A Small Small Intro to Ghanaian Government

Map Time!With the recent tragic passing of President John Atta Mills and the December elections approaching, the Ghanaian government has been making international news headlines. What you don’t hear as much about are the local government institutions that keep the country running. This blog post is about those officials, plauges (?*!? Keep reading…) and offices that help Community Water Solutions do its work in the Northern Region.

NDC supporters turn out to welcome the new President. This is a sneak preview of the support for the National Parliamentary and Presidential elections coming up in December!

Wait, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself already. Northern Region is a region, like an American state or a Canadian province, in (you guessed it!) the north of Ghana. Actually, its not Ghana’s nortmost region; that distinction is held jointly by Upper East and Upper West Regions, but more about them on a later day. Tamale is the largest city in Northern Region. It’s where our fellows sleep, where our office is located, and where we purchase many of our business supplies. Northern Region is further divided into districts, which are governed by elected District Assemblies. The signboards that fellows see around town, “Iddrisu Haruna, Lawyer, for Tamale North Constituency”, are campaign tools for the December District Assembly elections. Each district also has a building that houses the offices for public works. Environmental Health is the department that I am most interested in, as water comes into play here.  Most districts have a Water and Sanitation Team that deal with their constituency’s difficulties in these areas.

This plague marks the Municipal Assembly in Bawku, Upper East. On top of the challenges faced by district officials, public service can also be a hazardous occupation!

If each district has a team devoted to dealing with its local water problems, where and why does CWS come into play? The answer is complicated. Part of the answer has to do with boreholes. Many governments, NGOs and private citizens the world over think that boreholes are the silver bullet to the water crisis. It certainly is the standard approach to water access in communities here. Boreholes and other groundwater access can be a great solution – they can cut down on time hauling water and they don’t have most of the contamination problems that traditional surface water sources have. However, boreholes can be problematic in many places. In large areas of Northern Region, for example, groundwater is extremely difficult to access, and borehole success rates are as low as 20%[1]. Boreholes and pumps are neither cheap nor intuitive to fix and currently a huge proportion across sub-Saharan Africa are in disrepair. Lastly, they are comparatively expensive to drill. Which introduces the next challenge faced by the District Assemblies: funding. The majority of district funding for water projects does not come from Ghanaian tax dollars. It comes from national or regional donations from multinational organizations and NGOS like UNICEF or the EU. This means that yearly funding is tied to donor priorities, which can be tricky. For example, since Ghana is on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals for water, district budgets for water projects are getting axed. It also means that one-time expense projects, like boreholes, where you can cut a ribbon, snap pictures, check a box and drive home are more likely to get funded than longer-term needs (like monitoring). Between borehole mania and funding difficulties, it has been challenging for districts to come up with alternative solutions local water problems, but that’s where we come in!

The boxes are labeled “National Archives.” Wonder which folder is the borehole report I was looking for?

Of course, different district bureaucracies function at different levels of efficiencies. Some districts or teams are able to stay on top of their game even in the face of these challenges. Some, uh, aren’t. CWS is a lean, mean water-treating machine, and we are able to pick up the slack when local institutions just don’t have the capacity to meet all their constituency’s basic needs.

Challenges aside, without the help of district officials, CWS’ would not have been able to expand as quickly or effectively as we have.  In turn, we are able to compliment local government efforts with our unique and flexible approach to the water problem here. It’s a partnership we hope to continue well into our future!

For more information about the upcoming elections, check out Ghana Decides, a really cool local NGO that is using all sorts of social media to keep Ghanaians updated about the election!


Rain Dance

Its that time of year again. The time where the storm clouds start rollingggg in, the nights cool off, and everything begins to go from brown to green. Of course the rains won’t begin in earnest for a couple months, but the dry season is definitely transitioning to wet. It couldn’t come soon enough.

This dry=>wet segue has its own unique set of challenges (remember some of our wet=>dry updates?). On one hand, as water levels get lower and lower, water quality gets more and more GROSS – we definitely see an increase in center sales at this time! Some ladies even buy treated water for washing and cooking.

Dugout water at Buhijaa

On the other hand, sometimes dugout water gets so low that there is not enough water to treat. CWS partners with communities that report having dugouts that don’t, or rarely, run dry; our work is most appropriate for these situations. However, this has been a drought year for much of Western Africa (check out a few international news articles here and here and here and here). For the first time in our operational history, we are having to deal with dry dugouts. Jagberin, Gbateni, Zanzugu Yipela, Yipela, Kushini, Kagburashe and Buhijaa have closed down center operations until the next rain (many reopened after a big storm yesterday) but until the rain starts again in full force it will be difficult for these communities to have consistent, treated water. Most are walking kilometers into the bush, or to other communities, for their water needs (Kagburashe actually gets its water from another CWS village, Chani – so treatment continues for those who want to walk!).

A little water left at Jagberin

Luckily the rainy season is just around the corner! A few big storms have blown through, giving staff the opportunity to talk to some of our newer communities about rainwater collection. Soon, too, communities whose dugouts become inaccessible (like Gbung and Libi) or who have water sources open up closer to home (like Zanzugu) will have to heave their polytanks back to town. We have also begun prepping our most remote communities, Chanaayili, Gbateni and Buhijaa, to be independent for a few months when large bodies of water start to block the roads. The ladies laugh and tell us to swim aquatabs across to them – we are going to need official CWS speedos!

Shak, the optimist, on the way to Gbateni

Basically, we are watching and waiting for rain.

And now, back to the fellows!


Baseline Data

You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what exactly your problem is. For this reason ‘baseline data’, or information about your problem before you start fixing it, is key. In our reality of limited financial and human resources, however, collecting baseline data presents logistical and ethical dilemmas for small organizations like CWS. Quantitatively evaluating the effects of drinking dirty water on community health is extremely complicated and often impossible, even with unlimited resources. And our resources are not unlimited. Every dollar we spend doing surveys on diarrheal incidence, for example, is a dollar NOT going towards a new center or monitoring. So we don’t do them.

Just because it isn’t feasible for CWS to collect baseline data before partnering with a community does not mean we’ve given up on the approach! Continue reading

Voices from the field: Team 3!

June 9

Today, Team 3 ended their morning in the village with the grand opening of the Community Water Solutions water treatment center in the Kpalguni Village.  Being a relatively small village with a focus on farming yams, most of the children arrived promptly and proudly to fill their family’s blue buckets.  The team left with an undeniable feeling of accomplishment, and they are excited for the next few days of monitoring the village.

CWS Safe Storage containers all lined up at the water treatment center ready to be filled with clean drinking water!
Clean water!
Meaghan and the cutest little girl at the water business on opening day! The whole village came out!
Heading home with a bucket full of safe drinking water! Such a successful opening day!

But one day earlier….

June 8

5:00 am: The team awoke only to find gloomy clouds looming over Tamale.  The team was weary about departing, but Team 5 along with Sani and the translators decided we should give the drive a shot.  Due to “Ghanian time”, the van did not depart Gilbt until 6:30 am.  Midway through the two-hour drive to both villages, the rain began.

7:45 am:  A large pond of water in the middle of the bumpy dirt road approached the van, and, in seconds, the van halts to a complete stop.  The teams found themselves stranded in the middle of the Ghanian forests without cell phone service.  Villagers begin to watch as the teams wander around looking for rocks (which they are unsure as to why they need them).  After about thirty minutes, the teams begin to push the van out of the pond.  It doesn’t seem promising; however, after the spectators joined the effort, the van finally emerged.  The sun’s rays appeared from behind the fading clouds.

Teamwork at its finest
Abby, Alyssa, Stephanie (from the Pinapple Express Team) and Meaghan in the mud pond.

9:30 am:  Team 3 decides the make the walk to their village. When they arrive for a brief visit to teach the women how to treat the clear water and distribute clean water buckets, the village is not prepared.  Handing out the buckets was a stressful event.  All of the villagers gathered into a tight circle and began to talk very loudly over the team.  While the frantic, loud gathering was clearly caused by the excitement of the opening of the center, it did not make the day any better.  The team was lead to more disappointment when it was apparent that turbidity remained in the water.  Clear water wound not enter the polytank that day.

Stressful discussion about safe storage distribution. We knew everyone was excited for opening day, but this was still tough to manage!
Our translator Ayesha trying to teach the crowd how to correctly use the tap on the safe storage container.

12:30 pm:  Team 5 began to approach the center after hours of waiting at the van only to find that Team 3 was finally wrapping up their work in the village.  Both teams walked back through the village down the bumpy, muddy road to the van.  Even though the afternoon just began, both teams were exhausted and bummed about the series of events of the day.

Luckily, all team members found humor of all of the parts of the day, and grew closer with the hope that both teams would make it to their villages the following morning.

-Will, Meaghan, Abby and Alyssa


The countdown until the start of the 2011 Summer Fellowship Program is officially in single digits! The Fellowship Leaders arrive in Tamale on Sunday and the Fellows are just a few days behind them. We can’t wait!

This week I finished up my visits to all of the CWS villages,tagging along with Shak and Peter as they  checked-up on Nyamaliga, Chongashe and Gbong.

CWS' second-ever water treatment center in the village of Nyamaliga! We opened this water business in January of 2009 and its been one of our most successful businesses!
This is Gbong dugout. All of these green leaves were blown/carried by a stream into the dugout after a big rain storm a few weeks ago. It looks very very strange! Thanks to the support of iContact (Gbong's village sponsor) the community no longer has to drink from this water source!
TJ and Shak checking up on the water treatment center in Chongashe. Everything was running smoothly but the community misses Sanita, Fabiola, Eleanor and Rachel!
The Chongashe dugout. Its gotten much lower and more turbid since the Winter Fellows were here in January.

This week I also met with Unicef and a representative from the Central Gonja District Assembly who updated me on our Unicef-CWS villages, Kampong, Alipe, Mile 40, Gilanzegu, and Nyanguripe. One of Unicef’s goals in partnering with us and the Central Gonja District was to “build the capacity of the local government”. One way that we have tried to do this was to pass on the monitoring of these water businesses to the District Assembly. Handing over this responsibility to the government has been challenging for CWS because we are very invested in our communities and like to know that the water businesses are succeeding. We have learned a lot over the past three years about how to successfully monitor our businesses and are used to being the ones in control! Despite these challenges, we recognize the importance of engaging the local government and are glad that Unicef has been able to facilitate this partnership. The District reported that for the most part, these 5 villages are doing well. The few problems that they are experiencing are all things that CWS has dealt with before and we hope to help the District solve them over the next few months. A big thanks to Gerry and Judy O’Connell, the Medfield Fit Girls, The Nolan’s, The Reids, and CWS Facebook Causes Team for sponsoring these  villages – I’ll hopefully have some new pictures from them shortly!

Day 3: Household Visits, Lab Training and Full Implementation Review

Day 3 of the Fellowship was a very full day for the teams. The first half of the day was spent visiting existing CWS villages. Each team visited a different CWS village. Half of each team monitored sales at the treatment center while the other half did household water storage monitoring with their translator. Both team halves took water samples along the way.

Why yes, that is a big ant hill towering above us!
I tagged along with Team 3 (Kathryn, Lauren, Jim and Elsie) for the day.
Lauren couldn't resist trying to climb the ant hill 🙂
Team 3 chillin' by the Cheko dugout.

In Cheko, Team 3 encountered an example of the difficulties that can arise in development work. For the first time, we found in Cheko that households didn’t have clean water in their homes and some had dirty water in their containers. The center wasn’t running and it had obviously not been for at least a week. The CWS staff immediately looked into this and discovered that the women running the center had left the village (for various reasons) without leaving properly trained women behind to keep the center running. Shak met with the chief and elders to solve the problem and held an emergency community meeting to reiterate the significance of clean drinking water and the need to use household containers properly. The next day, he spent going household to household to repeat this message and the treatment center was cleaned and new women were selected to be trained to run the center. Team 3 was disappointed to not see the Cheko center up and running that day but appreciated the realistic experience they were getting. Personally, though we realize that we are here to monitor and problem solve, it’s never enjoyable to see such rare problems. Teams 1, 2, and 4 all visited villages with busily running centers and every household visit showed properly stored clean drinking water.

Lauren tried to blend with the village by making goat noises...there was minimal success.
...but the children loved the goat-sounding girl 🙂
And for lunch? Ta da!! Chicken & Rice! Yum!
Sometimes it's best to get in out of the sun after a while.
As there are no bunnies in northern Ghana, these are called giraffe ears...
Lunch out was a nice break, even if the menu was pretty familiar.

The second half of the day, the teams rotated through the CWS office, where they spent an hour and a half reviewing with me in detail the step by step CWS implementation process, focusing especially on the very important initial meeting with the chief and elders. Following this, each team moved over to the lab to learn how to properly conduct water tests and performed tests on the samples they had taken that morning. They were also taught to clean the lab equipment; we had to buy distilled water for the process, to ensure that all the testing equipment was clean and safe to use.

Mira carefully drawing a sample to test.
Chris preparing the pipettor.
Heather skillfully testing the water while Allie holds the sample for her.
Jim draws from the sample Lauren holding open for him.
Hannah and Nate preparing the samples.
Cam water testing with surgeon-like hands
Nate watches in awe as Sarah tests their water sample.
Elsie takes her turn with the pipettor while Jim holds out the sample.
The hard part is done. Now it's time to incubate!! 🙂


To treat ourselves for our full day, we ate out. Sarah enjoyed spaghetti with vegetables.
Cam enjoyed red red (a traditional been stew) with plantains and chicken.)
Lauren played it a little safer with good 'ol vegetable pizza.
Kathryn did the same. 🙂

The Ultimate Test of Patience and Perseverance: My Experience Buying a Truck in Ghana

In a previous post, I discussed how my work in developing countries has taught me a lot about patience. I pride myself on my ability to “go with the flow” when working in the field and I rarely let the many roadblocks that I encounter get to me. This week, however, my patience was truly put to the test, and while I have survived the experience, it was not pretty.

I think the best way to describe the past three days is through a timeline:

Monday February 22

4:15 am: Arrive at Metro Mass Bus station with Peter and Abass (our mechanic). We are actually 15 minutes late for the scheduled “report time” but, having travelled via bus in Ghana before, we are not worried.

5:00 am: Schedule departure for Kumasi (city in the Ashanti region of Ghana where we are planning to search for a truck for CWS).

5:20 am: Load bus.

5:45 am: Actual departure time. (this actually isn’t even that late by Ghana standards!)

12:05 pm: Arrive in Kumasi

1:00 pm: Arrive at guest-house (it was a little tricky to find). I get settled while Peter and Abass leave to go look for trucks. Our plan is to have them search for a good truck all afternoon and negotiate prices without me (if anyone knows that the truck is for a white American, the price will automatically double). They are then supposed to return to the guest-house with a list of our options that I can review.

3:45 pm: Peter and Abass return to the guest-house with a list of 5 trucks, all out of our price range by a long shot. I inform them that there is no way we can afford those prices and begin to get nervous.

4:00 pm: Peter and Abass leave for round 2 of truck-searching.

5:00 pm: Peter calls to inform me that they found the perfect truck! Abass says its in great shape and it’s the right price. I hop in a taxi and rush to the car “dealership.”

5:20 pm: I arrive at the dealership and see this:

It’s the perfect truck. Peter was right, it was just what we were looking for and he was able to negotiate an awesome price! We take it for a spin and I get very excited! The one downside – we have to pay in cash. Not money orders, not traveler’s checks, not checks, just cash. Now, having worked in Ghana for some time now, I knew that this would probably be the case. But, since I was (a) not sure how much cash we were going to end up needing and (b) very uncomfortable with the idea of traveling on a crowded bus with loads of Ghanaian Cedis in my bag, I figured that I would have to deal with this issue once we arrived in Kumasi.

5:30 pm: We leave the dealership and tell car salesman that we will return tomorrow but we are very interested in the truck. Maybe getting some cheap car insurance near me would be a good idea if we decided to get it. After all, insurance is a good idea, particularly for when/if an accident occurs, especially if you are able to get the best-priced car insurance available to you. Accidents can unfortunately happen even if you are driving carefully. As a side note, if you have recently been in a car accident then it might be a good idea to get a lawyer involved (you could use someone like this Georgia truck wreck lawyer) to help you with your lawsuit.

5:45 pm: We pass about a thousand Western Union signs and get the brilliant idea of having someone wire us the cash from our CWS bank account.

11 pm (5pm US time): First attempt to wire cash from the states. Failure.

11:30 pm: Second attempt to wire cash from states. Failure.

12:00 am: Third attempt to wire cash from states. Failure. Finally informed that the Western Union computer system in NYC has been down all night but should be working in the morning.

Tuesday February 23

9:00 am: I visit Bank #1 to see if I could withdraw the cash that I need from the international teller. The teller informs me of the maximum withdrawal limit and I realize that I may have to stay in Kumasi for 5 days to get the cash that I need from the bank.

9:30 am: Peter, Abassa and I return to the car dealership and explain to the salesman that we want to buy the car but may not have the cash until the evening (a slight fib on our part). In the meantime, we ask if we can start making the small repairs on the truck and take care of the paperwork. The salesman agrees.

9:45 am: We pull up to the Kumasi branch of the motor vehicle registration and insurance agency to get the necessary stickers for the truck. The line is very short, and we are thrilled!

11:30 am: Despite the very short line, we wait almost two hours, but leave with our stickers in hand! All in all, a success!

12:00 pm: We begin our search for the two new tires that we need for the truck. While Abass ensures me that “we will find,” after visiting 7 tire shops I am not so sure. Again, I have to wait in the car every time we go to a new shop so we can get a good price. It is about 100 degrees out. The car is very hot. While waiting, I try to brainstorm other ways to get cash.

2:30 pm: We find our tires!! However, on the way back to the car dealership, Abass informs me that he is not happy with the engine of the truck. He didn’t realize the problem at first, but now that we have been driving around, he is worried. Not a good sign.

3:00 pm: Abass and Peter re-negotiate the price of the truck, since we now need a new engine. The salesman agrees with the new price. We are happy.

3:30 pm: Abass and Peter leave with the truck to get the oil changed. I have them drop me at an Internet café to work on our cash problem.

4:30 pm: We tell the car salesman that we still don’t have the cash, but will hopefully have it by tomorrow morning.

5:00 pm: Return to guest-house, sun burnt, covered in dust, but still very excited about our truck.

5:15 pm (12:15 pm US time): Fourth attempt to wire cash to Ghana. Failure.

5:45 pm: Fifth attempt to wire cash to Ghana Failure. Abandon New York money-wiring mission and begin Boston mission.

8:30 pm: Sixth attempt to wire cash to Ghana commences.

11:00 pm (6:00 pm US time): SUCCESS! Wire transfer is complete! I just have to show up at Western Union in the morning with my MTN number and the money will be there for me!

Wednesday February 24

8:30am: Show up at first Western Union branch right as it opens, with a smile on my face and my MTN number in hand. Bank teller types in my number and this conversation commences:

Bank Teller: your number is not in the system. It is the wrong number.

Me: Can you try again. I am pretty sure that it is correct.

Bank Teller tries again.

Bank Teller: It is not in the system. This is the wrong number.

8:45 am (3:45 am US time): I call the states and confirm that I do, in fact have the right number.

Me: This number is definitely correct. Maybe the transfer has not been completed.

Bank Teller: No. Even if the transfer has not been completed, the number would be in the system. The number is wrong.

Me: The number is not wrong, is there anyone that we can call at Western Union.

Bank Teller: No. You should try another bank.

Me: Why should I try another bank if the number is wrong?

Bank Teller: You just should.

9:00 am: I try another bank. Repeat exact conversation with Bank Teller # 2.

9:25 am: Visit EcoBank, large international bank. I withdraw the max. amount of cash allowed and call Peter and Abass to meet me. Process takes just over an hour.

10:35 am: Hand over cash to Peter and Abass, tell them to go buy the new engine and the other random things that we need while I try to figure our cash problem. Also tell them to try to keep the car salesman happy, who is beginning to grow impatient.

10:45 am: Devise brilliant plan to visit as many different banks as possible and withdraw the maximum amount.

10:50 am: Enter bank #2.

11:15am: Leave bank empty-handed. Bank of America apparently does not like my brilliant plan and has put a hold on my account after withdrawal from bank #1.

11:20 am: Attempt to call Bank Of America. Failure.

11:30 am: Finally get customer service number for Western Union!!

11:31 am: Talk to rep. from Western Union who informs me that my number IS correct! They just need to confirm some “things” with the sending agent. No, they do not need any information from me. No, they cannot tell me what these “things” are. They ask me to hold.

11:40 am: Rep comes back on the line and asks me to continue to hold. I explain that this is an (expensive) international call. She asked me to hold.

11:45 am: Rep comes back on the line and tells me that our money is ready! YES! No, she cannot explain they delay nor tell me what “things” they needed to confirm.

1:00 pm: Return to car dealership and hand over cash to a very cranky car salesman. He finally cracks a smile and starts to count his cash.

1:05 pm: This conversation commences:

Car Salesman (while counting his money – all in 20 GHC bills might I add): Kate?

Me: Yes?

Car Salesman: I like you.

Me: Of course you do, I just handed you a bag of money.

Car Salesman laughs hysterically.

Big Alex bears an uncanny resemblance to his counterparts in the US

1:08 pm: This conversation commences:

Car Salesman (while still counting his money): Kate?

Me: Yes?

Car Salesman: You never asked me my name.

Me: That’s because I know your name. It’s Big Alex. It is spray-painted in huge letters all over the walls in this office.

Big Alex (while laughing hysterically): Kate you are my new daughter.

Me: Ok. Thank you Big Alex (secretly thrilled that he decided that I should be his daughter and not his fourth wife…)

3:00 pm: We leave for Tamale!!!!

Despite this trying process, I am so thrilled to be back in Tamale with our truck! Buying this truck has been a goal of ours for the past year and half and it is so exciting to have accomplished it! We will not be able to reach so many more villages more quickly and more efficiently and will not be wasting our money on taxis!! Next maybe I’ll look into getting a new quote on my car insurance from Money Expert. Thank you everyone who has supported CWS over the past 2 years, especially this holiday season, for making this possible.

Side Note: Mike and my Mom could each write their own post on the US-versions of this same story. Thank you guys for enduring all of your challenges with Western Union!!

Safe Storage Containers

I spent the beginning of this week in Accra, the capital of Ghana, meeting with The Melcom Group, the company that manufactures the buckets that CWS has been using for our safe storage containers. Safe storage is a key component of the CWS water treatment model because it helps to prevent re-contamination of the water in the home. In the past, we have purchased these buckets from a retailer in Tamale, and installed taps in them ourselves. This was a very long, arduous task that involved heating a metal pipe on a gas stove and punching holes in hundreds of plastic buckets.

Were we based elsewhere, like in Australia for instance, we could speak to other experts (like those from to help us out with these options. Safe storage of chemicals for water treatment is important, after all. Still, we made do with what was available to us in this circumstance, and all in all we were hopeful for a good outcome.

Well, the meetings in Accra were a huge success! Not only did Melcom sell us the buckets and taps at the wholesale price, but they also punched holes in the buckets for us and shipped them to Tamale for free. The buckets arrived in Tamale today, only two days after I ordered them!

Excited and still a little surprised that the buckets arrived on time
Excited and still a little surprised that the buckets arrived on time
Trying to fit all of the safe storage containers in one taxi...we almost did it!
Trying to fit all of the safe storage containers in one taxi...we almost did it!


One thing that I have learned from development work is patience. For example, here is the story of my day on Wednesday:

Date: Wednesday September 23rd
Goal: To get a map of the Tamale Water Expansion Project

11:00am: Peter and driver are supposed to pick me up

11: 25am: Peter and driver arrive. We are not entirely sure where to go, but we have seen signs for the BiWater office around town and ask the driver what he thinks. He says he knows a BiWater office to take us to.

11:45am: We arrive at a water treatment plant…Not exactly an office but there IS a sign that says BiWater

IMG_3547 IMG_3550

11:50am: The guard tells us that he does not have a map but we should try the office down the road.

11:51am: Taxi gets a flat tire


12:00pm: The jack breaks


12:05pm: Peter and the taxi driver pull over cars, asking to borrow a car jack

12:20pm: No one has a jack, so Peter recruits the security guard and some guys who were walking by to help.

IMG_3551 IMG_3552

12:30pm: Back on the road.

12:40pm: Arrive at another BiWater “office” which turns out to be a big parking lot where they store their trucks. Security Guard tell us to try the Ghana Water Company office in town. He is SURE that they will have a map.

1:05pm: Arrive at Ghana Water Company. Security guard tells us they everyone has gone to lunch and we should come back after 3pm (nice long lunch break huh?!)

3:15pm: Come back to Ghana Water Company. Meet Joe, who works for BiWater.

3:45pm: Head home with our new map!! Success!