Monday, March 2, 2015

Reflections from a Student: Sarah Robitaille

My name is Sarah Robitaille and I am currently a senior at Messiah College. I have been involved with Africa WASH and Disabilities Study since my freshman year. I remember when our project was the Mali Water and Disabilities Project. Throughout my time here, it has been such an inspiring thing to see this project expand and see its work done in so many countries.
            Some highlights of my time in the project occurred during my site team trip to Ghana in the summer of 2014. This trip was a transformative experience for me. Meeting the people that we dedicate our work to was both inspiring and motivating. Traveling to Africa put our work in context and after this trip, the project seemed so much more important to me. No matter how mundane tasks some can be everything we do is always in a greater effort. I am forever thankful for the opportunity I had to travel to Ghana. This country holds such a special place in my heart and I carry the memories I made there with me.
            I am also thankful for the great experience the Collaboratory has been to me. I watch our engineering and education students in admiration. They use the skills they learn in the classroom selflessly to help empower people with disabilities. Our project has some of the hardest working classmates I know and I am so grateful to work with them. As a chemistry major, my role has always been changing. Chemistry doesn’t directly fit into our project, however after getting involved my freshman year, I knew this didn’t matter. I do my best to contribute to whatever needs to be done.

            This year however I have gotten to explore some of my own initiatives more directly related to my field of academic study. I have discovered a love for public health over the past few years and a large portion of this interest is the result of my involvement in Africa WASH and Disability Study. I have been able to incorporate this interest into our project by beginning to develop some educational initiatives which connect this field with persons with disabilities. The educational portion of our project is the major component to fighting attitudinal barriers that people with disabilities face. I have enjoyed having the opportunity to learn more about this portion of our project and am incredibly thankful for my involvement in the Collaboratory during my time at Messiah College.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Final Words and Favorite Moments

Last Day in Ghana:

This morning we joined the World Vision Ghana National office staff for worship this morning and had a short debrief meeting with the National Director, Hubert Charles, afterward.  He was encouraged by our work and emphasized the importance of disseminating the findings of this project and the work of WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) in general to Ghanaian policymakers and other NGOs.

Afterward, we accompanied Rodney and Nate for a brief meeting with the National Director of Innovations for Poverty Action, an international non-profit research organization.  Their office just happened to be located just across from Labadi Beach so we decided to stay in the neighborhood for lunch!

We will depart from the Accra airport just after 10 PM tonight. We appreciate your prayers as we travel home over the next day, thank you so much for your support and for keeping up with our travels on this blog. We have learned so much on this trip (and so has the World Vision staff we have been working with!) and are excited to put this knowledge into practice as we continue this project. We have also been able to see some incredible things, including Juliet, a women who uses a hand powered wheelchair, fetching water herself for the very first time in her life. We are excited to share some of these experiences with you. Also, stayed tuned for the documentary which will be completed later this semester! You can follow Derick's film blog at

During our last post, we shared some of the most significant things we had learned on this trip. Now, on a more light-hearted note, as we debrief this experience, we thought we would share some of our highlights and favorite moments of the trip.

Rodney's Bribe.  Arriving in Accra two weeks ago, Rod was the last of the team to exit the customs area.  Separated from the rest of the team, he was approached by a man in apparel that gave him the air of an airport security officer.  The man said to Rodney, "You need to give me $20."  Rod asked the man why and he simply insisted that Rod needed to give him $20.  Assuming this must be an unusual part of Ghanaian immigrations protocol, Rodney handed him a $20 bill.  Once reunited with the team, he recounted the incident. We agreed that he had just been scammed and recounted the incident to Williamson, the World Vision staff member sent to pick us up.  Williamson, in turn, reported this to a group of airport security guards, who accompanied Rodney back to the man and asked him to return the money (which he did).    Neither an argument nor a reprimand ensued.  Thus began our through the looking glass experience of entering a different culture.

Hot Dog Pizza.  In which the team looks forward to having pizza on our second night in Ghana and discovers that the more accurate translation of "pepperoni" on a Ghanaian menu is closer to "hot dog."  Derick, at least, enjoyed this new delicacy. (Also, if you ever visit Ghana, please know that any time you order sausage or pepperoni, you will likely get hot dog.)

Rat poop.    Elizabeth and Nate CLAIM to have observed a very large rat exiting the dining room at breakfast one day.  Later that evening, about halfway through an engrossing game of Bananagrams, Elizabeth announced that she had discovered what she BELIEVES was rat poop on the very table we were using for our game.  This inspired Nate to compose a lyric poem on the subject which reduced us all to tears.  Please ask Nate to recite it for you the next time you see him.

Bar Cliff (So named by our driver and pump technician Gabriel).  Between us, we packed not two, not three, but SEVEN boxes of Cliff Bars for "emergency sustenance" on the trip. (Mind you, this is 49 granola bars. 49!)  We were glad to have them for our field days because, except for the offer of some local stew (appreciated by Evie but not so much by Elizabeth or Nate), we didn't have lunch on our days in the village.  Nate graciously agreed to store our generous Cliff rations in his room.  You can imagine our surprise when we discovered after our first field work day that our supply had mysteriously dwindled to about 10 bars.  An accounting revealed the following:  Rod: 8, Elizabeth: 3, Evie:  2, Derick: 9, Nate:  "I was hungry."

Ostrich.  In which Derick persuades some of the children of the Tolon community to run in front of him so he can film them running.  The rest of us were interrupted in our work at the pump site by the uproarious laughter of the adults to see Derick and camera flapping across the field in hot pursuit of a tittering flock of small children.  With elbows out to hold the camera, Derick looked for all the world like an ostrich herding its chicks.

Paga Chief's Compound:   Otherwise known as Achala Village Tours and Museum.  Otherwise known as "the Paga tourist trap."  We especially appreciated the "archeological artifact" from Paga's ancient history with the Ghanaian flag on the side.  You do the math.

Ode to a Latrine.  Composed on our last day in Talensi.  Ask Evie to sing you all the verses sometime.

Mr. Po-Poo.  Nate considers this his finest moment to date in his development career.  He managed to convince the fine people of Talensi that this was Rod's actual name.  A coup of persuasive communication or inditement of Nate's character?  We will let you be the judge.

The Chicken Frisbee.  In which Elizabeth desecrates the chief's holy chicken water in search of a frisbee.  (Notice how this tale has already begun to take on epic proportions.)

Skip-Bo.  After two failed attempts to figure out the instructions (written for children over the age of 7) and a pretty lame experience once Derick deciphered the rules, we fail to see how this game can be considered under the category of  "amusement." Take note: Despite what the packaging might say, if you're looking for a short, fun, amusing game, Skip-Bo is not for you.)

The Taxi Ride. Imagine a car. A tiny car. Not as small as a Smart Car, but a tiny, four-passenger Nissan that does not boast much more space. Now picture all five team members wedging themselves in said Nissan designed for four for the hour long ride back from the beach to our hotel in rush hour traffic. Believe us, we looked like we were riding in a clown car all piled up on top of each other in the back seat.  Elizabeth laughed uncontrollably most of the way home.  (And had you seen us, you probably would have too!) Thankfully for the rest of us, Elizabeth is good at maintaining bladder control while laughing.

The Officer.   In which Nate gets arrested and the team goes to jail.   Well, not exactly, but almost.   In the middle of said taxi ride, Nate makes eye contact with a police officer patrolling a busy intersection.  The officer comes over to the car, yanks open the door, starts pulling on Nate's arm and seat belt and yelling about how many people the taxi was carrying.  Amazingly, the taxi driver was able to placate the officer, who responded by laughing and tweaking the taxi driver's ear (literally).  We were astounded how quickly the officer's affect changed from fury to amusement.  The driver claims he only explained that there was just one passenger in front (in compliance, apparently, with the law).  Moral of the story:  NEVER make eye contact with a police officer when dancing on the edge of the law.

Tox. In which Evie creates a new word for the purposes of winning at Bananagrams. "Tox." Meaning to intoxicate, to toxify, to curse (as in "to tox upon your houses"), to infect.

Elizabeth's negotiating skills. Look for her forthcoming video series "You Too Can Get a Good Deal," "How to Charm Your Way out of Any Sticky Situation," and "Bargaining for Dummies." Ask her to demonstrate next time you see her.

Buffalo. At breakfast in Bolga.
Evie: "Those donuts  are really good. What are they called?"
Server: "Bol Float."
Evie: "Buffalo?"
Server: "Yes."
Evie: "Wow, a Mamprusi term I can actually remember! Thanks!"
Evie proceeds to tell the team the imaginative name for this delicious breakfast delicacy. The team proceeds to confidently ask for "buffalo" each morning at breakfasts thereafter.
In a discussion with Gabriel on the way back to Tamale, the team was informed of their error. (It's pronounced similarly to 'ball float'...not exactly the same as buffalo.)
Evie: "They are still buffalo to me!"
The wait staff is probably still laughing at us.

Nate's imitations. In the right mood, Nate can do a side-splitting imitation of French people, Russians, Ghanaians, Mexicans, a French person speaking careful, he may even do an imitation of you!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Lessons Learned Building Latrines

Today begins the wrap-up portion of our trip.  Auntie Benedicta, the team leader of the Bolgatanga base came to see us off from the hotel and showered us with gifts to send us on our way back to Tamale.  We also met with some of the World Vision staff at the Tamale base for a debriefing meeting and had the opportunity to share with them the things we had accomplished on the trip. We will stay in Tamale tonight and fly to Accra tomorrow.

Over meals today we've been talking about what we have been learning on this trip.  Here are a few of our notes:

1.  We have been learning how important it is to work WITH the community rather than FOR the community and how difficult this is to put into practice.  We have admired Noela's and Gabriel's skilled communication, maintaining a delicate balance of persuasiveness, stubbornness, clarity and humor.

Noela using her persuasion skills when talking with the community.
2.  To do this, you have to have a LOT of patience to persevere and walk alongside a community while they consider a paradigm shift.  Noela and the ADP staff in the areas where we worked on this trip spent weeks laying a foundation of understanding before we stepped off the plane.

3.  On a service trip designed to build latrines, poo-poo becomes a perfectly acceptable topic any time of the day (car rides, construction, and even dinner.) We even got t-shirts advertising world toilet day! Additionally, we learned that poo-poo is a universal term across any cultural and language barrier (a lesson which Nate demonstrated the truth of.)

4.  We've also learned that, in order for the working-with to happen, sometimes, you need to be willing to walk away when a community is not ready for the partnership.  This happened to us on Monday.  Though Noela and Gabriel had gone ahead Sunday to arrange for a certain community to gather the materials to build a latrine, when we arrived Monday nothing had been done.  We had to tell them we were moving on to a different place. To be a truly free partnership, both parties have to be free to say no.

5.  Sometimes WE are the ones needing to have a paradigm shift too.

6.  Derick and Rodney learned that to film in this context, you have to be really proactive about equipment, resources and planning (so the car with the camera equipment doesn't drive off just when you need to use it!)

Derick capturing the moment from behind the camera.
7.  Gabriel learned (after MUCH persistent persuading from Elizabeth, who was soon thereafter given  the titles of diva and queen) that access ramps really do need to be long enough to maintain close to a 7% grade.  The ramp at the Talensi ADP was angled at close to 45 degrees (much too steep for even a physically abled person to climb!) We thought it would be great for sledding!

Gabriel hard at work (as usual!)
8. This relates to a new appreciation for how long it takes for people to adopt new ideas.  Development work is a RELATIONAL PROCESS--not just doing things people need!

9. We learned that protocol is IMPORTANT.  Taking time to meet with WV leaders at the start and end of each leg of the trip; greeting the chief of each village where we worked;  taking time for greetings among participants at each location.  These are not necessarily American instincts but are important to effective work here.

10. Photos + nice old man + Evie = team caught in a tourist trap. At our tour of the 'ancient' village, we learned that artifacts unearthed from an archeological dig had Ghanaian flags painted on them (which, interestingly enough, was not founded until 1960.) Lesson learned!

Thank you for your continued prayers and support as our trip comes to a close! We have so e final meetings with World Vision staff in Accra as well as a few additional interviews for the documentary before heading back to the states on Friday. Stayed tuned for another post outlining some of our favorite memories of the trip!

Final Field Day

On Tuesday, we finished the pump in Talensi (near Bolga) and had the privilege of watching Juliet--a local woman who uses a wheelchair trike--pump and carry water by herself for the first time!  Both Juliet and DJ Cliff, a local DJ who uses braces and canes to walk, told us that being able to access basic services on their own is an important experience of empowerment that encourages them to tackle other challenges like accessing education and using their skills in the professional world.
Everyone in the community (young and old alike!) helped with the construction.

Juliet was able to pump water for herself for the very first time!
In the afternoon we drove to a different family's compound in the area to build another accessible pit latrine using local materials.  This time, with the help of the family, we finished the whole project in just a few hours! The family will eventually put up walls of mud brick as we did in Tolon but for now the latrine has some natural ventilation.

 A cement seat was added to the top to help persons with disabilities access the latrine.

One of the beneficiaries of the new latrine. 
We asked one of the neighbors what he thought and he said.  "This is very good!  I'm going to build one for myself!"

This comment and our experience on this trip inspired us to write a little song. (Because we found this so inspiring, we set it to the tune of Wesley's famous hymn "And Can It Be".) The first verse goes like this:

And can it be that I should gain
a latrine made from local things?
All made by me who caused this stain? [point to pant seat]
By me, without blocks or VIP?   [VIP stands for ventilated improved pit latrine, a type of construction that is too expensive for the average Ghanaian to build on their own]
Oh, holy poop, how can it be?
I poop in the latrine made by me.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Warm Welcome...Round 2

Hello family and friends!

Wow, not one but two blog posts in the same day. (We had meant to post the previous one yesterday but encountered some technical difficulties.) As a result, we are able to give you a two for one deal--two posts, one day! (Also, apology for the lack of pictures...we will look to resolve that for tomorrow's post!)

We traveled to a new community today just outside of Bolga. We would love to report that the people we're welcoming and eager to see us...but that could not be further from the truth. We arrived first to the latrine sight to find that the necessary materials to build the structure with had not been collected and as a result we would not be able to start construction today.

We then traveled to the site of the pump and again the community seemed indifferent to our proposed work. It was then that we realized we needed to bring our concerns about the project to God and held a brief prayer meeting as a team in the village. After that, things started to quickly improve!

A difficulty we faced today that did not pose to be as much of a hurdle in Tamale was the language barrier. Since all of the schools are taught in English, most of the children know the language well, but many of the adults do not. Twi is the trade language so many are familiar with that. However, in the more rural communities, many of the adults only speak their local dialect.

Thankfully, both Noela and Gabrielle (World Vision Ghana employees that have been traveling with us) are fluent in Twi. However, in this particular community, many of the adults only spoke their local dialect. Noela found someone to translate from Twi to the local dialect as she explained the project.

Between all of these languages going back and forth, you can guess where that left us: lost. Very, very lost. However, that did give us an incredible opportunity to observe the body language of both the audience and the speaker and try to piece together what was going on in the conversation.

The transformation from the beginning to the end of the local village was incredible. Though they were hesitant to recognize the importance of the new pump structure and sanitation in general, the community left the meeting singing and dancing. Yes folks, that is singing and dancing in excitement of this project. Singing and dancing!

As a result of the community involvement, we were able to complete the pump modifications in one day! What a change from just a few hours earlier that morning. The pump modifications included a ramp (particularly designed for persons in wheelchairs but also convenient for others in the community) and a lifting station (to assist the people in lifting the heavy buckets of water to their heads.)

We all had lots of fun building the pump superstructure with the community involvement. All of us got a lesson (and practice) in carrying buckets on our heads (though don't expect a demonstration when we get back.) And yes, Elizabeth did receive several marriage proposals though no one was able to post the price of 50 cows for her hand.

At the end of the day, the community gifted us four guinea fowl and were very grateful for the work we had done. The transformation in attitude we witnessed today reminded us of a story that Gabriel had shared with us. Gabriel is a technician with World Vision Ghana. When he first began work on the latrines several years ago, he spent and entire year just talking with people in e villages about the importance of sanitation and hygiene. In that whole year, he was only able to convince one community to build a latrine. The next year, he continued educating the communities but was able to build three latrines. Following those times, the information about the importance of these structures to both health and hygiene has rippled through the communities. It is our hope that this message will continue to spread and that, by using local materials, many communities will begin constructing their own facilities without the assistance of World Vision.

Following our time at the community, were able to meet with some members of the Ghana Blind Union as well as a a local assembly woman who is blind herself. The documentary team was able to film interviews with many of the individuals there. While the team completed the real work and conducted the interviews, Elizabeth instead found herself playing freeze tag with some of the children of the interviewees.

We are looking forward to completing the construction of the pump modifications tomorrow and beginning the construction of the latrine as well. Here are some specific prayer requests we would ask you to keep in mind:

--Pray that the communication barrier would be more easily worked around and that the community would begin to embrace and adopt the new practices for sanitation and hygiene.
--Pray that the construction of the latrine would be successfully completed and that the community's indifferent attitude to the latrine would be transformed in a similar way to that which we saw today.
--Pray for the continued safety of the team and community alike as we work together to construct these structures. 
--Pray for open doors for us to engage the community and for bridges of trust to be built between the team (and World Vision staff) and the village.

Crocodile Hunters!

We thought we would take this opportunity to highlight some things to do in the Bolga area. We were able to spend this weekend enjoying some much needed rest before beginning work in a new community on Monday.

On Saturday, we visited two local attractions: Paga Crocodile Pond and the chief's palace (or what we thought was the chief's palace...) According to the Ghana Tourism Authority, "It is a customary offense to harm, kill or show any sign of disrespect to the crocodile of Paga. It is not uncommon to find children and or visitors sitting at the back of or holding the tail of a crocodile without any harm, after a sacrifice of fowl." (Unfortunately for us, we were hoping to feed Nate to the crocodiles. Apparently, however these were friendly crocodiles.)

The crocodile pond has more than 200 crocodiles living in it. We were able to interact with two different crocodiles, including one that was over 90 years old. Evie was able to take her horse back riding skills to a new level on an entirely new species when we were each given the opportunity to sit on the crocodile's back and lift its heavy tail.

It wasn't until after our time at the pond that we learned why the crocodiles are so tame. The locals believe that the crocodiles are reincarnations of their ancestors and, since they are therefore human, the animals would do nothing to harm a member of the human race. We're not so sure if we follow this logic...

Nate looking frightened (and reasonably so!)
After our time at the crocodile pond, Evie met a new friend. He showed us pictures of a beautiful palace and encouraged us to come and visit. We followed but soon realized that the village he took us to was nothing like the photos. We were in a tourist trap! Yes friends, even in Africa, you can still fall into these traps. Some of the stories of the "ancient" village were questionable at best, but he was a nice man and it certainly was an experience we will not soon forget.

He was so proud of his sign that he insisted we take a picture of him with it. Beware: tourist trap ahead!

Elizabeth and Evie with Evie's new friend
Today we were able to worship at a local Pentecostal church. The pastor's wife graciously offered to pick us up at the hotel. The church was very large with close to 1000 people in attendance. We were able to spend this afternoon at the hotel planning with Noela for the upcoming week.

We will begin our day tomorrow by meeting with some of the World Vision staff in Bolga before heading out to the community we will be working with. We plan to construct one modified pump and one latrine in this village, much like we did with the previous community.

If you have a chance (and have not done so already), please take a minute to check out the website for the documentary that Derick and Rodney are working on. They have already posted some incredible clips from our time here and will be continuing to update the site as work progresses. The link for the site can be found here:

We would also like to continue with our personal updates of each member of the team:

Derick: Derick can beat almost anyone in any game...beware if you agree to play a card game with him! On the positive side however, he can also figure out how to play almost any game (including Skip-Bo, which is interestingly much harder to figure out than it may appear!)

Nate: Nate has used some of the downtime of the trip honing his poem and song writing skills (particularly if they involve the topic of latrines.) We've encouraged him to explore this alley as a possible second career.

Rodney: Rodney has developed a tendency to leave empty soda cans and water bottles laying about. We all have had to pick up the slack by picking up after him.

Elizabeth: After several marriage proposals in the village last week, Elizabeth hopes that the team will maintain the high price of 50 cows for her hand in marriage as we head into the next village. (Better not do anything to upset the team if she hopes to make it back to the US...)

Evie: Without Evie, we would not have not fallen into the tourist trap village in Paga. Though Nate and Rodney rolled their eyes at her through the tour that day, we've decided that was a fun experience and one we would not have had without her!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Construction, Cows and Completion!

Today we spent our last day in Tamale! We headed to the village first thing this morning to complete the construction on the latrine and pump.

The final latrine design included a latrine seat and hand support inside the structure. This will make it much easier for persons with disabilities to use the facility with no assistance. After making some slight corrections in the cement, the pump was finished as well! 

Completed pump modifications
New pit latrine...anyone want one in their back yard?
The community made a lunch meal for the team which Evie, Elizabeth and Nate were able to try (though some of them might say that the village food is certainly an acquired taste!) Throughout the day, Elizabeth received several marriage proposals from the young (and not so young) men in the village. Thankfully the team had decided she was worth the high price of 50 cows and since no one was able to pay, she was able to continue traveling with the team. 

Tasting some food prepared by the community
The village was very excited for the completion of the new technologies. It was very encouraging to see the community members working on the latrine using their own materials. After completing the structure, the local artisan working with us even indicated that he was going to build a similar latrine in his own home! We hope and pray that many others will see this design as well and build a similar one in their community. 

Since most of the work was completed in the early morning, we were also able to spend some time distributing balloons and bubbles with the children. Many of the children (and adults alike) had never seen bubbles and were excited to give them a try!

Balloons and bubbles
We had an incredible opportunity to pray with the community not once, but twice. Nate was able to offer a blessing before we ate the meal prepared by the village. At the conclusion of the work day, we were asked if we would offer a prayer over the community. What an incredible opportunity to be asked to share our faith (especially in a village which is entirely Muslim!)

Derick and Rodney were able to spend some time at the village but also had the opportunity to film the production of a local radio show hosted by a person with disabilities who has benefitted from the work of World Vision.

Late this afternoon, we drove to Bulga which is located about 2 hours north of Tamale. Bulga is a slightly smaller city and is near where we will be working on the next site. We plan to construct another pump and latrine superstructure in a similar community in this region. We will begin work on Monday and hope to have it completed by Wednesday! For now, we are looking forward to spending the weekend relaxing in Bulga and plan to attend a local church on Sunday.

The team has been extremely blessed to be able to accomplish so much in the first village! Our God is faithful and we are so grateful for the ways He has answered our prayers. THANK YOU for all of your prayers and continued support. We are looking forward to resting this weekend in Bulga in preparation for continued construction and filming next week!