Summer ’13 Jason Knutson, G


Posted on January 28, 2014


Well, it has been two weeks since my last post, for which I apologize..  During that time, I left Accra for Tamale and then Kumasi, and I had written this post, but I was unable to post it due to poor internet connectivity.  So, when it refers to “this week,” it is actually referring to the week during which it was written, January 12-17.   Here it goes.
This week was quite a roller coaster, but it has ended on a high note.  Sunday was a relaxing day.  We went to church, had some fried Tilapia (Western style!), and then Chipo and I went back down the hill into Pokuase to retake a few GPS points that didn’t quite register.  It was a nice day to recharge after a busy week.
On Monday we set off early in the morning for Nyakrom in order to visit a pilot project of a Microbial Fuel Cell Latrine.    The Microbial Fuel Cell Latrine (MFCL) appears to be an old-fashioned pit latrine, but it actually is quite high-tech.  It diverts the urine (which is rich in nitrates) into a nitrification tank, where it is converted into ammonia.  The ammonia has a positive charge, so it acts as a cathode.  Meanwhile, the solid organic waste is diverted into a different tank and is broken down into a compound that functions as the anode.  The whole set up essentially acts as a battery (Cathode = positive side, Anode = negative), and it powers a light inside the latrine (in theory).  It also produces biogas that can be used for cooking.

The MFCL is at the Nyastech Secondary School in Nyakrom, and it is failing due to a lack of consistent users.  The school has 1500 students, but it is apparent that few students use the latrine.  The urine that fuels the cathode is supposed to come from the males’ urinal inside the latrine, but the norm for male students is to urinate in the bush.  The facility’s poor condition does not encourage students to use it either.  As a result, the fuel cell has never generated enough energy to power the light.
Additionally, this school was a poor choice for the site of the MFCL pilot project because of neighboring facilities and habits/demographics of the students.  Nyastech Secondary is a boarding school, but 60% of the students commute from Nyakrom.  In Ghana, it is customary for people to wake up around 4:30 AM and stop by a public toilet to use on their way to work or school.  This means that 60% of the population is very unlikely to use the toilet at school, according to our surveys.  The other 40% stay in the dorms, where there are Western-style flushing toilets.  Given the option between the dorm toilets and the MFCL (they are about a 3 minute walk apart), the decision for where to defecate is a no-brainer as well.  Overall, this technology is interesting, but it is complex and difficult to implement in areas with more conventional options.  img_0478

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Malaria Scares

On Tuesday, Chipo and I were supposed to embark on a 12 hour bus ride to Tamale, in the Northern Region of Ghana.  However, I awoke with possibly the worst stomach virus of my life.  After early hours of vomiting, light-headedness, and a fever of nearly 103, I got a call from Susan saying that Wong had just gone to the hospital with the same symptoms.  She soon called back and said that Wong had tested positive for malaria.

At this point, I got pretty panicked.

I splurged on calls to my parents and my Uncle Lee, who has many years of experience as an ER doctor, and he calmed me down a bit and explained how unlikely it was that I had malaria, based on my symptoms and the fact that malaria typically takes around 20 days for symptoms to show up.   I was pretty lucky and very thankful to have him giving me advice throughout the process.  Still, the fact that Wong had the same symptoms as me and had malaria just seemed strangely coincidental.  Dr. Jackson also had called the Ashesi University head doc, and she said that it was likely that Wong actually had a stomach virus as well and was simply incubating malaria at the same time (his malaria symptoms had not shown up in full yet).  We chose to buy into this, half out of optimism and half out the fact that I couldn’t imagine a 45 minute bumpy ride to the hospital for the test.  I pushed fluids for the rest of the day and slept a lot, and I was feeling a bit better the next day.
At this point, I decided it was time to catch the Tamale bus.  Chipo and I were able to negotiate moving our tickets to the next day, and we caught a bus that was delayed four hours.  Once we got on the bus, however, we found out that the bus was infested with mosquitoes (just what we needed now that we were paranoid).  For whatever reason, they seemed to love the back of the bus (our seats), and there were at least a couple hundred of them buzzing around back there.  Chipo, two other passengers, and I were standing in the aisle trying to figure out what to do when the bus’s AK47-weilding security guard came back and told us that we had to take our seats and insisted that we keep the windows closed.  He explained that the AC was on, and that the mosquitoes would “run and hide once the bus started moving.”  I normally would choose not to disagree with a guy holding an assault rifle, but this was a special circumstance.  We told him that we were opening the windows anyways, and after some bickering and the driver coming to the back of the bus, they finally agreed.  Still, there were so many that we were slapping bugs until our hands were disgusting.  After about 20 minutes of driving, I told the driver that I just needed to get some deet out of my suitcase, and he was nice enough to let me out to get it.  After that, we were finally able to relax and get some rest.


We arrived to Tamale around 5:30 AM.  Tamale is Ghana’s third largest city (500,000 people) and the fastest growing city in West Africa.  It also is the home of my advisor Susan’s nonprofit company, Pure Home Water.  We spent our first day here relaxing, and we went to the cultural center, where we saw (and bought) more Ghanaian masks, paintings, and clothing.  The market here was much more relaxed than Accra, which was a welcome change.  That afternoon, Wong was released from the hospital, and he had made an incredible recovery.  In fact, the next day, he went out in the 90 degree heat and conducted twice as many surveys as his daily goal in order to make up the time he had missed.  The kid is insane.img_0534

On Friday, Chipo and I set off to work.  We went to Taha, a village next to the Pure Home Water (PHW) factory.  This village is very traditional, with thatch huts scattered throughout it and a single dirt road running through town.  However, development is rapidly approaching.  Because Tamale is quickly expanding, Taha was connected to Tamale’s piped water network (although they only have two central taps) in September 2013, and the road into town is currently being paved.  The purpose of our visit was to evaluate the toilets that were donated by PHW and the MIT Public Service Center to a preschool whose students were practicing open defecation.  Although these toilets are pour flush toilets and are not necessarily innovative, it was still important to evaluate them.  First of all, the pour flush model is considered to be an “improved” toilet, and most Ghanaians consider it a very desirable model (it is actually quite an advanced toilet in the Northern Region, where open defecation and open pits are predominant means of defecation).  Also, it is important to evaluate it as a baseline to which more innovative models can be compared.  We did already evaluate public pour flush toilets in the urban South, but we wanted to see if they perform similarly in the rural North as well.  Also, we wanted to see how a younger audience (ages 4-7) uses a shared toilet.
We were unpleasantly surprised by what we found.  The toilets are probably the nicest ones that we have visited in Ghana yet.  They were commissioned only four months ago, and they have been well maintained.  However, we interviewed the teachers of the preschool, and they informed us that the children do not use the toilet at all and instead still practice open defecation in the bush.  This is because the belief is that the toilets are “too nice” to be spoiled by children who might improperly use them.  However, this contradicts the toilets’ purpose, which was to reduce open defecation, especially amongst young children, who are most at risk to disease.  Still, the situation gets worse.  Because the children do not use the toilet, the stalls were opened to the public, who must pay about US$0.04 per use.  Still, it appears that only about 3-4 people use the facility per day.  Finally, I discovered that the preschool is going to move some amount of its students to the location of the old primary school (three blocks away) once the new primary school’s construction is complete in April.  This makes for a complicated situation.  What we have is a beautiful toilet facility and a behavioral problem, which seems to be the norm for most new toilet facilities in Ghana. img_0569 img_0564 img_0562 img_0556


Still, the situation must be put in perspective.  The toilet is only about three months old, and it is combating the tradition of open defecation, which is thousands and thousands of years old.  Pure Home Water/MIT’s involvement with the project did not end the day the toilets were commissioned; rather, work just began to ensure its success, and we began our process of learning how to overcome behavioral challenges, a process far more difficult than learning to overcome the technological challenges.

In order to address this behavioral problem and seek solutions, I went with Michael and Awal, two of PHW’s managers, to meet with the chief of Taha.  In order to meet with the chief, we first had to speak with a Taha citizen and get him to agree to accompany us.  Then, we gathered up all of the six elders of the village from wherever they were and asked for their collective permission to have an audience with the chief.  Finally, I had to offer a tribute of 15 Cedis to the chief.  After this ordeal, we walked to the chief’s hut.
I hadn’t received much instruction from Awal or Michael, so I tried to follow their leads.  The elders gathered plastic chairs for us, and, as I was about to sit, Awal grabbed my arm and motioned for me to squat down.  The three of us squatted in front of our chairs, and the chief began speaking in Dagbani.  Michael and Awal responded to all of his statements with a prolonged “Naaaa,” so I started doing the same.  Eventually, the elders motioned for us to sit, and I was handed what I thought were four red rocks.  I was incredibly confused.  Although the entire meeting was in Dagbani, Awal translated any questions directed toward me as well as my responses.  After about 15 minutes, we agreed that a village meeting would be called and that Susan, Awal, Michael, and I would attend in order to address the village regarding use of the toilet.  We’re not yet sure what the plan of action is, but possibilities include holding a training session for the preschool students in order to encourage them to use the toilet or switching the focus to the public in order to encourage adults’ patronage of the facility.
I later found out that the red rocks were actually cola nuts, which are chewed by the elders in order to suppress hunger.  Caroline and I decided to give it a try, but it tasted like an extremely bitter piece of wood… so we tried to convince everyone else to try them too




To cap off the upswing at the end of this week, Susan (my advisor) has asked Chipo and I to each give a lecture at the University of Development Studies in Tamale tomorrow morning!  This University has a 60-member sanitation club and is hosting an event with 4 speakers, and Chipo, Susan, a UDS professor, and myself.  Susan is speaking on little known facts about sanitation, Chipo is lecturing on sanitation in his native country of Zambia, and I will be talking about how/if technologically-advanced toilets can fit into Ghana’s tradition of using public/shared toilets.  This will be my first lecture at a university in a setting where I’m not a student, and I don’t quite know what to expect, but I’m really excited!  I’ve spent all evening preparing for it, so now I need to just focus on speaking clearly so that my accent is somewhat understandable.  Should be fun!



January 12, 2014

If I’ve learned anything this week, it’s that it is amazing how much you can accomplish in a few days if you just take the initiative to dive into a project head first without quite knowing what to expect.  As I mentioned in earlier posts, we had some trouble communicating with our contacts in Ghana during the month leading up to our arrival. There were days that we left the house in the morning without exactly being sure where we were going or what we were doing.  We would just climb down the hillside into Pokuase (the district of Accra in which we are working) and just walk until we saw someone or something that could give us a lead.  Four days later, I feel like we managed to gain a very thorough understanding of sanitation in the Pokuase District and of how the Microflush Biofil Toilet relates to it.

On Wednesday, we began by visiting the Global Sustainable Aid Program, an NGO that sets up school libraries and computer labs while also working with the Microflush Biofil Toilet.  The Microflush Biofil Toilet is a unique sanitation innovation that provides an improved toilet (one that separates waste from human contact) while promoting hand washing, eliminating odor, and producing fertilizer.  The technology is shown below.  The user uses the toilet much like a Western-style sitting toilet (which seems to be very foreign to many people in Pokuase), flushes it by stepping on the lever, and finally washes his/her hands in the sink.  The sink then drains into the toilet bowl, filling it for the next user to use.  The unit is actually a combination of two technologies.  The first is the Microflush technology, developed by Dr. Stephen Mecca of Providence College.  This technology uses a trapdoor-esque bottom to the toilet bowl.  When a lever is pressed, the trapdoor falls open, disposing of the waste into the Biofil tank, and then sealing to effectively prevent any odor from escaping.  The Biofil technology uses vermiculture (worms and microorganisms) in the septic tank to naturally decompose the waste.  After about two years of use, the tank is usually full and is let to sit for two weeks.  Then, the contents are removed and can be used as a dry, natural, and pathogen-free fertilizer.  There is no waste to be disposed of, for the fertilizer can be sold to farmers for a profit.


The Microflush Biofil. Water from the sink fills the toilet bowl for the next user.


The composted fertilizer substrate harvested from the Microflush Biofil’s tank

We showed up to GSAP Wednesday morning, and we were able to talk with Eric, a young Ghanaian who is my age and specializes in setting up computer labs in schools.  He was very knowledgeable about the Microflush Biofil and showed us the facility at the school (5 seats) and the public facility (10 seats) that use the technology.  The technology works very well, except we found that it has problems when it is used in a public setting.  The school children and public users were stealing any and all detachable parts from the toilets, and there is also no piped water in Pokuase.  The combination of these two problems has caused the GSAP workers to give up on the sink technology.  Accordingly, already many of the sinks have been disconnected from the toilets, and now users are required to fill a bucket from a tank outside the facility to be used to fill the toilet after use.  Hand washing has likely suffered because of this and also because soap is no longer provided due to problems with theft.
We also counted the number of users of the public Microflush Biofil facility in order to compare the total number of users and demographics to those of the squat-style pour flush toilet at Pokuase Junction (visited Tuesday).   In the same timeframe (1:15-1:45) that around 30 users used the Pokuase Junction facility, only one used the Microflush Biofil.  We were quite disappointed by this, and we wanted to know why this happened, so, after speaking with the facility attendant, we decided to return early the next morning (which is apparently the peak time) to interview users.

We woke up at 5 to set out, and the attendant was right.  People were lining up outside the facility before the sun had even risen.  We got a good amount of interviews of users (Ghanaians are very friendly and surprisingly willing to take surveys), and we learned that, oddly, many users preferred a squatting-style pour-flush toilet across town to the Microflush Biofil.  This was odd for a number of reasons.  We had learned from the surveys that there are six public toilets in town, and four of them charge 0.20 Cedis per use, and two charge 0.30 Cedis.  Five of the toilets are squat-style pour-flush toilets (see the image below for an explanation of that technology), and one was the Microflush Biofil.  The one that people seemed to prefer was the only squat-style toilet facility that charged 0.30 Cedis.  We decided to find out.


Pour-Flush toilet design


A squatting-style pour-flush toilet, typical of Pokuase


“Relaxed Toilets”


Padmore, Chipo, and myself

At 9:30AM, the morning rush abruptly ended, so we ended our surveys and set out to find the other four public toilets that we had not yet visited.  We found each one, conducted interviews with the owners and/or attendants, and gathered data and GPS coordinates.  We found that a few of the attendants became very nervous when we walked in (especially if we asked what their names were).  Most relaxed and became interested, however, once we explained our research.  We found some shocking things.  Some attendants suffer from a sort of indentured servitude.  That is, they are paid ~200 Cedis per month (US$2.80 per day), and they must raise 180 Cedis (get 900 users) per day or else the difference is taken out of their salary.  They explained that this quota is rarely reached, so they end up with a very unreliable income.  This also creates a double-edged sword for nonprofits that provide alternative sanitation in Pokuase, for, as they improve sanitation options, the number of users at these public facilities will decrease, negatively affecting the livelihood of restroom attendants.
After a long day, we retired for dinner at the American Clubhouse, which is a small shack buried in Pokuase that served only Fufu and Banku (no American food).  We enjoyed it, and they seemed thrilled to see an American in their American Clubhouse.  Once we got home, Chipo began entering the GPS information into ArcGIS (his main area of study at MIT), and, after hours of work, he has created a pretty incredible map that depicts sanitation coverage in Pokuase.  I’m incredibly lucky to have him as my partner in research.  Also, it sounds like I will be helping him out later this month up in Tamale once my research slows down and his picks up, which I’m really looking forward to.
Friday, we had an easy day.  At this point, we had interviewed every sanitation provider in the district and collected data at every public facility.  All that was left before meeting our final contact on Saturday was to interview the district’s Environmental Hygiene and Sanitation officer.  We were able to do so, and he pretty much confirmed what we knew, although with some sense of uncertainty.  The bureaucracy here seems to have general (and inevitable) sense of disconnect from what is actually occurring due to the lack of addresses, large informal sectors, and corruption at different levels.
After that, we were finished for the day, so we set off for downtown Accra, where we met up with Wong (my classmate and good friend from MIT) and his Ghanaian partner Prince for a day of site seeing.  We saw the mausoleum of the first Ghanaian president, all the governmental buildings, the national theatre and football stadium, and the ocean.  We ate fresh Tilapia at a restaurant right off the ocean, and, this time, I was prepared for the entire fish and ate nearly all of it! (except the head.. maybe next time)  I’m getting the hang of Ghanaian food, and it felt great to give Wong a rough time for eating Fufu incorrectly on his first attempt, even though I had only learned how to properly eat it the day before.  After food, we set off for the Artisan Market, unprepared for what we were about to experience.




The Gold Coast


Wong met up with us!


The Mausoleum of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president

On the way, we met a nice guy who told us that he teaches percussion at the University of Ghana in Legon, and he brought us to his “brother’s” shop in the market to teach us how to play.  Who could say no to that?  We learned some drum rhythms and played with a few guys in the shop, and it was a great time.   He was a really good drummer, and he also showed us all the Ashanti masks on the walls and explained their symbolism.  He really knew his stuff and seemed to be a great guy.

However, to make a long story short, this guy really earned our trust and then ripped us off majorly when we bought from him.  I ended up buying a hand-carved African mask from him (it is incredibly ornate and beautiful) for what I later learned was about ten times its market value.  Still, I wouldn’t have bought it if I didn’t think it was worth every penny, and I thought I was getting a steal.  Therefore, I probably would’ve been okay with it, but I later learned that he didn’t even work in the shop, so he took the money and ran (presumably to a bar).  None of the carvers, who were at work outside the shop, knew who he was.  Apparently he and a few other guys come in, distract or force the shop owners out, and take advantage of foreigners.  When we realized what had happened after talking to the carvers, we tried to find him, but he was gone.  I think it’s the first time I’ve ever been tricked like that while traveling.  They were incredible at what they do.
I suppose the thing that bothered me most was that the money didn’t go toward the incredibly talented artists who are clearly, judging from the price their masks typically sell for, struggling.  Those of you who know me know how much I LOVE interacting with artists from different cultures and buying art, and this really left a bitter taste in my mouth about something I’ve been looking forward to for months.  Nonetheless, I got back on the horse once Wong caught up with us (he had left for a webinar) and went a little overboard, buying six other masks from an ACTUAL shop owner.  Their combined price was less than the first mask, whoops.  I was still feeling a bit bad until I got home and laid them all out together, and then I realized how grateful I was to have seen such a vibrant community of artists making such great work and to have a great body of work to take home with me.  I also learned to barter, how to get through a crowd of vendors who identify you as the only American in the market, and to always ask for the shop owner’s ID before buying.  In the end, it was a fantastic day, and I went to sleep with a lot of art and experiences from the day that I will always treasure.



Ashanti Masks


Wood Cravers

Today we met with Sami Gyabah, who manages the construction of new Microflush Biofil facilities in Ghana for GSAP.  He explained the progression of the design.  It began as a toilet that cost US$1200, and, by eliminating unsuccessful features and switching to locally-sourced materials, they have gotten the price down to under US$200, plus US$100 labor.  We also visited every privately owned Microflush Biofil Toilet that has been constructed in Pokuase and mapped them using the GPS.  I really feel like we’ve gotten a complete picture of sanitation in the district, and the interviews and data we’ve collected will be great for analysis next semester as we determine a model for successful sanitation projects in Ghana.


Padmore, Chipo, Sami, and I after a day of visiting latrines

After church tomorrow we might meet with a professor from Bentley University who markets with the Biofil technology, and we are off to rural Nyakrom on Monday to visit the Microbial Fuel Cell Latrine at the Nyakrom Secondary School.


Everyone in Pokuase gets their water from a truck that drives around town. We followed it and found that it fills its tank here…



January 8, 2014

The past two days have been more productive than I could have hoped.  I was pretty nervous going into them because I’ve had trouble scheduling things for my first few days due to everyone still being on Christmas break.  However, we had a streak of luck.  Yesterday, Charlie took us up to Ashesi University to visit their anaerobic waste biodigester.  Ashesi University is a small college that was founded about ten years ago by a former Microsoft employee from Ghana.  It has a brand new (incredibly beautiful) campus on the top of a mountain that faces the low-income village of Berekuso on the side of the next mountain.  The juxtaposition of the college’s grand campus and the village is very poetic.  The village of Berekuso is struggling; it has few if any flushing toilets, no waste collection, a washed out road, and no piped water.  The college, on the other hand, is very grand and likely will train students who will become leaders in Ghana.  The great part about it all is that everyday, the students look out over the village as a reminder of where many of them came from and of the greatest needs of the country.  This reminder is very important in Ghana, for many Ghanaians with whom I have spoken have told me about how Ghana’s development is hindered by corruption and political favors.  Also, the college has a great partnership with Berekuso and consults their leaders on nearly all decisions.  The start of the college has kick-started education in Berekuso, raised the standard of living, and brought about early plans for a paved road through the village as well.



One of the projects that came about through this partnership was the installation of a mini wastewater treatment plant on campus.  In order to prevent Ashesi’s wastewater from running off the side of the mountain and into the creek where some Berekuso residents gather water, Ashesi decided to install an innovative plant.  I’ve posted a picture of the plant below.  In the middle of the picture is the top of the anaerobic waste biodigestor.  This is basically an underground 80,000 liter sphere that contains bacteria and bugs that naturally breakdown human waste and convert it into methane and water enriched with nutrients.  The water is further treated (explained below) before being used to irrigate the campus gardens, and the methane is stored in a balloon and sold to the cafeteria to be used in gas stoves.

After the water is emitted from the biodigester, it goes through the basic treatment process, on a smaller scale.  The first step is primary clarification in which suspended particles settle out of the water by gravity.  The next step is secondary treatment, in which microorganisms consume the organic matter (the pathogens) further.  The water is further treated by using tanks containing artificial wetlands, sometimes called living machines.  In this step, reeds and other wetland plants and organisms further cleanse the water using natural processes.  Finally, the remaining pathogens are removed in the two chlorination tanks, and the water (which still contains slightly elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphates – great fertilizers) is pumped back to the top of the campus to be used for irrigation of the campus gardens.  In addition to human waste treatment, this system also handles all of the water that goes down drains on campus, including all rainwater that falls on roofs.  This prevents erosion of the hillside and contamination of Berekuso’s water through natural processes, while providing a source of energy and irrigation for the campus.


Chipo, Padmore, and I had the opportunity to interview Casper Annie, the facilities manager of Ashesi.  He was incredibly informative and gave us all the numbers we needed to evaluate the project.  The system has had a few problems, which he explained as well.  First, the disposal of antibacterial soap and bleach down drains was killing the microorganisms in the system, making it ineffective, so they switched to using more conducive cleaners.  Also, if the irrigation water is not used soon after treatment, the residual bacteria begin to multiply to unsafe levels, a problem during the rainy season when irrigation is unneeded.  Finally, Casper told us that the system was designed for only 500 students, but the school has grown to 700 and is in the process of adding an engineering building (300 additional students), so it will be adding a second identical system in the near future.  With a pricetag of US$70,000, this solution seems a bit outside the price range for most of the developing nation’s people, but it is a solution that works for 700 people right now (US$100 per user).

The provost of the university, Marcia Grant, was also incredibly helpful.  She graciously provided us with a report of an Ashesi study on sanitation in Berekuso, which shed a lot of light on the decision making behind the treatment facility, as explained above.  Also, she gave us a contact for another innovative toilet project in Ghana, which I hope to visit this weekend!


Today was more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure.  We set out in Pokuase, a region of Accra, not really knowing what to expect.  Because so many of my contacts are either still on break or have scheduled meetings later in the month, I had nothing planned today.  Still, I couldn’t stand to waste a precious day while I still have Chipo and Padmore’s help.  The plan was to ask nonprofits, sanitation and water businesses, and government institutions for addresses of innovative toilets/sanitation projects and find one to evaluate.  We found the institutions and asked them for directions, but none had any suggestions, even though we know of several facilities in Pokuase that we will be visiting later.  Eventually, we decided to evaluate a typical facility in order to establish a benchmark understanding of what typical sanitation in urban Ghana is all about.  We found a typical market area in a middle-low income area (incomes of US$2-3 dollars per day) that had a public pour flush toilet, and we evaluated it.  It was infested with flies, had an awful odor, had squat-style seats, required users to bring a bucket of water into the facility to use for flushing, and cost US$0.09 per use.  We interviewed the manager, Pascal, for a good amount of time on his views and his business plan, took some GPS coordinates, spent some time counting numbers of users and their demographics, and interviewed a good amount of users as well.

We got a pretty clear picture of the problems the facility faces.  First, during our counting, we noticed that four times as many men used the facility as women, and no children used it.  Surveyed users responded that there are no alternative public toilets within walking distance, so we can tentatively assume that nonusers must be practicing open defecation in the urban area.  Also, only about 13% of users washed their hands, and none used soap, which was stored at the front desk due to problems with soap theft.  Many users stripped off their outer clothing so as not to let the strong odor sink into their clothing.  The septic tank beneath the facility (about 27,000m^3 volume) is drained about every three weeks and is dumped directly into the ocean without being treated, which is typical for most facilities in Accra.  The facility is just one year old and replaced an old facility at the same site that consisted of open pits for defecation.  That facility was 35 years old and was shut down due to spread of diseases in the women’s half of the facility.  It was a pretty eye-opening situation.  I’ve read all about these facilities, and this pour-flush model is actually reviewed as one of the preferable models, unfortunately.  You never really realize how bad something is until you experience it first hand, I suppose.  I honestly can’t blame people too much for opting for open defecation anymore.

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This was also our first day of conducting interviews, and Padmore was a Godsend.  Most of the users had only a primary school education, so their English was broken to the point that Chipo and I could not communicate with them.  We started out by having Padmore translate my interviews with the users, but we decided that it would be far more efficient for him to simply interview them directly in Twi, the local language.  Meanwhile, I gathered a fairly large following of Ghanaian children due to the color of my skin, and we exchanged a lot of smiles and blank stares throughout the day due to our lack of a common language.  Padmore explained to me that white people rarely, if ever, come to this part of Accra, and it was probably the first time that the kids had ever seen a white person.  This was not something I was expecting at all.  They were very polite, but they just patiently stood next to me and smiled the whole day.  Even the adults and elderly joined in a bit by yelling, “Hi Obruni!” (“Hi White!”) from down the block and waving.  The winner of the most awkward encounter went to the 40-something year-old man who smiled and said, “Hi Obruni,” and bowed to me.  I had no idea how to respond.
On the way home, we had another lucky encounter.  We found that the innovative toilet that we had been looking for all day was at a school just down the hill from the Jacksons’ home.  We had missed it right off the bat.  We’re planning to visit it tomorrow though!

As a sidenote, the food has also been quite an adventure.  Yesterday, I tried Fufu, which is basically a ball of dough inside soup with chicken.  It’s really good (and spicy too).  Padmore quickly informed us that we were to eat it like Ghanaians – with our hands.  For dinner yesterday, Gifty, who lives next door and has the most adorable twin boy and girl in the world, cooked us a peanut stew with chicken.  It was even better than the fufu (and we also ate this with our hands)!  Today, however, was more adventurous.  After interviewing Pascal, we went to lunch.  I asked for a menu, and the waitress told me that they had none.  Naturally, I asked her, “Okay, well, what is good to eat here?”  She replied, “For you?? Rice.”  Me: “What? Just rice??”  Her: “Yes. Rice.”  Padmore had a side conversation with her in Twi, and then he explained to me that she didn’t think my American sensibilities could handle real Ghanaian food.  I told Padmore to order me the most Ghanaian thing on the nonexistent menu.  She was right.  She came back with a pail of water and dish soap (which we all washed our hands in), two rice balls, and a bowl with okra soup and an entire dead fish in it.  Padmore had asked me if I wanted fresh or dry fish, and apparently I chose wrong.  I picked away at it as best as I could, and I think I got most of the meat, but Pascal was kind of laughing at me throughout the whole meal.  It was lightly smoked, but it just reminded me too much of a dead fish in my bowl.  I finally just decided to enjoy the okra soup and rice, which were delicious after I pretended the fish wasn’t there.  I felt especially bad, though, when Pascal asked if he could bring my leftovers to his sons, and they devoured it all, leaving hardly any scraps.  I had been choking it down, and it was such a treat for them.  Padmore was cool about my food struggles, but he also later informed me that my meal was called “pregnant fish” and that its eggs were also in my soup.  The food record improved, however, at night, when Chipo invited another Zambian student that we met at Ashesi over, and they cooked an authentic Zambian dinner for us.  It was a meal of Nshima (beef with an incredible sauce), cabbage, and lumps (cornflower cakes that you roll into balls with your hands and use to eat the other foods), and it probably took the award for best meal of the trip so far.

Also, I just have to note how lucky I am to have the help of Padmore and Chipo.  Today would have been a major failure without their help, and it is so valuable to have two incredibly intelligent people to discuss our day’s work with once we get back to the Jacksons’ house in the evenings.  Their knowledge of African cultures and government systems is something that I know nearly nothing about (thanks Western education!), and they were the real drivers of our success today.

I don’t think I did any better on not rambling.. Sorry about that, but thanks again for reading!


January 6, 2014

I’ve been here in Ghana now for 48 hours, and I still can’t quite believe I’m here.  For those who aren’t familiar with my reasons for being here, I’ll give a quick explanation.  I’ve been very fortunate to have the chance to study Environmental and Water Quality Engineering at MIT, a track I applied for after an immersing study abroad experience in Nicaragua focused on the Global Water Crisis during my sophomore year at Luther.  As a part of our Master of Engineering program, each student has elected a project somewhere in the world that he/she will work on for the month of January.  When we return, our projects and our experiences will be the focus for our masters theses.  With support from MIT and the MIT Public Service Center, I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to Ghana to work on my thesis, as have a few of my classmates.  The focus of my project is the evaluation of innovative sanitation projects in Ghana with the goal of producing a model for successful sanitation in developing urban areas.  In other words, I’m looking at facilities (many are shared toilets) that up-cycle human waste to be sold as fertilizer or converted to electricity through a variety of means.  The goal of these projects is to take one of the world’s greatest problems, the contamination of drinking water by improper disposal of human waste, and solve it by turning it into something that can generate jobs and improve wellbeing.


Every 20 seconds, a child dies from unclean water or poor sanitation, amounting to almost 1.6 million deaths of children per year (not counting adults).  Compared to its neighbors, Ghana is rapidly developing, but it is held back by the losses of life, dignity, and time of productivity that result from its history of poor sanitation.  As of UNICEF/WHO’s latest published statistics (2011), Ghana had the seventh worst record of improved sanitation in the world.  That is, only 13% of the population has reliable access to their family’s own toilet that hygienically separates waste from human contact.  The rest of the population uses unimproved sanitation; 18% practice open defecation, 10% use unimproved sanitation facilities, and 59% use shared facilities that would be considered improved if fewer people used them.  Since the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals, Ghana has not seen much change in their improved sanitation or open defecation rates.  However, the number of people using shared facilities has increased immensely.  While this would seem to be a step in the right direction, this is not necessarily true, for shared facilities promote the spread of communicable diseases, and their users often lack the sense of ownership necessary to promote proper maintenance and cleaning.  As a result, a user of a shared facility in Ghana is more likely to become ill and/or die from sanitation-related disease than even those who practice open defecation, according to a WSP study.  My hopes are to explore this problem by interviewing providers and operators of innovative sanitation projects (most of which are shared facilities) and surveying users of these facilities.  Their business plans, the feasibility of their innovative technologies in Ghana, and their sanitation outcomes will be recorded and evaluated to help establish a model that can be used most effectively.

If you couldn’t pick it up from my long-winded explanation, I’m pretty excited about my project.  It’s a very important issue that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention, and the technologies that are being piloted here are extremely interesting.  I’ll post more information about the projects as I get a chance to visit them.

We landed in Ghana yesterday afternoon after a string of unfortunate events.  On my way from Chicago to Boston, my flight was cancelled, but I was luck enough to catch a later flight that got me there around 4 AM after hours of delays.  Then, after a day of frantic packing and last minute arrangements, our connecting flight to NYC (along with all 5 other flights from Boston to NYC) was also cancelled due to one of the biggest blizzards I’ve ever been in.  Long story short, we ended up driving to NYC (on the way, I had a very interesting chat with my advisor’s husband who is a Harvard PhD and anthropology professor studying the effects of climate change on human development), and somehow made it.  We all crashed pretty hard on the plane, which was pretty empty due to all the cancelled connecting flights.


Going to a new country, especially such a different one, is always a shocking experience for the first day.  Walking out of the airport and getting hit with the 90 degree humid air after being in Boston’s blizzard was enough of a change, but the hustle and bustle of Accra really made it even more interesting.  I think having spent time in Nicaragua made it so that I had less culture shock this time.  Maybe it’s also because I’m older now or because most people speak English, but I feel much more confident about travelling independently here than I did in Nicaragua.  We were able to get settled and meet our host, Dr. Charlie Jackson outside the airport, and we went for a nice dinner of fish (tilapia) and chips (leftover from Ghana’s British colony days I assumed) and the got settled at his home.  Charlie is the husband of Mary Kay Jackson, who is the co-founder of my advisor’s nonprofit in Ghana, Pure Home Water.  He studied mechanical engineering at MIT (undergrad) and got his PhD at Stanford.  They both are Methodist missionaries, but Charlie teaches math at Ashesi University north of Accra.  Also staying with us is my friend and classmate Chipo Mubambe, a Humphreys Fellow from Zambia who is spending a year at MIT.  Chipo is helping me to gather data for the first part of our trip before we head north, where he will start his own research.


After getting settled at Charlie and Mary Kay’s home, we sent some emails, and Padmore, a senior at Ashesi University who is acting as our translator for local languages, came over to visit.  Chipo and I gave him an overview of the projects that we’ll be visiting and showed him the surveys, and then he headed home for the night.


We woke up the next morning and decided to tag along with Charlie to church, and, wow, was it a new experience.  The church was a Pentecostal church with a Methodist background, but it had African traditions mixed in as well.  They had a very good group of gospel vocalists, and people were dancing and singing along and having a great time.  Even during the open mic announcements in the beginning, people would give a testimony about events during their week, and they’d start to sing, and people would join in, and then the jazz band up front would pick it up and everyone would be dancing.  They threw in some traditional hymns as well.  For the offering, everyone dances up the center aisle and leaves their offering in a plate at the altar.  It was far more outward than the church services I’m used to, but it was a very genuine form of worship.  It was also nice because people from all different economic groups were present and sat together as friends (everyone from the wife of Ghana’s vice president down to those who earn a dollar a day).  It really reaffirmed what I have heard about how friendly and outgoing Ghanaians tend to be.  After the service (which was over 2 hours long), we had a coffee hour outside, and I decided to grab some juice.  It was jimaica juice with ginger, and it was one of the spiciest things I have ever tasted.  I tried my best to choke it down without grimacing, but I eventually had to take a “walk around the church tent” aka find a place to discretely pour it out.  I’m pretty sure I still have the taste in my mouth a day later.

Most people don’t work on Sundays here, so we decided to take the rest of the day to get acclimated.  After church, we decided to go check out Asenema Falls, a waterfall tucked away in the jungle north of Accra.  It was about an hour north of the city, and when we got there, we set out on a jungle path to go see it.  The area was very hilly with large bluff faces and almost reminded me of a tropical version of Decorah, Iowa, where I did my undergrad.  The plants were very colorful, and we saw a lot of new species (trees with thorns on the trunks, giant cotton pods, and bright red fruits).  As far as animals go, we saw some lizards and birds and heard something fairly large moving through the bushes, but we didn’t see much.  When we got to the falls, we were surprised to find that it had apparently dried up for the dry season.  Still, it was well worth the visit.  The cliff face was pretty amazing with lichen, vines, and roots hanging over it, and the walk there was a treat in itself.

We then drove home, stopped by a fruit market (the pineapple here is amazing), and got some pizza.  Consistent with the juice from the morning, the pizza sauce was classic Ghanaian food (incredibly spicy).  I think I’ve pretty much resolved that everything I eat here (including deli meet) is going to be very spicy.  I’ll be expecting it next time.

We got back to Charlie’s house, and I worked a bit on emails and things while checking the score to the Packers game regularly, of course.  It was a bummer of a game.  Hopefully Florida State can pull things together today!

This morning we are getting to work.  Our first visit will be to an anaerobic waste biodigester at Ashesi University that converts waste into gas that can be burned to power stoves for cooking.  Padmore is on his way over, and then we’ll head out.  I’ll be sure to post more about this project next time.

If you’ve read all of this rambling post, thanks so much for taking an interest in what we’re doing — you’re a great friend (or you might be one of my parents).

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