what else.  I now realize that collected rainwater is unsafe to drink because it is highly susceptible to contamination.  For instance, one finger dipped into an entire 70-liter bucket of rainwater threatens the pureness of the water.  In addition, hygiene is poor in the village, which increases the likelihood of contaminating the rainwater.  Finally, the dugout water is treated with alum (to reduce turbidity) and chlorine (to kill contaminants), which is residual.  This means if if a single finger is dipped into a 70-liter bucket of polytank water, the residual chlorine will keep the water from being contaminated days after it was first treated.

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Peter with Suayba’s twins!

My recommendation to the community was to always buy polytank water, even throughout the rainy season. I explained to the villagers that paying for clean water may not be their first choice now, but it will benefit them in the future because medical bills for diarrhea, typhoid, and cholera are high.  They understood.  In addition, Peter and I talked to the community about the relationship between clean water, health, and hygiene.  Jarayili’s chief, elders, women, and men engaged in a lively discussion at the end of our spiel, which made me think that Peter and I made a lasting impression.  I really believe Jarayili families will prioritize clean water in the future.

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Abby and Peter doing an educational presentation using salt water to show that clear water like rainwater is not always safe for drinking.

I already miss seeing Suayba’s cheery smile every morning.  I really hope I can come back to check up on Jarayili in the future!

Until next time,