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2010: Travis Watters Reporting From Ghana

The End

Manny Hernandez (right) - One of the world's foremost builders of filter factories, and a chief consultant on this project, pictured here with Mr. Sabani, program manager of Pure Home Water

Susan Murcott - Senior lecturer at MIT and director of Pure Home Water

Tom Hay - MIT student, charged with addressing quality control issues

Leah Nation - MIT student, charged with documenting Manny's filter factory construction process, pictured here with Ruben
, employee of Pure Home Water

Reed Miller - My research partner, charged with studying flow rate and removal efficiency of filters (pictured here, very dirty)

Zainab - Housekeeper at Pure Home Water's Tamale office

Bavna (with me)- Neighbor of Pure Home Water and daughter of Purkesh

Purkesh, Travis and Jaya
Purkesh (at left) - Neighbor of Pure Home Water and owner of second largest sachet water vendor in Tamale, known as Aquaba, seen here with me and Jaya, manager of her family's second home business and wife of Purkesh

John - The foreman of the filter factory construction

Emmanuel - The mason of the filter factory construction

Lydia - A Ghanaian lab technician who will continue testing the flow rates and removal efficiencies of the filters once Reed and I leave Ghana.

My final day in Tamale. With Manny, Tom, Leah and Susan all gone, I still managed to wake up early with Reed to do a little work in the morning. I helped him soak the filters in a silver solution (the silver acts as a biocide, killing bacteria in the influent water), and asked if there was anything he needed, but he sent me back to the house. I napped, packed and headed out to the markets to pick up some gifts for the folks back home.

Tom and I have discussed our surprise at how comfortable we've become in this environment. It's not as though it's hard to tell I'm a tourist, but I'm a little less apprehensive now about the busy, mostly unmonitored roadways, the noisy markets with open sewers and open meat, the unknown rapid-fire language zipping around my ears. You can see how this place could be home. Indeed it has been, for the last month.

I finished shopping and return to the house, only to remember that today was the semi-final match of the Africa Cup of Nations! Ghana versus Nigeria, 4 p.m.! I made some quick phone calls and gathered Zainab and Ruben to come with me to Sparkles to watch the match. (Ruben's position is especially interesting, being a Nigerian-born Ghanaian. He said if Ghana lost, his family would call him and tell him he clearly never should have left home.) And, as we were leaving, who did we see but Mr. Sabani, returning to deliver some long-lost items to be taken back to "Prof," as he calls Susan. We piled into his car and headed out to see if we could catch the second half.

I was excited to watch the match in a legitimate Ghanaian bar, and looked forward to living and dying on every play along with the locals. Apparently, and I did not know this, if you want to find white people in Tamale, head to Sparkles Bar, near the cultural center. Perhaps there's a gravitational force there that attracts only the light-skinned, because that bar was weirdly populated with what must have been every single white person in Tamale at the time. This only numbered about 15, so at least half the bar still had honest rooting interest in the game, but where I expected mayhem I saw rather a fairly tame display of sports pride. Still, there were appreciative "oohs" and "ahs" on all the close plays, and though we arrived late to the bar and did not see Ghana's goal, we heard the country erupt when Asamoah Gyan knocked in a header in the 21st minute to put the Black Stars up 1-0. The patrons counted down the final seconds of the game, and when the referee declared Ghana's victory official, we found ourselves suddenly the only table still occupied, as everyone else had streaked out into the streets for celebration.

Zainab and I hunted down a nearby drum circle, where four men were pounding away on huge djimbes while twenty-somethings danced in a tight circle (why, why didn't I bring my camera?). The Modern City Music Store was blaring music, which mixed with the celebratory stutter of car horns. God bless the homeland Ghana! It wasn't quite the same as the riots after the Red Sox won the World Series, but it was festive nonetheless.

When we arrived back home, Reed was still curiously absent. But no matter, because who should join us upon return but Bavna, our gregarious next-door neighbor! I followed her home for a few minutes to collect a farewell picture with her, Purkesh and Jaya. The lure of another delicious Indian dinner waited seductively on the table, but I was so full from our time at Sparkles I was able to resist. Bavna and I returned to the house and continued our conversation, until presently Reed staggered through the door, red-and-black faced and bone-tired, with John and Emmanuel in tow.

The Gang's All Here! Every person I knew in Tamale had congregated, purely by happenstance, on our last day in the country. What a treat! A Guiness on me, and Sprites all around for they of the pristine livers!

We all said our goodbyes while Reed, God love him, collected the preliminary removal efficiency data from the first day's testing, instructing Lydia on the upload procedure to be performed over the next several weeks. Bavna returned a bit later with the leftovers from her family's dinner, which may have saved Reed's life, since there wasn't a scrap of food left in the house. And slowly, everyone trickled out, until only the MIT matriculators remained, luggage snugly tucked beside their beds, ready to rise at 4 a.m. to begin the long journey home.

A perfect last day. The experience certainly had its ups and downs, its moments of triumph and despair, but there's a lot to be said for leaving on a high note. Thank you Ghana. Watters, OUT!

The Firing: Part II

Cast of Characters

Reed Miller - My research partner, charged with studying flow rate and removal efficiency of filters.
Manny Hernandez
- One of the world's foremost builders of filter factories, and a chief consultant on this project.

We unloaded Reed's filters today, and as predicted, success was middling. None of the filters is lost entirely, but several of them have pretty significant cracks, in the lips, on the outsides, on the insides, and everywhere except straight through the bottom. The color variation — red in places and charcoal black in others — also indicates that the heat failed to fully penetrate the filters. It is what it is, mates.

Example Filter

I loaded my samples into the kiln in the morning, which took a surprisingly long time. We didn't really begin firing until about 9:45 AM, despite hitting the site at 7 AM. The very first thing I did was burn my hand trying to pull out a piece of wood that had failed to fully penetrate the firebox. Look below to see the blister, which is, incidentally, an exact replica of the ubiquitous Vodafone company logo.

The Vodafone Blister

But the show must go on, and so I gloved up and continued. In the morning, I cut wood for the fast-fire and tended the slow-fire with skinny sticks. In the evening, I followed a relentless pattern: load the wood, push it to the back of the kiln with the poker, rake out the embers, and check the pyrometer to see if the blackguard has climbed another few degrees.

Stoking the Coals

The fireblast was so hot that walking away from the kiln into the mere 85 degree heat felt like a cold shower. A 50 degree rise, then another 25, then a stall, then another 25, then a decrease of 25, then a frantic rush to reclaim the lost heat. On and on, hour after hour, all the while leaking sweat from every pore. When, finally, my back trembled in protest as I stood after raking the coals, my resolve broke.

"Manny," I said. "I can't do it anymore. My back is aching, my hands are burned, my body is dehydrated, and the kiln refuses to climb another degree. Someone has to help me, or we have to break out the mortar and check the pyrocones, even if the pyrometer's still reading 200 degrees Celsius under temperature."

Manny agrees, and we check the pyrocones, and I learn that there is no sight more beautiful to a potter than wilted pyrocones. I have just enough energy left to do a victory dance and then I'm flat-out in the dust, laughing.

No Sight More Beautiful: Melted Pyrocones

We bought shovels and grainsacks so we could mine the clay and transport it in the Pure Home Water Truck, unload it, break it up with our hands, dry it, grind it with mortar and pestle, then sieve it through 1mm screens. We bought generators, wrenches to assemble them, diesel to fuel them, oil to slick them, converters them up to the hammer mill so we could process rice husk and sawdust. We bought brick and water so we could mortar up the kiln, and hacksaws and wood so we could stoke the coals, and rebar and welding rods so we could make pokers and rakes to tend the fire. And we worked all day so I could fire 170 rectangles, thereby finishing the Ghanaian portion of my project. It took an awful lot of work to get those pyrocones to melt.

We are, of course, not rid of problems. Since all three pyrocones melted, we clearly over-fired the kiln again. I was so tired, though, the fact that I didn't have to load any more wood was an overshadowing victory. Tomorrow I'll unload the samples, pack them tightly in foam, and pray that both they and I are strong enough to survive the trip back to the US.

The Firing

Cast of Characters

Tom Hay - MIT student, charged with addressing quality control issues.
Leah Nation
- MIT student, charged with documenting Manny's filter factory construction process.
Reed Miller
- My research partner, charged with studying flow rate and removal efficiency of filters.
Manny Hernandez
- One of the world's foremost builders of filter factories, and a chief consultant on this project.
- Housekeeper at Pure Home Water's Tamale office.

We worked a bit at the site yesterday. Tom, Leah and I sieving sand, hauling clay, and mixing the batch with water to make mortar, then slapping it on the brick and painstakingly leveling each new unit. Since everyone quit early the day before, we left a course half-finished, which severely limited our progress this morning. We departed at noon having risen only one level, while Reed sawed pieces off his buckets to take back to MIT for porosity testing. We flew to MyCom, since the shopkeeper had promised to open it specially for us just this Sunday, and terminated the evening listening to the neighborhood erupt over the Ghana-Angola match, which finished one-zero in favor of the good guys (Ghana, of course).

Today, Reed and Manny rose early to begin the first real firing of the kiln. An awful lot hinged on this day - all the material preparation, mixing, pressing, and finally, firing for the final product. When Tom and I arrived later on, the women were already tending the kiln.

Tending the Kiln

I returned to the large, unfinished kiln to try and keep the levels rising, even as our cache of bricks disappears far too rapidly. It's a stark contrast; on one side of the site, we have the big kiln, sitting on a ragged slab of concrete in the middle of a batch of trenched rectangles, where the factory walls were supposed to go before we ran out of money. In the far corner of the site, the latrine I spent several days digging remains unfinished, since we realized that the manufacturer wants to use step-up latrines, which we'll never build anyway because once we leave, the people of the Northern region will return to practicing open defecation, just as they have for the last 10,000 years. It smacks of failure. On the other side, the women are "disappearing" wood into the fireboxes at the base of the small kiln, victory-flaming the 26 filters we came here to build. By this time, you'd think I'd be used to odd juxtapositions, but they're still a bit disconcerting.

Shortly after lunch, Manny, slick with sweat for the first time since coming to Ghana, approached us to say, "You have to learn how to do this firing; I'm about to collapse."

Here's how the firing works: for approximately the first four hours, you place wood into the lower firebox, which heats the kiln slowly. This is to avoid cracking the filter through overly rapid temperature change. In the latter four hours, you move the wood to the upper firebox, and the job gets significantly harder. You have to place wood into each upper firebox, pushing the logs to the back and raking out the top and bottom when the logs burn to cinders. The goal is to keep a level bed of embers while allowing sufficient airflow to the fire. Do it right and the temperature will rise steadily. Do it wrong and you'll spend an hour in front of 700 celsius heat and never get the pyrometer to budge an inch in the right direction.

We threw log after log into the flames but the pyrometer stayed locked under 800 celsius. Our goal was 900 but it was getting dark and becoming clear that we would never reach it. Long after it was clearly time to give up, Manny remembers to check the spyhole, where he's kept pyro-cones, which melt at known temperatures. The wilted cones reveal the pyrometer to be a liar - we'd hit 900 C long ago.

Inside the Kiln

Everyone is amazed by the glow of the pots inside the kiln. They're the same glassy orange as the air inside, thick with the color of the heat. There is cause for celebration and fear; we're finished for the day, but if we've overfired too greatly, the pots have vitrified, i.e., gone molten and closed up their pores entirely.

We have to leave the pots to cool overnight. Tomorrow morning will be a great unveiling, and the flow-rate testing will reveal even more; whether this, too, has been an abysmal failure or a smashing success. Of course, the truth will likely lie in between.

P.S.: I finally got Zainab back today for the ponding. I approached her in the kitchen of the job site, carrying a headpan full of water, and there she was, looking at me, smiling, so sweet, so trusting, and then KERSPLASH! Direct hit, center of body mass. And all she could say was, "But today is not my birthday!"

It is this year, Zainab.


Cast of Characters

Manny Hernandez - One of the world's foremost builders of filter factories, and a chief consultant on this project.
- The mason of the filter factory construction
Tom Hay
- MIT student, charged with addressing quality control issues
Leah Nation
- MIT student, charged with documenting Manny's filter factory construction process.
Reed Miller
- My research partner, charged with studying flow rate and removal efficiency of filters.

First, an important correction; earlier, I thought the men were saying "Kukuley!" to me, which means something like "Man of Stone." The correct spelling is "Kuble," but it sounds like "Koobley," and gets shouted at me very quickly and is a bit hard to understand.

The atmosphere was electric today, as we knew that the long-anticipated soccer match between Pure Home Water and Taha would take place after work. Or at least, the air was electric. Laying brick for the large kiln, however, is a slow, painstaking process, especially if you want to do it right. And despite repeated instruction from Manny on every single level, the men do not wish to level the corners. Emmanuel says, "Here in Africa, we level the top course only." I have no idea how a building like that could stand up. Imagine every line of bricks on your house zig-zagging crazily, with the top line smashed down level. Manny delegated the task of leveling each brick to me, which quickly earned me the disfavor of every worker on site.

"Okay, plumb the brick against the outer edge. Now plumb it against the other edge. Now check to see that it's still plumb against the first edge. Now level it east to west. Now level it north to south. Now check that it's still level east to west, and that you haven't moved it out of plumb on any of the edges. Okay, now don't touch that brick ever again... No! You just leaned on it! Now we have to do it all over again!"

By 4 PM, everyone basically stopped working. I guess I'm not much of a motivator. Plus, everyone was itching to play football.

When the game started, I was already dehydrated from the day's work, having forgotten to bring a water bottle of any kind. The men and boys of Taha had showed up with their game faces on, and they were intimidating. I would wager that I alone possess more body fat than the entire Taha team, while our entire team possessed not one-tenth of the coordination of a single Taha player. We lost the ball shortly after kick-off, and from that point on, played almost the entire game within 18 yards of our own goal. It was often hard to tell what was happening, since every play generated a pigpen-style cloud of dust, but apparently, on at least two occasions, there was a football in that cloud of dust which passed through our goal, sealing our defeat.

I had a few good moments — slide-tackling an 11-year-old, for example — but there were far more humiliating ones. On a particularly dismal play, I attempted two half-volleys, in sequence, whiffing the ball each time to the uproarious laughter of the village and derisive shouts of "Kuble! Kuble!" Tom made us all look a little better, with some pretty impressive footskill and speed, owing to his high school soccer and college lacrosse athleticism. Leah and Reed rounded us out with hustle and gusto, respectively. By the end of the match I was so dry with thirst I couldn't form words and my tongue was glued to the roof of my mouth. The Ghanaians never seemed to fatigue and I started to beg for the time to know when the game might mercifully end. Finally, apropos of nothing, everyone quit and we marched, defeated and beaten, off the field. Despite the humiliation, it was a bit of a treat when one of the star players from the other team came over and said "Kuble! You have tried your best."

Heck, that's all you can ever hope for.

The Manster

Cast of Characters

Reed Miller - My research partner, charged with studying flow rate and removal efficiency of filters.
Manny Hernandez
- One of the world's foremost builders of filter factories, and a chief consultant on this project.

Today passed hypnotically; I pressed another 80 samples and Reed finished another 12 filters, I believe. It is worth mentioning that the women pressing the filters are absolute champions. The female nylon mold must weigh 60 pounds when empty, and upwards of 75 when there's a filter inside. To mount the mold on the press, one must lift it from the bottom, hover it over the metal plate, and minutely adjust its position until it slides in place. With never a word of complaint, the women hitch up their dresses, plannt their bare feet, and hoist the monster into the press, again and again, throughout the day. Then, when the filter has been pressed, a plywood bat is placed on top of the mold, and the entire thing must be overturned while keeping the filter immobilized. It's no easy trick, and the women have done it flawlessly at least 28 times in the last two days.

Strong Women

And as long as we're singing praises, I'd like to tell you about a guy known as the Manster — half man, half monster — more properly called Manuel Hernandez. In the short time that we've known him, Manny has humbled us all with his skill, knowledge and work ethic. Up at 5 AM every morning, he usually makes the oats for breakfast and returns to his room to exercise, which I guess is important, since he runs as many as four marathons a year. By the time we're rising from near-dead sleep at 8 AM, it's already late in the day for the Manster. He insists on riding in the back of the truck, which requires him to scale the metal cage in the back and endure a bone-jarring stand-up journey to the site each morning. Once there, he is 100% occupied all day, breaks late for lunch and wraps up early. If there isn't enough chicken to go around, you can be sure Manny will refuse his share. And when you get off of work, beer is always free, courtesy of the Manster.

Below you'll see a picture of the small kiln Manny built for this project. When he noticed the smokestack wasn't high enough, he had me hold a wheelbarrow on its nose for him so he could jump up on the handle and mount the kiln to stack more brick at the top. Look at the picture and try to guess the man's age.

The Manster

He claims to be 72 years old. But honestly, I'll need a birth certificate before I believe it.

We finished test-firing the kiln today and removed all the spacers, which allow pots to be stacked one on top of the other, and all the reject filters from previous efforts. The work is really picking up now. It would be exhausting, but then you look at the Taha women and the Manster, quit whining, and get back on task.

Teaching Dagbanglish in Ghana

Crunch time, folks. Reed and the women pressed 12 filters and I made 80 samples today. Tom and Manny poured the female mold, and put the roof on the kiln. Other than that, there was very little to report today; the highlight came when the women asked me to help teach them some English words. We did parts of the body, which I have on video for those who are interested, but I will transcribe the effect as best I can for now:

Travis: "Eye!"
Women: "Eye!"
Travis: "Ear!"
Women: "Eee!"
Travis: "Ear!"
Women: "Eeeee!"
Travis: "Ee-yur!"
Women: "EEEEEE!"
Travis: "Nevermind. Nose!"
Women: "No!"
Travis: "Nose-uh!"
Women: "No-oh!"
Women: "Nos!"
Travis: "Close enough. Mouth!"
Women: "Mouf!"
Travis: "All right! End of lesson for today!"


Cast of Characters

Reed Miller - My research partner, charged with studying flow rate and removal efficiency of filters.
- Employee of Pure Home Water
Leah Nation
- MIT student, charged with documenting Manny's filter factory construction process.

We had such high hopes for the hammer mill today that we got an early start and arrived on site before the other workers, hoping we could mill all necessary materials before 10 AM. The hopes were immediately dashed, of course, when we discovered the mill to be leaking out of its bottom chute. Only about 1% of the material was getting milled, while the rest simply dropped in the top inlet and out the bottom. Reed spent the next few hours trying to patch the leak with duct tape and cardboard, two items which have proven, again and again, to be utterly invaluable to this project. Reed and Ruben fenagled with springs and nuts and bolts and cardboard and duct tape and finally reassembled the bottom chute. So now the thing works...better, but not great. It can only take about half a bowlful of material at a time without bogging down the 1.5 kW motor. We have two 3.75 kW motors, but they run on three-phase power, while our generator is single-phase. So, it's a slower business than we thought, and anyway, by the time we got everything up and working, the welders had arrived, and we hadn't prepared but a few ounces of material.

We hit a great stroke of luck when we discovered that we had just enough power output from the generator to run both the hammer mill and the welding equipment at the same time. Still, the process was far too slow, and we needed to press filters TODAY to have any hope of finishing them before leaving the country. We settled on the following:

The hammer mill works via the rotation of two metal blades inside the machine's circular midsection.

Inside the Hammer Mill.

The blades crush incoming materials and fling the resulting fine powder to a chute located near the outer radius of the circle. Material that does not get hammered can be wasted by opening the bottom chute. Depending on how long one mills the material, the waste material can actually be finer than anything passed through a 1mm sieve. We decided to pour half a bowl of material in the chute, wait for one minute, then collect the waste at the bottom chute, while simultaneously collecting from the radial chute. The filters will then be made from a 1:1 ratio of wasted material to milled material.

You can see below the goofball contrivance we jerry-rigged to accomplish this goal.

Ruben and Leah Working with the Hammer Mill.

With the miller finally working, albeit slowly, Reed could get about pressing his final filter recipes and I could get about pressing my final break test samples, nicknamed "candybars."

I must say, both Reed's filters and my candybars are worlds better than their previous iterations. Unfortunately, doing it right takes a lot of time, so we labored well into the evening. My efforts were truncated by an influx of young'uns who ambushed the site. I tried to appease them by drawing a soccer field on one of the plywood bats, and labeling each position with the name of one of the 11 kids who had been hovering over my work. Of course, this only encouraged them, so we ended up taking a few team pictures before knocking off for the day.

Team Picture #1.

Obligatory "CRAZY" Team Picture.

Hammer Time!

Cast of Characters

Reed Miller - My research partner, charged with studying flow rate and removal efficiency of filters.
Mr. Sabani
- Program Manager of Pure Home Water
Manny Hernandez
- One of the world's foremost builders of filter factories, and a chief consultant on this project.
Tom Hay
- MIT student, charged with addressing quality control issues

We sieved all the materials early this morning, then got stuck in a fairly infuriating holding pattern. Word came down from Reed that Mr. Sabani had picked up the hammer mill from the bus station and was bringing it that afternoon, rendering all our weeks of sieving materials now useless. We had so much to do, but there was nothing that could be done until the hammer mill arrived.

Finally, late in the afternoon, the hour came.

It's Here!

Does it run on single-phase power? Yes. Does it run on the 220-volt generator? Yes. Do we have the proper plug? No we do not. However, there was a handyman on site who stripped the anomalous plug face off the thing and put on a new generator-friendly dongle. We hooked it up and that sucker came to life!

Still, there is reason to be restrained. We're not sure how long we need to mill the material before we can release it, or how much can be milled at one time. The motor bogs down if the machine gets too clogged up with rice husk or sawdust. We'll have to determine later how fast we can mill the material. Furthermore, the welders may need the generator at the same time we need the hammer mill, and we don't know if we'll be able to run them both simultaneously, and God help us if that generator blows out. All the same, a lot of things came together this evening, and we're optimistic.

Meanwhile, Manny and Tom put in some good work making the mold for Manny's press. Manny's mold is a paraboloid, which will be poured using a mortar made from sand and cement. Here you can see Tom preparing the male mold for casting, and Manny fitting the wire cage and aluminum flashing that contains the mortar. The last photo is the pouring of the mold — the culmination of a great many efforts.

Coatin' the Mold.

Aluminum Flashing.

Pouring the Mortar.

The day concluded with a flash that is simply too important to leave out. Yesterday, we saw a couple of guys walking around Tamale town with some pretty wild African-style pants. About five minutes later, a man named Faital approached and introduced himself to us, which is not terribly unusual (we kind of stick out here). Manny asked him where Tom could buy a pair of pants like that, and wouldn't you know it, but Faital's brother is a tailor. He led us through close-packed huts and alleys to purchase a bolt of cloth from five men who surrounded us and very well could have killed us without anyone noticing, but simply sold Tom a ridiculously garish bolt of cloth. Today, Tom had an appointment with the tailor to pick up his new zoot-suit pants. He wasn't two steps in the door before dropping his cargos around his ankles and jumping into these bad boys.

Can't Touch This.

In Tom's words: when you look this good, you can't help but dance. Hammer Time!

Variables - A Very Technical Blog Entry

Cast of Characters

Reed Miller - My research partner, charged with studying flow rate and removal efficiency of filters.
Manny Hernandez
- One of the world's foremost builders of filter factories, and a chief consultant on this project.
- A Ghanaian lab technician who will continue testing the flow rates and removal efficiencies of the filters once Reed and I have left Ghana.

Sunday was a bit less lazy today than it has been. We worked until about 1:30pm, at which point Reed had to return and meet with Lydia, who will carry out the flow rate testing once we have left Ghana. Work was quiet and more peaceful than normal, without chopsaws, generators, mortar and pestle, and crying babies. Still, we're not really free from anxiety.

Reed and I have 11 days left here on site. It takes at least three days for filters to dry once they have come off of the press. Then they have to be fired, which takes a full day. No more than 20 filters can be fired at one time. In total, we would like to have two filters made using each of the 12 recipes we have devised, for a total of 24 filters. This will require two firings; to try to keep all variables as constant as possible, we hope to fire one set of filters in the first firing and an identical set in the second firing.

Variables do not end there, however. Today we set up three sieving stations, one for clay, one for sawdust, and one for rice husk. Originally, we had sieved materials through a screen that was approximately 1mm x 2mm, which is known as "Mosquito screen." Then we discovered some colanders with finer mesh, and started sieving through those, instead. Then we discovered 1mm x 1mm mesh, and made three new sieves with those, and started sieving through those; they are coarser, but much faster, than the colander sieves. Whatever we do, I think it makes sense to pick one sieve size for all the combustibles and the clay.

All of this may be rendered completely useless, however, if the hammer mill arrives and works, because the hammer mill should crush all incoming materials to a pretty fine powder. The confusing thing is this: the combustible burns out of the filters to make the pores. And the ideal pore size, as espoused by Potters for Peace, is 1 micron. The openings in a 1mm sieve are 1000x larger than 1 micron. So, if the combustible that goes in is about 1mm, will that create pores of 1mm? Or do the pores burn out significantly smaller?

One of the factories we have researched, which was started in Iraq, uses 1mm sieves, which leads us to believe this is a valid method. But all other factories use hammer mills, which crush the combustibles to a particle size that we don't know.

Even if we get the hammer mill, it needs to be able to run on a single-phase, 220-volt generator, which may not be the case.

So, depending on the speed and capability of the hammer mill, it may take us one hour or one day to hammer/sieve all the materials we need to make our final batch of filters. Then we can press about eight filters a day, which means we'll need three days for pressing. Then we need three days for drying the filters. Then we need one day for firing each set of filters. Starting tomorrow, we can sieve all of our materials, just to be prepared, even if the hammer mill comes. Then, we can mix the recipes and press the filters on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, dry Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and fire Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, which leaves us a scant three days of wiggle room. Meanwhile, Manny needs to pour the concrete mold for his press, finish constructing the press, finish construction on the small kiln, and begin and complete construction on the large kiln. All of this has to be done with existing materials, basically, since there is no money remaining in Pure Home Water's coffers.

So, things are a little tense.

We left Reed to meet with Lydia and went to town to shop for some much-needed home essentials, including oats, laundry soap, and peanut butter (called "ground nut butter" here). We failed to discover the ground nut butter, but stumbled upon Nutella and snatched it up as though it were a precious relic from another world. If nothing else, at least the oats will be good tomorrow.

Sick Day

Cast of Characters

Tom Hay - MIT student, charged with addressing quality control issues
- The mason of the filter factory construction

Very little to report today, as I have now officially won the lottery of "First Person to Get Sick in Ghana." Not only has Montezuma taken his revenge, but every other deposed tribal leader seems to have wrought his retribution upon my delicate immune system. The stories from today are secondhand:

Early in the morning, work stopped abruptly when someone shouted the word "Kwom!", which means "Fire!" Tools fell in place and everyone sprinted to the smoking hut. The women were screaming. We foreigners pieced the puzzle together and waited until the crisis was addressed. We understood little, but presumably, the men were able to extinguish the flames. In a village full of closely packed grass huts, it makes sense that fire halts everything.

The other "Africa" moment from the day came when the men caught, killed, skinned, cooked, and ate some rats that wandered onsite. The men offered some to Tom, who would have tried it, but they snatched it away again, laughing. I assume they figured it would kill him. Reed asked Emmanuel if he had ever eaten rat. He said, "Only after it's been cooked."

The Ides of January

Cast of Characters

Manny Hernandez - One of the world's foremost builders of filter factories, and a chief consultant on this project
Reed Miller
- My research partner, charged with studying the flow rate and removal efficiency of the filters

Today, I'd have to say I hit an all-time low for my time in Ghana. We're out of money, so we may not be able to place the concrete for Manny's big kiln before we leave. As I press all of my tiny rectangular prism samples for testing back in Boston, I am more and more concerned with their fragility and raggedness. They are not the tightly pressed, perfectly smooth creatures I had hoped to cast: the main problem is the absence of a pressure gauge, which would allow us to press samples to a known pressure, so they could be reasonably compared. Without that, I leave the samples uncompressed, push them into the mold, remove the excess, and extrude them with a clever little device provided by Reed. You can look below for an "action shot." I have to admit, the juxtaposition of my furrowed concentration with the campy ninjas behind me is pretty amusing.

Working With Ninjas

The result of my labors is best described by a two-line conversation I had with Reed today:

"How's it goin' Travis?"
"Less than ideal, but not terrible."

In the afternoon, I accidentally sieved grog into a bowl of clay, contaminating it and rendering it mostly useless. Then the cable on the press snapped, which prevented us from pressing any more filters until we find cable and cable clamps. Who knows if either of those things are available here?

I took a moment to walk away and climb one of the Gaa trees nearby. I thought about the fact that I had the opportunity to work with nature in a way I had never had before. When we mix the recipes for the pots, we blend a formula of rice husk, clay, and grog in a combination that is nearer to the natural world than anything I have ever worked with before.

Mixing Clay

When I look around, I see a community of people that have manufactured a life of joy with far fewer resources that I have at my disposal. Here you can see a couple of kids playing with tires, something I've heard about but never actually seen, since I always had electronic toys as a kid.

Everyone in the community helps one another. It's the truest form of "It takes a village to raise a child" that I've ever seen. Have a look at some of the pics below to see what I mean.

Baby Carrying Baby

Napping With the Baby

I went back and helped Reed sieve some more materials and clean up. Tomorrow we'll look for a cable clamp at the local hardware stores. We'll sift the grog out of the clay. If I have to recast the samples with a greater thickness, I have two weeks to do that. This project has certainly taught me that the unforeseen happens, but rarely does a circumstance arise that is worth the panic that I ascribe to it.

It is now 10 p.m., and I am signing off. I expect this newfound optimism to last just up until the first thing goes wrong tomorrow morning.

Susan Leaves, We Soldier On

Cast of Characters

Susan Murcott - Senior lecturer at MIT and director of Pure Home Water
Reed Miller
- My research partner, charged with studying flow rate and removal efficiency of filters.

The days are starting to blur together a bit. Susan left us yesterday for her other project in the Philippines, with promises of a hammer mill coming on the horizon. We are currently crushing and sieving the combustibles with mortar and pestle and a box sieve, but the hammer mill works by beating the crud out of anything and flinging the finer particles to the outside, like a centrifuge. It is much faster and much more effective than our method. If the students from the MIT D-lab are able to transport their hammer mill from Kumasi (about 4 hours away, by bus) to Tamale, and the hammer mill can be modified from its agricultural purpose to suit our purposes, and it runs on the single-phase power provided by our generator, it could be the answer to a lot of prayers.

For now, we will continue our pound-and-sieve method, which we did all day yesterday and most of the day today. We pressed four filters today which could, conceivably, survive the kiln and give us usable flow rate and removal efficiency data. I, meanwhile, acquired 10 samples from each compositional recipe, in hopes of transporting them back to the US for breakage testing. Now I need to dry them, fire them, pack them in something that might help them survive the trip home, and do the same for the other 12 recipes Reed has cooked up. Maybe after that I'll climb Everest and discover cold fusion on the summit. But I'll settle for a Masters degree.

Another anecdote: the women often bring their babies to the construction site, strapped onto their backs in a sling made by tying a cloth around their bodies. So, there's kind of a combination nursery/factory happening in one corner of the site. Today, one of the women grabbed the baby, who had been loosed from his coccoon, and began some sort of ritual chant, rolling her eyes back in her head and rubbing her hand against the baby's face, while bouncing him up and down on her knee. The other women laughed uproariously, as did the "witch doctor" when she came out of her trance. Perplexed? So were we. If I had to guess, I would say that the women were mocking some sort of older practice that no one really adheres to anymore but that everyone of that generation had to go through - maybe something akin to a baptism. Or maybe it was just their way of playing "peekaboo." Honestly I have no idea.


Cast of Characters

Tom - MIT student, charged with addressing quality control issues
- Foreman of the filter factory construction

We pressed a filter today! Albeit a sloppy, disfigured one.


Inaugural Filter

So okay, not our finest work, but even this means that quite a few things are correctly in place - the rice husk, sawdust, and clay have been pounded (if necessary), sieved, and stored. The press has been assembled, as have the plywood bats where the filters will be placed to dry. The hydraulic jack works. The local women are in place to keep us flush with pounded, sieved clay and to help us mix it into the pots. We're an operation.

Manny began building the kiln, which is a slower process than we (the students) realized. Several layers have gone up, however, and he promises to continue with similar verve tomorrow.

The real story from the day was at Gbelhi. I will try to paraphrase Tom's experience as best I can:

"So, we shovel the clay quickly, and then begin breaking it up into small pieces to dry. We don't have any tools, so we're just using our hands, and everyone's sitting and chatting, and I understand not one word of what happens the entire day. All I can say is "Naa" (the response to "Good morning!"), which is the equivalent of just walking around saying ‘I'm fine! I'm fine! I'm fine!' Then, at a certain point, I get the sense that the men are complaining. They start appealing to me; John translates that they are saying, ‘Aren't you hot?' I told John: ‘Tell them I like the heat.' I knew we had to get the clay done, right? They said: ‘Don't your hands hurt? Look, your left hand isn't moving right.' I told John, ‘Tell them I broke my thumb when I was little, and it's always like this.' I don't go get a drink of water unless they go get a drink of water. I don't eat because they don't have any food.

"Finally, they're like: ‘Okay, we need to talk about payment.' The negotiations go on for hours. They're asking for 10 Cedi a day, but I know that all the guys in Taha — Adam, Abdullah, Souhelei — are're only making 5 Cedi a day, and I know they will find out if we pay the Gbelhi guys more. I told John, ‘Tell them 4 Cedi a day, and if you have to, go to 6. But no matter what you say, I'm just going to shake my head no.' So there was a distinct change. They went from calling me ‘Tom,' to calling me ‘Mr. Tom.' Around 3:30, we finally settled on 7 Cedi a day without food, or 5 Cedi a day with food. We worked the whole day without a break, and they were begging for one, so we finally just let them leave for the day."

The negotiations were a lot like many things here in Ghana: both funny and sad. Here's Tom, a consistent advocate for worker's rights, wearing these men down from their demand of roughly $7 for eight hours' labor to about $4. Susan tells me that these men make about 1 Cedi (1.4 GHC = $1) per day during harvest time, so this is actually a very high-paying job for the area. And the cost of living is quite low. Zainab has fed approximately 15 of us lunch for 10 Cedi a day.

Still, the inner conflict is real; we want to help,  but have to do it on an incredibly limited budget. For example, it costs 70 Cedi to fill the polytank at the job site. So when children come by and ask to take a drink of water ("Please? Please?"), we have to tell them no. If they take our water now, we won't be able to give anyone water in the future.

A Case of the Mondays

Cast of Characters

Emmanuel - The mason of the filter factory construction
Manny Hernandez
- One of the world's foremost builders of filter factories, and a chief consultant on this project.
Susan Murcott
- Senior lecturer at MIT and director of Pure Home Water
Mr. Sabani
- Program Manager of Pure Home Water
- The foreman of the filter factory construction
- My research partner, charged with studying flow rate and removal efficiency of filters.
- MIT student, charged with addressing quality control issues
- MIT student, charged with documenting Manny's filter factory construction process.

Monday did not go as planned. Emmanuel called the carpenter to come and make the sieves, but without lumber, it didn't make sense for him to come to the site. When we went to ask Manny for help laying the foundation for the kiln, we found that he had disappeared in the truck to help with the shopping excursion (since the women hadn't pounded the clay on Sunday as we had thought, there was not enough clay to lay the mortar foundation for the kiln - this is why Manny left, hoping he could at least advise in purchasing the proper materials). In fact, Susan, Manny, and Emmanuel had all left to go on the shopping trip, and were immediately detained by the Ghanaian police for not having the proper registration for their vehicle (Mr. Sabani had removed the expired tags, but had not replaced them with the new ones, apparently). John left with Tom to go to Gbelhi to mine clay, which left Leah, Reed, everyone else, and me without much supervision or much to do. There was no water in the polytank, so the men could not mix concrete. Without Manny to supervise the welders, they stalled on building his press. We spent the majority of the day sieving the combustibles.

In the absence of much else to report, I would like to relay a fun fact that I discovered: most of the Ghanaian people that I've met have some sort of scar on their face. For many, it is a single vertical scar on each cheek, under the eye. This signifies that they are from the Dagomba tribe of the Northern Region.

Emmanuel of the Dagomba Tribe

I have learned that these marks denote the different tribes of the northern region. I am told that for some tribes, such as the Froufrou, the scars extend all the way from temples to chin. Yikes!

With frustrations coming to a head, we decided to relax and watch the Mali v. Angola Africa Cup of Nations match. Wow! Angola went up 1-0 at the end of the first half, and steamrolled for the next thirty or so minutes, accumulating a 4-0 lead. With sixteen minutes remaining, Mali went on a 3-goal tear, and knotted the score on the last possession of stoppage time. When we spoke of the game the next day, many Ghanaians quoth: "Never say die until the bones are rotting."

Lazy Sunday

Cast of Characters

Tom - MIT student, charged with addressing quality control issues.

It's Sunday. We slept late and headed to the internet café. I spent a lot of time with Tom, and we talked at length about the variety of experiences we've had so far. Although I'm in love with the food, I understand Tom's experience of:

Monday: Stew's good.
Tuesday: Stew's good.
Wednesday: Stew's good.
Thursday: Stew's good.
Friday: Stew? Okay...
Saturday: Stew's... okay, okay... stew.
Sunday: Stew... okay, I can't eat stew any more.

So - we went to the Relax Hotel, which advertises "Relax! Air conditioning! Pizza!"