Monday, July 2, 2018

From Panama to Penama

Here goes: the first post in a new volume for this journal. I'm back as a freshly sworn-in Peace Corps Volunteer, this time in the South Pacific island republic of Vanuatu. If you google it you'll find us out on the Coral Sea, eastward from Australia, but suffice it to say, it's half a world away from the U.S.--and from Panama for that matter. Still, it feels quite familiar to me in many ways--ways that make me glad for having made the decision to seek and accept the invitation to serve here for the next two years.

  I've been in country for ten weeks now and just completed pre-service training out on the small Island of Pele, a place of stunning tropical beauty where the local villagers instantly adopted all of us as family. People there live in very humble conditions, but the way they opened there homes and hearts to us was deeply affecting. It humbled me and inspired me to redouble my commitment to give it my all in trying to make a difference during my Peace Corps service here. 

 We started right in with training in Bislama, the pidgin language that is the lingua franca here in Vanuatu. Among the eighty islands that make up the country, there are over one hundred distinct dialects spoken, so Bislama provides a common language that bridges the many gaps.

  We had Bislama class down along the beach every morning and it's been fascinating to study. Thanks to the overlap with English and our excellent local teachers it hasn't been an insurmountable task.  Bislama deserves a post on this blog all it's own, but for now I'm happy to report I comfortably passed my pre-swear-in evaluation and am conversing in Bislama with surprising ease. 
  Our host families also taught us a lot about local traditions like the weaving of mats which play an important role in Vanuatu culture. My host aunty was making this mat for a newly engaged nephew who needed many mats along with a number of pigs to present to his future in-laws as a sort of dowry.
  The bananas, fish and root crops that are the basis of the diet here are familiar, but the Ni-van techniques of cooking are quite different from what I was used to in Panama. The very popular laplap is made with grated manioc or taro flavored with coconut milk and layered with cabbage leaf

Everything is wrapped up between banana leaves... 
then laid on a bed of coals with hot volcanic stones placed on top to roast it.
  In the later weeks of we got to put into practice some of our training--building a pour-flush toilet, doing home-to-home visits for community health surveying and presenting a health workshop to the village mamas. 
  About half way through training we found out our site assignments and traveled out to visit for a week. I'll be living and working on the island of Maewo (MY-woe) for the next twenty-four months. Right now I'm out of time now because I've got to get some last minute shopping and packing done to be ready to fly out tomorrow morning. I've already put most of my things on a cargo ship to be delivered in a few weeks because the flight is on a tiny eight-seater. So I'll save talking about Maewo for now, except to explain the title of this blog post. The names Vanuatu's provinces are derived from the first letters of the names of their principal islands. Our islands are Pentacost, Ambae and Maewo, hence the name of my province Penama. Seems like an auspicious site assignment, eh?

Friday, March 4, 2016

Tanks and Phrases

 The phrase “Thank you” can't be translated into Ngäbere. The words simply don't exist in the language. It's a cultural-linguistic quirk that  volunteers in the indigenous Comarca often ponder as we go about our Peace Corps service. The Ngäbe people certainly understand, and are often heard to use the Spanish gracias, even if it can sometimes seem a little forced. But in the end, it really doesn't matter much. In those moments when Peace Corps service is really going right, you're just grateful for all of it—the good, the bad, and even the impolite.  
  I've had plenty of those moments during this past year back in Panama. I'm feeling it right now, flush with the successful completion of a water project over in the coastal village of Cayo Paloma. I've been traveling over to that side of the peninsula all year to work with the local water committee on improvements to their aqueduct. Just the trip over there makes for the kind of day when I find myself uttering out loud my thanks to John F. Kennedy for ever coming up with the idea of a Peace Corps.
  The commute never gets old. It's a forty minute paddle from my home in Bahia Azul down to the far end of the bay, and from there it's another hour and a half hiking, first along the swampy forest trail that connects people to the fincas where they grow their food...
... and then out on to the spectacular beach that they share only with a few seemingly indifferent cows.
  The people in Cayo Paloma always seem glad to see me. They have an aging, gravity-flow aqueduct that pipes water down from a spring in the hills above their town, but they've been suffering water shortages for a couple of years now, ever since their leaky water tank deteriorated beyond repair and had to be abandoned.
  So when the community came together around the idea of building a new tank I was excited, though not without misgivings when I thought about the myriad challenges of launching a big project in the waning months of my Peace Corps stint, especially so far from my home base. But something told me we ought to go for it, and I'm so glad we did. I couldn't be happier with how things turned out.

  We secured funding thanks to Waterlines, an NGO that has generously sponsored many potable water projects here in Panama and around the world. A big dugout cayuco was arranged to make the thirty mile trip in to the port town of Chiriqui Grande to buy cement and other materials.

   The community organized work days to demolish the old cement block tank and to start gathering and hauling the hundred sacks of sand we would use to make the mortar for the new ferrocement tank.
  Peligro, the local water committee president, proved a good organizer of his work force and I was fortunate enough to team up again with my fellow volunteer and good friend Eta, who brought not only his know-how and masonry skills to the project, but just as importantly, his never-failing ebullience and gift for keeping the the work crew animated.
Peligro and Eta
  New nick names were assigned all around, teasing jokes were told and retold and the sounds of bawdy improvised songs and laughter filled the air all through the two weeks it took to get the tank built.
  Every morning ladies served up fry bread and sweet coffee at the casa comunal  as the work crew of anywhere from eight to eighteen men and youths would turn up, brimming with smiles and ready to work.
  I'm planning to post more of the construction details for volunteers who are planning similar tanks, but for now I'll just share a few pictures that give an overview of this 3,500 gallon ferrocement tank. We started with a steel armature made by standing up a cylinder of weld mesh about six and half feet tall and nine feet across, right on the foundation of the old tank.
 We wrapped the weld mesh cylinder with two layers of chicken wire and then wrapped it all with a tight spiral of 16 gauge wire.
  With this armature ready, plastic tarps were draped around the outside and wrapped on tightly with a spiral of twine.
  The tarp made a firm backing for us to go inside and apply two coats of a rich (2:1) sand-cement mortar.
  The tarps were then removed and two more coats of mortar were plastered on from the outside, bringing the wall to its full thickness of about two inches.
  With the walls finished, we poured the floor and then created the domed roof framework using quarter inch rebar in a spider web pattern of spokes and hoops.
  Layers of chicken wire were stretched over the top
...and triangular panels of quarter inch hardware cloth  tied on to the bottom of the roof frame.
That made it possible to plaster the roof without needing to build any sort of decking underneath.
  We added a telescoped access hatch and built a permanent ladder inside the tank to make future maintenance siimple.
  With the plastering finished, we left the tank to cure under plastic for a few weeks, with Peligro going up to check on things and splash water on it every day or so.
We returned to connect the plumbing to the pipeline, make a few refining plaster touches and a final cleaning before filling the tank and sending the first tankful of water down through the pipeline to the community. The pressure was tremendous—enough to reveal some weak links in the pipes down in town, but all that didn't dampen anyone's enthusiasm. The leaking pipes were patched and a gathering was convened for the official inauguración of the new tank.
Coconut was grated for preparing the delicious stewed fish rondón, along with a big pot of a favorite tuber, tödogwö.
  Eta and I each gave a little speech, congratulating everyone on their efforts and encouraging them to carry on in the same spirit to keep the system working. Then the floor was opened and one by one people stood up to express their pride and satisfaction with the project, and their gratitude. The warm offerings of “gracias” were amplified and multiplied to “mil gracias,” -- a thousand thank yous -- and for me at least, there there was no doubt at all that the words were heartfelt.
  The walk toward home that day was definitely another one of those moments.

Thanks again JFK.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

New Connections

  I've loved having the chance to venture out beyond my home community of Bahia Azul this year, and get to know people in villages all around the bay and upper reaches of the Peninsula Valiente. This week it was especially cool to venture even further afield, crossing back to the mainland and up Rio Mananti to revisit that magical river region. As you travel further up the Mananti it can give you the feeling of going back in time, with people still living their traditional, rough-hewn lives, seemingly less touched by the trappings of the modern day world that lies beyond the mouth of the river.
The huge dugout cayucos that carry people up through the valley into the heavily forested hills have mostly been replaced by fiberglass lanchas, but ascending the river is still an arduous journey, and an enchanting one.
  It's a couple of hours up from the mouth to where the river gets too shallow to continue and from there it's a hike of another hour to reach the town of Calante.
 I was bringing materials up for the first phase of an expansion of Calante's aqueduct, the gravity flow water system that carries water down from springs in the hills above the town. The community built the system with the help of Peace Corps volunteers about eight years ago and I've been working with them this year to maintain and expand the system to reach new homes. I was joined for the project by Justin, a volunteer who lives and works in a community across the river.
 The hikes from town to town in the area are always something of an adventure in themselves for me, and the friendly greetings from the people we would meet along the way were a tribute to the labors of Justin and all the other volunteers who have lived and worked up here before him.
   When we arrived in Calante on the main work day, the water committee had already gathered the workers and gotten an early start on the hardest part of the job, digging the trenches where the pipe would be buried.
  Mothers and children watched from their homes along the new pipeline route as the men dug the trench, prying up small boulders as they went.
  I was impressed with the determination of the workers as they toiled in the stifling heat, hacking through underbrush and clearing roots and rocks to reach the final houses.
  When the pipeline had been layed and glued together the vice-president of the water committee did the honors of cutting the existing line and connecting the new extension.
  The new line will eliminate the need for these families to haul water in buckets up from the river--water that is dangerously contaminated. They'll now have clean drinking water and water for bathing and washing piped directly to their homes.
  I stepped into the kitchen of this little girl's home where her mother was cooking lunch for the work crew and took advantage of their fogon, the kitchen fireplace, to thermoform a piece of pipe to make a temporary end cap.

  We got all of the pipes connected and tested, with the trenches filled in and tools put away earlier than expected. We talked over tentative plans for the next phase of the project, which will add a new branch line to carry water over to another new neighborhood, but for the moment the work was done. A general feeling of satisfaction and well-deserved sense of accomplishment prevailed.
  The hike back down the river to the town of Kuite, where I would catch the boat out the next morning was delightful. Late afternoon clouds moved in and a light shower provided welcome relief from the heat. I was happy for the folks with new aqueduct connections. I was also happy for the accomplishment of the water committee--organizing and carrying off the project with just a little financial and technical support from Peace Corps. That kind of capacity speaks well of the community and it is a real testament to the work of the volunteers who have served out in this region of Panama before me and those who are still up there today. For me, feeling a connection to their legacy is truly an honor.

Acknowledgements and saludos to the past and current Peace Corps volunteers of Rio Mananti: Andrea, Matt & Alicia, Austin, Jon, Ben, John, K.C., David, M.C. and Justin.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Step in the Right Direction?

  I'm back here in the indigenous homeland of the Ngäbe people of Panama working with rural villages to improve their access to clean water, but I've also been thinking a lot about a problem every bit as troubling as contaminated drinking water--the transmission of disease by dirty hands. Diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia are the top two killers of children under five world wide, but these deaths are largely preventable. The most effective proven intervention?  Hand washing with soap. 

  We  know we should wash our hands of course and we take hand washing for granted. For us it's just a matter of remembering to do it. Sinks with soap and running water are always around. But that's not the case in the developing world. Often a family's household water supply is carried to the house in buckets and everyone dips into those same buckets with whatever kind of cup is handy for all their water uses: drinking, cooking, dish cleaning, and if it should happen, hand washing. But would you even want to encourage people to scoop water out of there to wash their hands? Could they possibly do it without contaminating the rest of the water?
  It's easy enough to lecture people about how they need to be washing their hands, but that doesn't help them with how they could effectively wash their hands. In places where there aren't sinks and running water anywhere around, that's no small problem.
One charmingly simple and potentially effective solution is the tippy-tap. Here's a basic model.
  It's quick, cheap to set up, and it provides a hands-free, steady trickle of clean water just by stepping on the foot pedal. I like the super-efficient use of water and the hygienic hands-free operation--features we have now incorporated into our own first world, high-tech sanitation solutions--just wave your hands under the faucet and a nice portion of water comes out.
  A tippy-tap makes a fun demonstration when you're teaching the importance of hand washing, and if you do an image search for tippy-tap on the internet you'll see dozens of pictures of just that sort of activity in places all over the developing world, much like this one we held at our school.
  The problem with the tippy-tap is that it all too often doesn't go any further than that--a neat demonstration that no one actually adopts and keeps using. There are plenty of behavior change theories that come into play in that failure, but one big obstacle with the tippy-tap is the frequent maintenance, i.e., taking it down and refilling the jug with water.
  A tippy tap can work perfectly well in a best case scenario, like a motivated peace corps volunteer. I used this one as my kitchen faucet for three years and was completely happy with it despite the need for regular refills. But if we're going to promote an “appropriate technology” that will actually be adopted we have to be realistic about both its durability and how much effort people will go to in order to use it, especially when it is addressing a need that they may not feel that acutely, like the need to wash your hands.
  I've been thinking about this challenge since I began my training as a water and sanitation volunteer here in Panama. We learned about the profound health impact hand washing can have, and we developed educational charlas on the subject to share with rural villagers, but when it came to the practicalities of it all I didn't seem to have that much to offer. This failing seems especially sharp in the context of latrine projects that don't include a workable hand washing facility.
  With all of that in mind, I'm cautiously enthusiastic about something new that we're trying out with our latrines here. It's a hands-free sink that utilizes the rainwater collected from the latrine roof. 

 We built these small ferrocement rainwater tanks to provide water for the bidets that I've described in some earlier posts. They're working fine, but washing your hands over the bidet at the end of a visit to the latrine is an awkward and less than sanitary process of passing the hose from hand to hand and really isn't satisfactory. The low roof of the latrine means the rainwater tank is too low to have a gravity flow faucet at normal sink height, so the solution here is a little foot pump that can be cheaply and easily put together in the campo with just a little bit of fairly easy to come by hardware from town.
  The bladder for the pump is just a short piece of old motor cycle inner tube that is hose-clamped over a 2” by 1/2” PVC reduction fitting. The free end of the inner tube gets doubled over and nailed down tightly under a strip of flattened PVC pipe.  
  The system works to pump water up to the faucet by virtue of two homemade check valves. Here's a sketch:

  The first check valve is in the 1/2” line flowing down from the tank. Water flows by gravity down into the bladder but when you step on the bladder the check valve closes and won't let water flow back towards the tank. That leaves the water with nowhere to go but up through the second check valve in the vertical outlet tube until it reaches the top of the pipe, spills over and flows down and out of the faucet. The second check valve is in that vertical tube and it keeps the water that you're pumping up from falling back down into the bladder when you lift your foot. The result is a nice flow of a few ounces of water each time you step down on the bladder, with the bladder refilling from the tank when you lift your foot.

  You might find factory made check valves at an unusually well-stocked hardware store, but that would triple the cost of the whole setup, and it's not that hard to make your own with just two 3/4” by 1/2” pvc reductions. 
  You make the valve body by thermoforming an extra long bell on the end of a piece of 3/4” pvc pipe. Cut off about an inch and a half length of that bell and that's the valve body. With a hacksaw, cut a little section out of one of the reductions as shown in the photo above. Glue that reduction into one end of the valve body.
  Trace a circle the size of the end of the second reduction onto a scrap of inner tube and cut it out with a pair of scissors. Trim it until it just fits inside the valve body and slip it into place so it sits on top of the first reduction.
 Now add some just a little glue to sides of the second reduction and slide it into the valve body, pushing it in tightly in order to sandwich the little disc of rubber tightly between the two reductions. The open section that you cut out of the first reduction will let the disc bend up, opening the valve so water can pass through, but the reverse flow will push the disc tightly against the second, unmodified reduction keeping water from flowing back in the other direction..
  You can test the valve by blowing on it to make sure air only passes in one direction. (That also makes a fun balloon inflating toy for the kids!) Mark the valve with an arrow to indicate the flow direction and you're ready to go. The first pair of these check valves have been in service for six months now and are working fine with the low water pressure involved in this pump.

  We made the sink itself with basic front-porch ferrocement techniques starting with a mud form to create the shape of the bowl.
   A little bit of quarter inch reinforcing bar gives it some strength along with some tie wire or chicken wire stretched along the bowl.
 Plaster the bowl with two thin layers of sand-cement mortar (2 : 1 mix).
  For the drain, make some radial cuts in the end of scrap of pipe, heat and flare out the little ears to embed the pipe in the bottom of the bowl.
 The exact design of the sink will depend on how you can figure out to mount it on the wall. In the latrine pictured above I ended up molding a flattened piece of pvc pipe to make a kind of gusset that holds the sink against the wall.

 I mentioned being cautiously enthusiastic about this little hand washing sink because I know there are plenty of reasons why seemingly good ideas and well-intentioned initiatives end up fizzling out, I've seen a lot of that around here. But I don't have to look far to see plenty of reasons to keep trying to take some small steps in the right direction.

Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps