Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ending on a high note

We have continued to visit homes and build stoves over the past few days. We have built over 20 stoves total now, and we always have someone on the waiting list for another stove. Yesterday we explained to a woman why we seal the cracks between bricks in the stove with clay; to increase stability and to retain heat. When we visited her later in the day she had not only sealed all of the cracks in her stove with clay, but covered the entire stove in clay. This resulted in an sturdy stove with a very attractive look. We were all really impressed with the way her stove looked, and asked her if she would help us create a stove like hers for our public demonstration. Last week, we arranged for Nana Kontihene to set up an announcement over the village loud speakers advertising a sawdust stove demonstration. That demonstration happened to day, and we were all very pleased with the results.

The woman who covered her entire clay brick stove with mud/clay

We built two stoves for the demonstration, one from cement cinder blocks, and one from clay bricks coated with additional clay/mud. At 4 PM this afternoon, we lit the stoves and cooked a pot of rice to show how our stoves perform. Dark clouds and a light drizzle threatened to stop our demo, but thankfully, the rain held off for the time being. There were probably 30 villagers who showed up in addition to an abundance of kids. After the demonstration, we interviewed several people to get feedback on our stoves. We received only enthusiastic comments and positive remarks from those watching, and several people requested that we come to their homes to help them build one. Several people commented that it is easier for them to collect sawdust than to collect firewood because the sawmill is much closer to their home than the areas, which are available for gathering firewood. People liked how quickly our stove heated up the pot and noticed that our sawdust stove produced less smoke than their traditional three stone fire using firewood.

Today is our last day in Patriensa before leaving on a cultural excursion for Cape Coast. It was great to end on a high note with our demonstration. We have been working hard for the past 2 weeks, and are ready for a little relaxation time. We will be spending 2 nights at Cape Coast, and one night in Accra before returning to Patriensa for our final week on the project.

Some boys helping us carry bricks on their heads


Monday, May 28, 2012

Moving Forward

It has been a few days since my last post, so I will fill you in as best as I can. The last few days have been very productive and encouraging. After seeing Gladdus’s stove, one of Gladdus’s neighbors requested that we build her a stove. We asked the neighbor if she had bricks we could use, and she assured us that she would have them in the morning. So on Friday morning our team met with Gladdus’s neighbor to help her set up a stove. When we arrived, a group of enthusiastic kids helped us gather clay bricks from some nearby rubble. A large pile of rubble, seemingly the ruins of an old home, contained a large amount of usable clay bricks. This was a very fortuitous pile of bricks that provided the means to construct four additional cookstoves at other homes. Because the bricks from the rubble were damaged, we wanted a method to fill the holes in the stove. This had also been the case with Gladdus’s stove, and Pastor Kofi had shown us how clay and mud can be kneaded with water into a useful consistency that will dry and seal any cracks or holes. We began to show the kids that we wanted to use mud to fill the holes in the clay stove, and immediately they caught on and took control of making it happen. While several kids were digging up dirt, mixing it with water, and kneading it with their hands, several other kids would grab the mud and patch the holes in the stove. Without any hesitation or instruction, the kids began to add palm fiber residue into the mud mixture to reinforce the mud and give it strength when it dries. This was something we had not even thought of, but we quickly adopted. This is exactly the type of organic progression we are looking for, we want to see the community take the design and make it their own.

More neighbors quickly began to notice the stove and all of the kids gathered a round it. Soon we noticed a pile of bricks forming in another neighbor’s yard with a request to help them build a stove. The kids helped us stack the bricks to form the stove while other kids produced and patched clay to fill in the holes. Before finishing the second stove, we already had a request to build a third. It was like clockwork. And the group of kids followed us to each home helping us with the mud for patching holes. By the time we had finished the third stove, we were ready to take a break for lunch.

Following lunch, we set off with our translator to find someone that knew how to make bricks. Though many people do seem to already have access to bricks, there are also homes that do not. Everyone we asked seemed to think it was easy for anyone to make clay bricks, but it was difficult to finally get a hold of someone who was able to do it for us. We walked for some distance through plantain farms and over some hills, asking directions to a brick maker from those that we met in our path. After finding his home and following his children to the place where he worked, we were able to arrange for 100 clay bricks to be produced over the next week at a reasonable price. The bricks will take two days to make and several days after to dry. We expect them to be ready by the end of the week. It is important that by the time we leave Patriensa, we have ensured that there is a way for those without bricks to either create their own bricks or purchase them for a reasonable price.

That afternoon we were scheduled to meet the village leaders at the palace for our official welcome ceremony. The term palace is a very generous term for the building we entered. The palace was a humble cement structure that contained an open-aired room with seats covered in cow hide lining the walls. The front of the room was raised one step higher and on it sat three chairs: one for the chief, queen mother, and kontihene (sub-chief). It was so remarkable to see all of the community leaders arrive in the traditional colorful garments. The chief was out of town so only the kontihene and the queen mother took their places at the front of the room. In addition to those at the front of the room, one clan leader from each of the 8 clans of Patriensa and the man appointed as a spokesman to the people of Patriensa attended the ceremony. The clan leaders sat on the sides of the room while we, the guests, sat towards the back of the room. Each of community leaders circled the room greeting all of us with handshakes before taking their designated seats. The ceremony started with a prayer, which was led by our technical advisor, Dr. Ezekoye, upon the request of the community leaders. After the prayer, we began by going around the room and introducing ourselves. The community leaders introduced themselves with their full names, including the name which represents the day of the week they were born on. I received a chorus of rooting and joyful laughter from the leaders when I introduced myself as Kwaku Clint, using my Ghanaian name.

After introductions, one of the clan leaders rose and explained that it is customary for visitors to state their purpose of being in Patriensa to the community leaders in order to be officially welcomed. The project managers for both teams where requested to stand before the room and state their project missions. I explained that our team was visiting Patriensa to help the community by using recycled waste sawdust to provide a free alternative cooking fuel, and Kristina explained how her team was in Patriensa to start a water sachet business in Patriensa that would provide locally produced clean water sachets to the community. After explaining our missions, the leaders officially welcomed us to Patriensa and expressed their support. It hit me how important it is for these communities to exercise their traditional ceremonies such as this in order not to lose them. I can’t imagine there are very many visitors to Patriensa who get to experience this ceremony, and I feel so fortunate to have taken part in this cultural experience. Before leaving, Kristina and I offered gifts to the kontihene and queen mother as is customary in their culture. My team wanted to bring gifts representing the state of Texas so we gave them each a UT mug, barbeque sauce, salsa, and assorted peanuts.

On Saturday morning we met with a roadside vendor selling cooked foods who requested that we build her a couple of sawdust stoves. Kids were eager to help us again and carried blocks from the pile of rubble to the vendor’s home by balancing them on their heads. People in Ghana carry anything and everything balanced on a cloth that is wrapped around their heads, from firewood to a bucket of yams. After building two stoves, she requested yet another one. As you might guess, she too had several neighbors that wanted a stove of their own. It has become necessary to start keeping a list of the people we have committed to build a stove in order to keep track of all the requests. Saturday afternoon, we spent some time sourcing more bricks and built one more stove at someone’s home. After dinner we met with Pastor Kofi, the kontihene, and two other PPE board members to discuss our the progress of our project so far and the things we need to accomplish before leaving.

Today, Sunday, we left in the morning on a one hour drive for Kumasi to visit a researcher at KNUST University named Mike. Mike, who both teaches and researches, specializes in applied research using ceramics. He researches ways to use ceramics to purify water, produce bricks, build stoves, and much more. He is also heavily involved in research to utilize biomass and agro-waste, such as sawdust, as fuel. We spent the morning discussing our project with him and learning more about his research. It was really valuable to connect with a local researcher, and I hope that our universities can collaborate together in the future. We learned a lot from speaking with Mike and there were a lot of interesting discussions that happened during our time together, but I won’t go into that now. Our team left KNUST in the afternoon and returned to Patriensa.

Before dinner we took the time to revisit a woman whom we had provided a cookstove for days earlier. We had left her some sawdust in our previous visit so we asked the woman if she had been cooking with the stove. She responded that she had been and that it had been working well. We were delighted to hear that, but not as delighted as we were when we found out that she had walked to the closest sawmill, bagged sawdust, and brought it back to her home to cook more! Up to this point, we have been bringing sawdust to the homes that we visit to encourage people to try the stoves out. This woman had used up the sawdust we originally left her and gone to get more on her own. It was so encouraging to see that she had seen the value in our idea and the money and/or time she could save with it. She explained to us that our stove can cook meals much faster than her other stoves can. We all left her home with lifted spirits as we headed to dinner for the evening.

A sawdust stove made from cinder blocks shortly after being lit, and a sawdust stove in the background made from small fired clay bricks.

The plate on the left contains chopped yams that we boiled with Gladdus using the sawdust stove in the background made with large clay bricks. The plate on the right is a garden stew to dip the yams in.

Obama's foreign relations in Ghana seem to be doing okay.

Rahul and I standing on a mountain of sawdust that is waiting to be burned as a waste product.

Women discussing a stove we just built and some kids happy to have their picture taken (the girl in the white has learned the hook'em sign). 

One of the three sawdust stoves we constructed for the roadside vender.


Eating for a greater purpose

Mehoye! (Hi, how are you?) This is a common Twi phrase used to greet one another. Today was full of surprises, both good and bad. After spending several days in the community, we thought it would be great if the local schools adopted the sawdust stoves and used them to serve hot meals to students. We helped several school cooks prepare meals for students, but noticed that they did not seem as excited as individuals cooking in homes that we visited. We seem to always get positive feedback, but it can be hard to tell whether they are truly interested or just being polite. The cooks we work with know very little English, so we are able to communicate best when we have a translator. We can often gauge their level of interest by their tones and actions. We were disappointed that the primary school cook did not seem to be very engaged in the new idea, but we were able to help her cook a very large pot of jollof rice for the student lunches.

In the late afternoon, we headed back to visit the elderly lady named Gladdus who requested the first sawdust stove, to see how she was doing. When we arrived at her home, there was already a pot of food boiling away on the sawdust stove we built for her. Our spirits were lifted as we spoke to her about her about her experiences cooking with it. She was already developing her own methods for using the stove from the way that we originally shown her to tailor to her needs. This is exactly what we have been waiting for, individuals that see value in the stove and make it their own.

After leaving Gladdus’s, a translator accompanied us to other homes in Patriensa to tell people about our stove and ask if they would be interested in trying it out. As we talked to each household, we received an overwhelming response of interest and enthusiasm to try our cookstove. Everyone asked us to come to their homes and build them a sawdust cookstove. Why were we receiving such excitement from the individual homes but not from the schools? As I thought about each scenario, I developed a theory. The school cooks are likely not paying for their cooking fuel because they are employees of the school. Because of this, they are not benefiting directly from the money saved through a free cooking fuel. The individuals and street vendors immediately appreciate that they can save time or money by using sawdust as their cooking fuel. After spending so much time helping school cooks, it was encouraging to end the day with so much interest and positive feedback from community members.

Although we didn’t feel as successful at the schools with our cooking product, it was a lot of fun being around all of the school children during recess. All of the kids want to feel my skin, almost as if to see if my color will rub off. At times there are several kids on each hand, and some will rub on my legs. I have also experienced kids trying to scratch it off, which is much less pleasant. We played some soccer with the kids as well as simon-says type of game. I say simon-says, but the kids naturally wanted to do anything we showed them, from jumping up and down to hook’em horns. We ended our day with a meal of white rice, chicken, a tomato sauce, and fried plantains. More members from our program in the US also arrived today to join us in Patriensa. Tomorrow is a Ghanaian holiday so we will have a slightly more relaxed schedule. Tomorrow afternoon we will formally meet the Queen Mother of Patriensa who will officially welcome us into the community.

Because we are helping people cook several times a day in addition to eating lunch and dinner each day at the secondary school, we often find ourselves in sticky situations. After helping people cook a meal, they typically insist that we eat some of the food they have prepared. This wouldn't be a problem except that they often give quite generous servings...and we do this multiple times a day. I consider myself to be pretty good at scraping a plate clean, but even I have been struggling with the amounts of food. It has been a struggle to finish all of the food they provide, but we push through as best we can. It can be even more difficult if we are not particularly fond of the food being served. They typically provide one or two dishes and our whole team eats off of them with our hands. In these times, we dig deep and tell ourselves we are eating for a greater purpose.


Arrival in Patriensa

I have not had internet access since leaving the city, but we were able to purchase an internet bundle today for our modem. Today was our fourth day in the village we are working in called Patriensa, and a lot has happened. Upon arriving in Patriensa, we were greeted by Pastor Kofi, the community pastor. Pastor Kofi welcomed us, and gave us a quick tour of the places and sites that we would be working at in our projects. Our sleeping arrangements in a local guesthouse fell through, and we realized that there was a miscommunication in the dates that our local contacts provided to the guesthouse on our behalf. So we are currently staying at a hotel in a nearby town called Konongo. Each day we drive to Patriensa in large vans used for public transportation all over Ghana called tro-tros. A tro is the old word used for coin, so the name tro-tro came about because it costs one tro to get somewhere and one tro come back back. There is a local secondary school that serves hot meals to students, and that is where we eat our meals for lunch and dinner. We learn a lot of useful Twi (the local language, pronounced chwee) phrases from the students at the school.

Before I go any further, I want to talk about the actual reason that I am here in Ghana. There are two UT projects going on this summer in Patriensa, the sawdust initiative (my project), and the water sachet project. Both of these projects are associated with a non-profit organization called Patriensa Pure Enterprises (PPE). PPE was jointly established through a partnership between the University of Texas, KNUST (a local university), and the village of Patriensa. The PPE board of directors consists of people with vested interest in the community, including members such as Pastor Kofi and the Kontihene (term for the village sub-chief). PPE oversees projects that support the community, and uses any generated profits towards other community initiatives that can benefit the village. PPE helps to provide a framework and management system for the projects we are working on.

My team is working to convert waste sawdust produced from lumber mills into an alternative cooking fuel. The timber industry is very large in Ghana, and large amounts of sawdust generated from cutting wood are simply burned off as waste in order to make room for the next collection of sawdust. Sawdust on its own burns unreliably, so our mission is to create stoves that burn sawdust efficiently. We have developed stoves that can be made from cement or ceramic bricks, which are universally available materials. These stoves are able to boil 2.5 liters of (standard boiling test) water in under 10 minutes. Based on community feedback, using firewood takes on the order of 20 minutes to boil water and charcoal takes about 30 minutes to boil water. Charcoal is great for cooking because it is smokeless, but it can cost a substantial portion of a person’s income if bought regularly. Firewood is great because it is free but it takes anywhere from 2-4 hours a day to collect. The time to collect firewood can only get worse as they continue to chop down trees leading to deforestation. The ideal cooking fuel in these rural areas, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), is only used by the wealthiest top 5%. Sawdust provides a unique opportunity to create an alternative free cooking fuel that is capable of quickly achieving high temperatures.

We spent the first day testing our stove design in Ghana, and sourcing local materials such as bricks and bamboo. The last few days we have spent visiting homes and schools around the village. We have spent the past couple days visiting cooks in their homes or at a school, and asking them if they would be interested in cooking with a sawdust stove. Then we offer to build them one and help them use it to cook a meal. We ask them questions about their current stove and cooking fuel as well as ask them about their impression of the sawdust stove while they are cooking. We bring food to the homes such as yams or rice to help with the meal they cook with us. It has been really exciting to see some of the feedback we are getting. They are always impressed with the sawdust stove’s ability to quickly boil water, and they tell us that people will be eager to use a stove like these if the fuel is free. One elderly woman demanded that she be the first one to receive one of our stoves. When we showed the woman how it worked, her daughter told us that she planned to get bricks and build one for herself. The elderly woman also told us that one of her relatives worked at a lumber mill near by and could probably deliver sawdust to her house. It was really encouraging to see their excitement.

Each stove has been a little different because we try to use materials that are readily available to each person. There are piles of bricks littering the entire village and the roadsides all along these rural areas. People don’t take out loans here, so when they hope to improve their home, they will purchase small portions of bricks and materials over time as they are able. It seems as though they buy the bricks very optimistically because many of the bricks are growing moss and eroding to the point where they would no longer be structurally sound. They hold on to these bricks as dreams for a better home, though I think many people never get around to using them. The bricks may provide an opportunity for people willing to spare 6 or more of them to use them to build sawdust stoves. Some bricks are clay while others are made of cement, and they come in different sizes and conditions. So we have created a variety of stoves based on the materials available to each cook. We are also willing to provide bricks for cooks that do not have access to bricks, but it is better when we can see that it is easy for community members to get their own materials at little or no cost themselves. One option we are exploring is for villagers to gather their own clay and to create their own stoves. Nana (term of respect) Kontihene showed us where to find clay a short distance away from the village, and we gathered a little clay from the ground using a machete ourselves. We are told that anyone can gather clay for free and that everyone knows how to use it though it is a lot of work. This was another encouraging realization because it means that people are able build their stoves for free and gather sawdust for free. The clay was in a forested area with many cocoa trees, another large industry in Ghana. Nana Kontihene grabbed some of the cocoa from the trees, cut it open, and gave us cocoa pods that can be sucked on. It tasted nothing like chocolate, but after that we sometimes refer to the area as the chocolate rainforest and the name stuck.

I have been given a couple new names since arriving in Ghana. Each Ghanaian is given a name based on the day of the week they are born and their gender. Being born on a Wednesday, my name is Kwaku Clint. Pastor Kofi received his name because he was born on a Friday. They have several other names in addition to their name based on the day they were born. My other, and much more popular, name is obruni, or white man. As we walk through Patriensa we are followed, and at times surrounded, by energetic and laughing children shouting obruni.

It has been a truly unique experience to be here in rural Ghana. There is so much to take in and I am learning more everyday about the life and culture of the people here in Patriensa. The other day, Pastor Kofi spoke to me about how their extended family system works in Patriensa. The way he explained it stuck with me, “Everyone belongs to a family, every family belongs to a community, and every community belongs to a society.” So everyone has a duty to serve his or her family, community, and society. Though it is unlike anywhere I have ever been, being here reminds me of the times I spent in the Napu village in Indonesia growing up. I have so much more to write about, but I will end here for now. The days have been full and I am pretty tired by the time we drive back up the bumpy dirt road to our hotel in Konongo, but I will try to get my next post up sooner now that we have access to internet.


Setting Foot in Africa!

We left Austin, TX yesterday afternoon and arrived safely in Accra, Ghana this evening around 8:30 PM after connecting fights in Chicago and London. Our team was met by a travel agency here in Ghana called HLG at the airport who took us to our hotel. There are 5 traveling members of the team, 3 engineers and 2 social work students, as well as a UT professor who serves as our technical advisor. Our whole team was reunited for the first time at the hotel, and we shared our first Ghanaian meal together. I ate tilapia and banku, a bland starchy ball of dough commonly found in West Africa. I think I'm going to become pretty familiar with banku and similar starchy dishes in the coming weeks. Aside from some aggressive baggage carriers at the airport looking for a tip, everyone has been warm and friendly. It's pretty late here and I need to get up early to drive North to Kumasi, so I will keep this post brief. I do not know yet what to anticipate for internet access over the next 4 weeks, but I will do my best to keep the blog updated. Its been a good start, and I am really excited to experience Africa over the coming weeks!