On July 25th, our group had the wonderful opportunity to travel to a nearby village, Atekyedo (pronounced ata-che-dough). One of our Ghanaian friends, Atta Keelson, is the director of an NGO called ISHEW, International Sustainable Health, Education, and Water. It is a fairly new NGO (2010) and has some close ties to GVSU. Atta asked that we accompany him to Atekyedo to help clean the Bio-Sand Filters in the village. This is something that each group from past years of the service-learning program has helped with since the filters have been in place. These filters look like three-foot-tall, blue plastic garbage cans with a clear plastic tube coming out the side. Inside are layers of sand and other sediments which filter the water as it is poured through so it is safe enough to drink. The diffusing basket, the lid and the plastic tubing should be cleaned once every two weeks, while the filter itself should be cleaned once every three months. Atta came to the hostel on the 24th and gave us a demonstration on how to clean the filters and it seemed easy enough, so we were excited to go out and help!
Every morning, we all remind each other to take our anti-malaria medications but that morning we were also making sure those who get motion sick (like me) took their Dramamine. We packed up the bus with the gifts for the village and water sachets and were on our way. Thank goodness for the Dramamine because that ride was probably one of the bumpiest, slowest bus rides since we have been here.
The differences between Accra and Winneba are one thing, but traveling to Atakyedo was an entirely new step. This village was tiny farming community in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. It was immediately apparent why this village needed the Bio-Sand filters since there was no running water from pipes, and the closest water source was a 30 minute round-trip walk, and even then the water they collect is not safe to directly drink. The idea came up that maybe they would benefit from a well, but the land is not suitable for that.
We had been told by our supervisors that we would have to meet the Chief of the village before we could do any work there. As we pulled up, the Chief was there to welcome us as we walked off the bus. We had been instructed that when we greet the Chief, we should shake with our right hand and then our left hand should hold the bottom of our right forearm. After greeting the Chief, we walked to an open area in the middle of the village for the official greeting ceremony. They set up some benches and chairs in a circle (ish) for the community members and ourselves to sit in. The men, women and children each sat in separate sections. In my experience with the Ghanaian children, they have all been pretty out going and are always willing to say “Obrouni, how are you?” when we pass. These children were the most well behaved children I have encountered while in Ghana. They all sat very respectfully and quietly. Since most of the people in Atekyedo did not speak much English if at all, we had Samuel, our Ghanaian friend who studied at GVSU last fall, serve as our interpreter. Most of the time, I had absolutely no idea what was going on or what was being said, with the exceptional “Grand Valley” or “students” being thrown in the conversation every so often.
It is tradition that when you greet a chief that you bring gifts. Our gifts were Peach Schnapps and a bit of money. After the Chief and the elders accepted the gifts, they used the schnapps for a ceremonial prayer, pouring the liquor on the earth and praying aloud. One thing that I enjoyed and brought me back to my high school days was starting and ending the conference with prayer, just as we used to start and end each school day. The one thing that seemed a little strange was that the man who was saying the prayer removed his right shoe before doing actually saying the prayer. When we were finished with prayer, the Chief and the village leaders welcomed us and asked what our purpose was for visiting Atekyedo. Our faculty advisor, Dr. Azizur Molla, introduced us and explained that we were students from GVSU in Michigan who have come to strengthen the relationship between the village and GVSU, as well as keeping the promise to come back each year to help with the Bio-Sand filters.
Azizur said, “We are all citizens of a global village, where we are able to learn from and help each other.” This stuck out to me because of some of our previous discussions we have had during debriefings. We have discussed how some people have this image of traveling to “help the poor people of Africa,” yet sometimes that service might not be something the people of that area want. A quote from an article I read was “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This quote made me think about what Azizur was saying at the Chief meeting.
The trip we came on is called a service-learning trip for a reason. We are here first to serve, whether that be with Challenging Heights, the Ghana Health Service, or ISHEW in doing whatever they need us to do rather than doing what we think they need, and second to learn. This learning is partially from the credits GVSU awards us, but more importantly from the lessons we learn through our experiences with the people and environment here. In helping the people in Atekyedo, we learned skills that could be handy at any point in the future if we were to work with ISHEW or Bio-Sand filters again. But more importantly, the experience there had made an impact on each of us in one way or another.
One of the things GVSU has done in working with Atekyedo is raising money for a cassava press and a building to house it. The Chief told us that the press is no longer in working condition because we have been unable to raise enough money to build a structure to house it. This was really sad to hear since the cassava project has the potential to bring in new jobs and rev up the economy in this little village. We are still hopeful that we will be able to help provide funds to fulfill our promise in the future.
Thanking the Chief and village elders
After the meeting with the chief, we walked down the road for a tour of the school ISHEW advocated to the government to build for the children in Atekyedo. It was set up for students up to 6th grade. It was a very nice school with huge blackboards in each room and had plenty of desks to go around. While we were wandering around, the children followed us quietly as shadows. One of the classrooms had song lyrics for what looked like a church song on the blackboard. When the children saw it, they started to sing. Their voices sounded so nice together. Once they finished their song, we started singing the only fante song we know, Da na se. They joined in too, which was awesome!! Once we finished singing, we presented the head master of the school and the Chief our gifts for the school. These included some class set books and other school supplies that they needed. They were so happy to have received these supplies which made us happy to feel like we made even the smallest difference to the school!
We finished up at the school and headed back to the village to be introduced to the filters and how to clean them. We were split into five groups of three and given the cleaning supplies for the filters: small sponges with string tied to them to clean the tubing, chlorine bleach to make the water safe to drink after cleaning the filter, a bar of soap to clean the top and diffuser, a bucket to collect water, a cup to measure the flow rate of the filter, and a spoon to scoop out excess water from the filter before cleaning if needed. Atta brought us into one of the houses, which already had a clean filter just to show us the parts of the filters and demonstrate how it works. When we walked into the house I honestly I do not know what I was expecting to see, but it definitely wasn’t emptiness. The house had only two rooms, the first of which was almost completely empty and the second had just the filter, a bed and a dresser. I was somewhat surprised not to see a bathroom or kitchen. I guess I really shouldn’t have been since I see people preparing meals outside and others using the sewers as bathrooms all the time but I never really thought that maybe they do that because they didn’t have things like that in their homes. That’s definitely something I have obviously always taken for granted, especially since I have a kitchen and a bathroom (a toilet and shower with running water) both at home and here at the hostel.
Atta wanted to show us how to actually clean the filters so we wandered to another home. The filter in this home was very dirty, perfect for demonstration. We removed the lid and diffuser to clean with the soap, scooped the extra water from the top of the filter into the bucket with the spoon, and then stirred the remaining water very lightly, making sure not to disturb the sand layer at the top. We removed the tubing and cleaned it with the sponge and string. The only thing left to do was check the flow rate. For this, we filled the Bio-Sand Filter with some water and collected water in the cup. We timed the water coming out of the filter for one minute and measured the amount that came out. If it was less than half a regular water bottle, then the filter needed to be stirred again. If not, the water is ready to be collected. This water isn’t as safe to drink straight away since the sediment layers may have been disturbed with the cleaning so we added two or three drops of the chlorine bleach to the water to sanitize it. This water is still not safe enough to drink either so we ask that they let the collected water sit in the bucket for two days and give the home a pack of water sachets as a supplement.
We thought we were all ready to go out and clean but then we realized that we had five groups but only four interpreters. We needed the interpreters to help us collect information through questionnaires that ISHEW had created. The questionnaires were used to collect data for ISHEW, for example, if people know how to clean the filters themselves, where and how they get the water to put in the filter, and how the filters have been beneficial to the family. The villagers did not speak much English, so the interpreters were very important to have in each group. My group got split up so we made-due with what supplies we had and borrowed from other nearby groups when we needed something we didn’t have. Each group was assigned to clean seven filters but fellow GV student Chloe and I had to try to get five while trying to share Atta as our interpreter with another group. This made things difficult enough, but there also wasn’t an organized way to monitor what houses had been cleaned and which hadn’t. The village was basically a bunch of randomly placed homes and structures which would have made it hard to navigate and organize even if we did have a better system. Also, the randomness of the homes also caused some confusion when it came to house numbers. Each home was supposed to have a house number but some had the same number as others, and some didn’t have a number which made it increasingly difficult to differentiate the houses on the questionnaires.
Another somewhat frustrating thing was that we did not have sufficient cleaning supplies. We had the soap but no sponges or rags to clean the lids and diffusers. I felt bad asking the homeowners to borrow their own cleaning supplies, but we wanted to clean the filters so it was a necessary request.
Cleaning the filters
In all of this, there were redeeming moments; it was when I realized that the people of Atekyedo would not be able to clean the filters the way we were on their own because they do not have the chlorine water handy in their homes. This made me realize I was doing something to actually help since the filters are supposed to be cleaned this way every three months, but I am almost positive they do not get cleaned that frequently.
While filling out one of the questionnaires, a man responded to the question on where he gets his water to put in the filter by saying that he will collect it every time it rains so he does not have to make the 30 minute round trip walk to the nearest water source. I was happily surprised by how resourceful this man was and wondered why other families or individuals of Atekyedo didn’t do the same thing. At the same time, however, it got me thinking about the water I have in my life that could be in a bottle, from the faucet, from the shower head, in the toilet, anywhere, and how it seems to just always be there for me when I need it. Thinking about having to walk 30 minutes for water that isn’t even clean enough to drink and having to put it through a filter really got to me.
Interviewing for the questionnaires
I found myself comparing what I had even at the hostel with what these people had in their homes. I have electricity and wifi, a bed to sleep in, a fan to keep me cool and so many other things that I don’t even think about just because they have always been a part of my life. I always have water clean enough to drink when I need it, and food to snack on when I get even the slightest bit hungry. When at home I get hungry and look in the pantry for something to eat, but then walk away from a full cupboard because it’s not exactly what I had a taste for in that moment. It is pretty frustrating to think about and feel so undeserving of what I have in comparison to the people in Atekyedo. I didn’t do anything to deserve being born into my family instead of a family here or in a similar community. Since this is obviously something I am not able to change, it is something I need to internalize and be mindful of at home. Even if that means just doing something small like taking colder, shorter showers or something big like working with GV’s student organization to create a fundraiser for ISHEW and the people of Atekyedo.
All in all, it was a really nice to visit Atekyedo and feel like I was doing something worthwhile to the people, and I am excited to work with Atta Keelson and ISHEW again in one way or another!
Check out ISHEW's blog at http://www.isheworg.blogspot.com or Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ishewgh?fref=ts