The first steps in launching an international project are the hardest but the most important. You have a million questions about logistics and implementation. Where will we get this? How will they react to this? Some of these questions you can answer. Most of which you cannot. Ultimately, taking those first steps requires faith in what you are doing and let your vision lead the way. Although I was not a stranger to Ghana, Sand for Life Solutions was about to take a giant leap – into Ghana to begin training villagers to produce biosand filters. On May 19th, our engineer, Anthony, and I began our five week trip to commence Sand for Life Solutions’ first training operation in Ghana.
If you have never been to Ghana before, you should know three things about it. One, it is one of the most politically stable countries in all of Africa; you are at much greater risk of getting sick from the food or water than getting caught in the middle of a military coup. Two, it is a distinctly African nation with visible British influence. English, parliamentary democracy, Christianity, and black tea are mixed with over forty native languages, local tribal governance, soothsayers, and milo. Three, the southern-most tip of Ghana rests only five degrees above the equator.
As Anthony and I stepped off the plane and made our way to customs, we were reminded of that last fact. It is summer in Ghana, and that means blistering heat peppered with an occasional hour of torrential rain. This has a huge impact on life in rural villages. Everyone wakes early, knowing that either the sun or afternoon rains will paralyze any work by the early afternoon.
After a couple hour drive from the airport in Accra, we reached Sogakope, our base for the next five weeks. On our first full day in Ghana, the Sand for Life Solutions team gathered for an early morning meeting. In addition to Anthony and I, we have Kelvin, John, and Steven. Kelvin, known as “Chief,” doubles as a social worker and the Chief of the village of Havé. John, like Kelvin, is a social worker and returned, during my March trip to Ghana, from a several years stay in the Netherlands. Steven or “Major” is an artisan, a native of Sogakope, and a member of the local water sanitation committee. “Major” is also personally connected to the project as his mother-in-law lives in Tordzinu. After we made our plans for the week, we headed to the villages for formal greetings. For the second time in three months, the villagers heard about our project and gave input on our project. At these greetings, Anthony and I fully realized how bad we were at the traditional Ghanaian male handshake – a normal handshake plus locking middle fingers to snap. While we definitely need practice in that, we were ready to begin collecting materials and laying the foundation for filter production.
The next several days were devoted to searching for materials – everything from sand to metal sheets to construction tools – and mapping and conducting a census of Tordzinu and Dorkplorame. A benefit of biosand filters is that it can be a close, convenient way for a family or two to purify their water. This, however, requires us to know how many filters to make and where exactly in the villages they should be situated. Although each mapping project took several hours and involved walking a few miles, it gave us our first opportunity to work and interact with all of both communities. Along the way, we were greeted with “o-way-zoo” or “you are welcome” from adults. The children, stunned to see white Americans walking around their village, cried out “Yayvu” or “white person” to their friends. For the children, we were a must-see attraction, and their interest was understandable. When foreigners come to Ghana, about 5% come to the Volta region; even fewer than that wander outside of Ho, the regional capital; fewer still reach villages like Tordzinu and Dorkplorame.
As the weekend approached, we were ready to put everything together and complete an initial model for the villagers to replicate. We were on the ground; we were moving forward; and we were ready for more.