Greater Than Thirst — What Ghana Taught Me About Water

Fati and Mariama sell clean water to their neighbor (Photo by Jeremy Lakin)

Growing up I never thought about water except, “Why doesn’t this taste as good as chocolate milk?”, but that’s hardly an exception in the U.S. We often take for granted that we drink clean water from the tap, we wash our clothes in clean water; even our toilet water is clean. Until recent events in Flint, Michigan, most Americans had never considered what it’s like to worry about whether or not your drinking water will make you sick. Before you stop reading — I am not going to guilt trip you about taking water for granted. My goal by the end of this is that you are super excited to go fill up your water bottle!

In January, I spent three weeks in the Northern Region of Ghana with Saha Global as a field representative. Saha’s field representatives work with women in remote villages to start clean water and solar electricity businesses using completely locally-sourced materials. Saha’s intensive monitoring practices have ensured that the 84 water businesses and 20 solar electricity businesses they’ve started since 2008 are all still in business. Despite this success rate, I was certain for some reason that our youth or fact that we were foreign — or something — would be off-putting when we pitched our business model to the chief and elders, and they would tell us to leave. When we arrived we were lucky enough that everyone had already gathered for a trial (although I doubt the accused would have considered this good luck).

Once we presented Saha’s model, the people in the community were thrilled to have us! The chief’s linguist told us they had been petitioning the government for clean water for months; and then we showed up out of nowhere.

Futa’s entrepreneurs (L to R): Sanatu, Fati, and Mariama (Photo by Jeremy Lakin)

One of the elders took us to their current water source, stopping along the way to show us a borehole (a drilled well with a hand pump). It had been installed two years prior and dried up a year after that. Nobody had come back to check on it. The elders decided to dig a dugout (read: large hole in the ground) to catch rain and feed it into the borehole. Rather than helping, this only contaminated what little water trickled out of the borehole. About a mile away from Futa is a turbid stream with a few super-resilient, small fish. This brown water (or “chocolate milk” as we called it, based on its color and consistency) is what they use to cook, clean, wash clothes, bathe, and yes, drink.

Over the next few days we built the water treatment center and trained three female entrepreneurs to treat the water and sell it back to their community at a price agreed upon by the village. During this time we got to know these women better and learn more about their relationship to water. They drank from the same source their animals drink from and wade through. It makes every living thing in Futa sick, but there was no other option. Fati, one of the entrepreneurs and a mother of nine, told us how helpless she feels when her children get sick from drinking from the stream. This business gave them hope and fueled our motivation (and anxiety) to ensure the business’ opening day was a success.

On January 12, we drove to Futa early for opening day. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones with this idea. When we got to the polytank stand (the large black tub pictured above resting on a metal stand) filled with treated water, there was already a line of women and children sent ahead to hold their mothers’ spots in line. My teammates and I were shaking with anticipation. Our water samples from the first batch of water we treated had come back slightly turbid and tested positive for coliform. We checked the samples from the second batch on our way to the village that morning and received clear results. When Fati, Sanatu, and Mariama opened their business that day, we were relieved to see clean, sparkling water flowing out of the tap. We had distributed safe storage containers to each household prior to opening day. Some of the women used these lids to taste the water, elated that it “tasted just like sachet water”!

Awa tasting the treated water from the center (Photo by Jeremy Lakin)

After opening day, we monitored each household to ensure each family was keeping their water clean, and ask how they felt about the business, the taste of the water, etc. One woman was particularly excited to talk with us. She said she had a visitor from Tamale yesterday. When he arrived, she offered him some water. At first he declined, but then she returned to him with a cup of clean, clear water. He was stunned because there had never been clean water all the times he had been to Futa. She was proud.

We knew the health implications involved with drinking water, but we had never really discussed the psychological effects. Clean water doesn’t just mean life in Futa, it means dignity and pride. It’s what happens when three women realize they have the tools to improve the lives of their families and neighbors.

Today, on World Water Day, take a moment and think about how good water makes you feel. A hot shower after a long day, a cold bottle of water while you exercise, or my favorite, jumping into a pool. Water is good for your health and your psyche. So take care of yourself, your whole self. Have a glass of water.

Jeremy Lakin is a 2016 Chief of Staff intern at Global Health Corps. All GHC fellows, partners and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. Join the movement today.