Wednesday, September 1, 2010


After a month in Obodan, the rest of the EWB team has returned. No more goats, rooster alarm clocks and small children shouting 'Obroni' at us from across town (at least for a few months!). The adjustment was almost seamless, but I am still stumbling across a number of surprising realizations about my work in Ghana and at home. My first surprise came at dinner. The Louisiana catfish I ordered was so unfathomably good that it would be obscene for me to keep writing about it. My first hot shower nearly made me pass out from contentment. The little things around me, like traffic lights and debit card machines in stores, continue to surprise me. However, some deeper realizations have delivered the most potent shocks.

Upon my arrival I noticed that my perspective on sustainability had shifted. In the cab back from the airport there was a program on the radio describing a new sustainable technology installation in New York. I think a new building was constructed with an exceptionally low carbon footprint. The announcer was applauding the project's environmental foresight, and emphasizing its improvement on the old way of doing things. The project was a testament to social change, and the broad accomplishments of scientific progress. Yet nowhere in the announcement could I hear any specific testimony. The electricity saved by the sustainable construction was more of an ideological gain, laudable for its responsibility but lacking any observable effect.

After the announcement, it occurred to me that sustainability in Obodan is an entirely different matter. You conserve water to avoid a second trip to the borehole. Waste must be collected and processed in some manner, because otherwise it piles up on your front porch. Electricity is conserved to avoid black-outs. I realized that 'Sustainability' is not some ideological definition of a long-term goal, but a basic element of daily life. Even the basic engineering challenges of finishing the construction of the latrine, such as how to avoid breaking the latrine seat when it is moved every six months, reinforced the point that some issues simply cannot be ignored. The latrine is more than just a new, responsible technology. It is a true-to-form concrete structure that deals with human waste. This trip has opened my eyes to the clever disguises that infrastructure can create to conceal the material consequences of human existence. I am beginning to understand how engineering, and responsible sustainability, are truly at the core of daily life.

Now for some design updates; The Tuesday after Lucy's latest post Claire and Nnenna picked up our brand new source-separated toilet seat. The seat was a pleasant surprise in all aspects. It was well-built, intuitively designed and much cheaper than we expected. A strong vote of confidence for Ghanaian home-brew manufacturing. Claire and Nnenna finished the testing protocol on Wednesday and left in the evening for Accra, leaving me and Lucy to tie up loose ends. We worked with Sammy to install the new seat over the next couple of days. The final construction process was a headache, but after a few redesigns and some handiwork with a chisel and mortar, I think the latrine is ready to go. We held a community meeting on Sunday to introduce the facility, and after the concrete sets by this coming weekend the facility should be open for business. Our next task is to put together a full maintenance guide, and to start planning our second version of the latrine.

I apologize for the lack of pictures, but we should have a full set of construction media up within a week. Stay posted!