Monday, May 28, 2012

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.


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