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Done…or close enough

2010 July 14
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Posted by chrisgezon

Today was our last day in the villages and we managed to pretty much finish the filter.  The storage tanks are set up in the new configuration (there’ll be 50% more water in the morning), the filter box is full of material, and it has begun backfilling with water (you fill from the bottom the first time).  Technically, it isn’t quite finished because we’re missing three of the intake connections—which the  UNIVEN students will bring out Friday—and the top corners need more mortar—which Tshiszebe will do Friday as well.  Its frustrating that we didn’t get it 100% finished, but everyone else is motivated enough to get the last few things done after we leave.

After we had said our goodbyes and left, Tshilidzi sent us this text: “I wish you good luck.  Go well angels of God.  Beautiful people you are, talented you are.  We appreciate you bye bye.”

Scott, Phil, and I are heading South towards Joburg tomorrow, and flying to Nairobi to climb Kilimanjaro from there, so this might be the last post.  If so, thanks for reading…

Anybody have a PVC endcap?

2010 July 12
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Posted by chrisgezon

Anybody have a 50mm PVC end cap?  Or any PVC end cap for that matter?  In the entire Thohoyandou area there are none.  Its not that some huge project cleaned them all out (as we have done with T joints), they simply don’t exist, nor do cross joints for that matter.  Both our intake and drainage systems designs are dependent upon them (water doesn’t usually flow through pipes the way you want when there are holes in the ends of the pipes).  We’ll make it work, buts it’s just astounding that they simply don’t exist, forcing us to modify our design literally as we put it in.  Its like coming over with a plan to pour concrete into a wooden form and then finding out that plywood doesn’t exist–oh wait…

We had an interesting moment today where the community members (and several UNIVEN students ) questioned our sand choice and drainage system design because it was so different from the previous filter.  It turned out to be a great way to explain how the filter works, why the flow rate needs to be slow and sand needs to be fine, and why the previous filter isn’t working.  The previous filter had a flow rate about 3x faster than permissible in an SSF (because it just wasn’t big enough for the amount of water they needed), and sand particles were too rough to provide proper habitat for the biological growth-coincidentally it is doing almost nothing to clean the water.   In the end, it was probably one of the best conversations we’ve had with the community.  After several days where we lacked enough support, it was nice to see them taking some ownership of it.

We took apart the previous (non functioning filter) today and cleaned out the inside.  It was not a pretty task, sitting inside a dark green plastic tank baking in the sun and shoveling out sand and gravel a bucket at a time, but it got done.  I suddenly have a lot more sympathy for Mike Rowe…

Tomorrow is pretty much our last day, and it’s still not a sure thing that we’ll finish.  We’ve got a whole bunch of community members lined up to help fill the filter box with material tomorrow, but it’s all dependent upon the crusher stone (gravel) for our drainage system arriving.  Two of our sand loads (out of three) came today half an hour apart and then nothing – for the rest of the day.  The sand company had stopped answering their phone, and our main point of contact is not in her office.  We just got through to another number they have, and they’ve promised to deliver at 7:30 tomorrow, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Race to the Finish

2010 July 10
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Posted by chrisgezon

We’ve made a lot of progress since my last post.  We took two days off while the slab was curing to visit Kruger National Park (another post on that later), and started bricking last Saturday.  Once again, we ran into materials issues because the sand we had ordered (explicitly for use in mortar) was too rough to be used as mortar.  Half a day wasted.  The walls started flying up Sunday, but we immediately ran into trouble when we realized that our brickmaker had only produced 1300 blocks instead of the 1700 that we had ordered, and there was no way we could wait for a new batch to be seven days dry.  We stopped bricking at 17 out of the 22 courses, and ordered another smaller set of blocks (that we’d previously tested to hold up to their 30 MPA claim) to cover the last 40 cm of water and freeboard.  The smaller blocks took longer to work with, but still kept us on schedule.  By Wednesday the bricking was done, almost completely by Tschidzebe and Happiness, two local bricklayers who were working with us.

On Thursday Tschidzebe started parging the inside while the others put up the horizontal rebar an chickenwire for the ferrocement layer (Lisa, a CGH scholar from UVA here with us, ties on chicken wire to rebar in the photo below).  Because of my height I had the prestigious role of bucket boy, catching buckets of mortar passed over the wall and dumping them into Happiness’ wheelbarrow.

The past two days we’ve had to chance to get our hands (and feet, arms, hair, faces) dirty with mortar as we applied the first outer layer or mortar on top of the rebar.

At this point it could probably hold water, but we need another layer of mortar on the outside to provide enough coverage for the rebar, a final parge layer on the inside to ensure watertightness.  We are planning on leaving Thohoyandou on Wednesday, so we really have three days left to put on the remaining mortar layers, fill the filter, hook it up, and convert the old filter into storage.  Our filter sand (without it our slow sand filter is just a swimming pool) has been scheduled to arrive for each of the past three days, yet still hasn’t come.  Apparently it got dropped off at the Mutale Municipality headquarters today by mistake.  Even worse, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t had as many community volunteers coming out.  With our time here running out we hope that changes soon.  The race is on…


2010 June 29
Posted by chrisgezon

It’s been a busy week.  My last post left off on a sort of “to be continued” moment where we were waiting to hear where the elders thought the filter should go.  Our meeting Monday was one of the shortest I’ve ever had—maybe three minutes tops—in which the Chief basically said that he didn’t care where the filter went, but that any water committee meetings should be at his place.  That, and he said that we should bring some beer for him next time we come.  Seriously.

We broke ground Tuesday, and the digging (there’s less weight on the outer walls if they’re buried, and it makes maintenance easier if you don’t have to climb 2.5 meters to scrape the surface) started quickly.  By lunch some people were saying that we could finish in two days, putting us a day ahead of schedule.  The ground was amazingly rocky in most places, and we were exhausted at the end of Tuesday, but on schedule.  The Black Labels in the photo were returned to us when we were informed that the Chief prefers Castle…no point letting them go to waste.

Wednesday rapidly bogged down as our rocky “patch” became a layer of boulders too big to move, and generally even too big to break with sledge hammers.  By lunch it had become clear that we were not going to be finished digging Thursday, and realistically not even within a week.  It was at this point that one of the volunteers from Tshapasha mentioned that he knew a guy that could get us a TLB (we had no idea what it was either, but our guess was that it was a bobcat) to do the work, but it would be “expensive.”   They usually would charge 600R, but they thought they could get it down to 400R.  Our massive 7.5 x 4.5 x 1.8 m hole that was going to take a week of 20 men’s labor could be done for roughly $80 USD, and they only mentioned this after a day and half’s back breaking labor.  TIA

Problem solved.

Friday we leveled the hole and poured the gravel (so the water leaking through the cement doesn’t erode the soil under the foundation, eventually causing it to break) and while we had hoped to pour on Saturday, the sand and gravel we received were neither sand nor gravel.  Despite the fact that we explicitly ordered them for use as concrete aggregates, the “gravel” was a sandy mix full of large clumps of clay (unacceptable in concrete) as well as some chunks of rock over a foot wide, and the “sand” was more a fine dry dirt, complete with roots and twigs.  TIA

By the time we got sand and stone from another supplier (our brick manufacturer has become a total boon to us, supplying bricks, sand, stone, a cement mixer, and all kinds of great information), and put up enough of the forms and rebar it was too late to pour.  The community workers were mostly busy Sunday so we just finished prepping the rebar and forms for the pour Monday.

On Monday we finally poured the concrete for the foundation, which started well but led to its own difficulties.  It has been hot and sunny every day almost every day so far, but yesterday it had to rain.  Not only did it cause some issues with the concrete, but the water started causing the mixer to shock us.  To add to it, the sand and stone we ordered (6 cubic meters) was clearly going to run out about 2/3 of the way through, despite the fact that we had a 6.92 x 3.46 x .2 slab (you can do the math).  Eventually the rain picked up, as well as the voltage, and we had to call it off and just put in a cold joint.  Fortunately it’s the in the middle where all of our rebar overlaps, so there’s about 40 pieces of rebar crossing the joint.  Today we sat around for most of the day waiting for a truckload of sand that never came…TIA.  Eight days into work we’re four days behind.  We still shouldn’t have any problems finishing on time (though our testing window keeps shrinking, we definitely won’t witness the growth of the biological layer), but I’m getting worried, after all, This Is Africa…

Village Meeting with Tshapasha (and an MIA Tshibvumo)

2010 June 24
Posted by elb9fs

Sunday June 6

We have been trying to arrange a village meeting with both Tshapasha and Tshibvumo so that we all can explain our projects to the villagers, meet the local water committees, and get a general sense of how the community perceives our projects.

We have had trouble actually getting the people from Tshibvumo to show up at the meeting, due to several miscommunications, but arranging the meeting in Tshapasha was much easier. We all gathered around a large tree in the village and sat on benches made out of wooden posts as a man struck a large piece of metal hanging from the tree with a mallet to call villagers to the meeting.

After a significant number of community members had gathered, we began the meeting with a prayer. Garrick, Nisha, and Jim subsequently took turns explaining the three separate WHIL projects and then introduced us and the UNIVEN students to the community. In general, the listeners seemed positive about the project and whispered excitedly back and forth. One Venda woman sitting next to me kept whispering in my ear about how happy she was we had chosen to work in her community and how much she enjoyed meeting foreigners. We did see some frustration, however, when one member of the water committee stood up to tell us how people in the village complained, but their words never actually reached the water committee. He also felt that the project was not moving fast enough. Garrick quickly made it clear that this would be a long, frustrating process, at times, and that we had to work together to meet the goals we had set out to accomplish in the beginning. We are hoping that the message board we construct will help to ease some of the tension and frustration in the village and within the water committee.

Solomon at the Chief’s House

2010 June 24
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Posted by elb9fs

Saturday June 5th

Tonight we all piled into our cars and the Spaceship to go to Chief Rashitanga’s home for dinner. As we entered through the front door of his house, which has the image of an elephant carved into it, we met the principle of the local school and some other respected individuals from the village. We also met the Chief’s three children (one boy and two girls) and had fun talking with them and playing with the baby girl who toddled from one of us to the next.

For dinner, we had geared ourselves up to try some more mashonja, but were pleasantly surprised to see that the Chief had gone through the trouble of ordering us an immense amount of fried chicken, coleslaw, salad, bread, and other familiar foods from KFC. It seems like we can always count on Chief Rashitanga and his wife to predict and understand our thoughts.

After dinner, the Chief invited Solomon, the guitarist and vocalist, over to sing and play for us. We all danced in the large living room and enjoyed the raspy sound of his melodies.  Eventually though, we had to leave and drive through a maze of potholes back to Acacia Park.

Wimpy’s and the Market

2010 June 24
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Posted by elb9fs

Thurday June 3

On our drive from Johannesburg to Thohoyandou, we stopped at a rest stop to get some food and saw, for the first time, a restaurant named Wimpy. It’s more or less a high end Burger King, selling things like milkshakes, hamburgers, eggs for breakfast… similar to a Friendlys. We were excited, when we arrived, to see that Thohoyandou also has a Wimpy in its outdoor marketplace. Some of the menu items are interesting, like the Wimpy Colossal Burger or the Wimpy Super Sampler. Somehow, no matter how much you order, you don’t think you are going to be full.

One day we decided to grab milkshakes there before going to the marketplace. The market area here is divided into three parts. First is an area reminiscent of a strip mall. Rachel pointed out, though, how instead of being an actual strip, like in the US, the market area is divided into small streets, like a suburban neighborhood. This is the area with the Wimpy’s, a pizza parlour (Debonair’s), the Spar Grocery Store, a copy shop, and other stores. The second area features street vendors who all have tables and huts set up on the sides of a long street. Some women attend their stands as their infants toddle next to them while others sit and talk to the vendors at neighboring tables. Here, you can buy South African flags, rugs, cell phone parts, avocados, or get your hair braided. At the end of this long street lies the third section which is a modern mall like we see in the US. The stores are different – Jet, Legit, and Studio 88 are popular – but the same ceramic tiles line the floors and identical mannequins stare out of clear glass windows, showing off colorful, vibrant fashions and Bafana Bafana jerseys.

These three individual areas are completely different, but all push together to make up a single large marketplace. It seems like this is a common pattern in South Africa. So many different races, ethnicities, and economic classes are pushed together, like in Soweto and Johannesburg, but, for the most part, seem to stay relatively separate.


2010 June 24
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Posted by elb9fs


So it turns out you don’t have to go to the moon to see gigantic craters from the window of a spaceship! Actually, we get this experience every time we go to Tshapasha and Tshibvumo in Jack’s giant van. Potholes make the roads in the rural villages look like Swiss cheese. They are EVERYWHERE! In the left lane, in the right lane, in the dirt shoulder… you can’t avoid them, though many try.

Some days we are more hopeful than others, dodging potholes like maniacs in our cars to avoid dipping into the deep, wide pits. If you turn up the music on the radio, you can at least swerve rhythmically around the craters and feel like you are dancing. That is, until you hit your head on the ceiling after a particularly deep hole. After about the second ride to the villages, the phrase, “It’s ok, it’s a rental,” became infinitely more popular.

So, among the many lessons I have learned in South Africa so far:

-   A dirt shoulder or sidewalk is actually a second lane, in some circumstances

-   If you’re on your way to the villages, never bring an open drink into the car with you – especially if it’s hot

Meeting with the Tshapasha and Mboneni Primary Schools

2010 June 24
Posted by elb9fs

Friday June 4

Things really took off for the community engagement aspect of our project. Our advisors met with the chiefs of the two villages and arranged a meeting for me, Melina, and Rachel, along with the advisors of the teams.

We first met in Tshapasha Primary School with the female principal and some of her associates and later met in Tshibvumo’s Mboneni Primary School several of the school’s directors. We carefully explained the goals of our project, our incentive for being in the villages, what we would be doing with the children during the class time, and what we promised to eventually present to the schools after our pilot curriculum had finished.

A few days before meeting with the schools, we had officially decided that we, along with three UNIVEN nursing students (Gorata, Ermitia, and Annah), would ask the principals to each select twenty of the most outgoing students leaders, ages 7-12, in the primary schools to attend our program. We wanted them to be extroverted in the hopes that they would be more likely to spread the knowledge they acquired through the pilot program to their friends and family. We would meet with each group for 2 hours for 5 days and teach them facts about clean water practices. Each day would have a different theme, the main three being clean water collection, clean water storage, and water conservation. After we had collected information from focus groups with the children’s parents, we would then (over the course of the year) develop a clean water curriculum for the schools to use and work to send them all the supplies necessary from those curriculums.

While we all explained our project, the teachers spoke in Tshivenda to each other, which made Rachel, Melina, and I nervous that they were not interested in the project.  After the meeting though, Lydia explained to us that they were just clarifying that they understood all the details of the project as we spoke, which meant they were actually very engaged in the presentation. The principals all were very excited at the end of the explanation of the pilot program and made concrete plans to put together a group of students and reserve a classroom for us to use during our scheduled meeting times with the children. We would first be meeting with Tshapasha from 9-11 and with Tshibvumo from 12-2.

Everything was officially settled (in a surprisingly short amount of time) and we were thrilled that the schools were taking such an interest in educating the students about clean water practices. As we shook the students hands and waved goodbye when we were leaving, Melina, Rachel and I could not wait to begin working with the enthusiastic children in the villages!

Whatcha Gonna Do When They Come For You?

2010 June 24
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Posted by elb9fs

Thursday June 3

We were supposed to meet with the villages at some point in our first week, but things ran a little slower than we had planned. Instead, Garrick drove us through Tshapasha and Tshibvumo. The towns are about 45 minutes from our place in Thohoyandou, but the drive is beautiful – full of green mountain landscapes, traditional thatched roofed huts, and roadside stands selling sweet potatoes.

On the way back from the villages, we also got to enjoy the thrilling view of our professor nearly being rammed off the road by the South African police. The cops raced up next to Professor Louis and cut him off, making him swerve to an abrupt stop. We all stared out of our front windshield with our jaws hanging as several more police jumped out of their vehicles, brandishing AK-47s and hand guns. Was this the protocol for speeding? We saw Garrick step out of his car and get patted down, still surrounded by guns, all while “Hey Soul Sister” played on our radio.

Finally, after checking Professor Louis’s trunk, the police officers took off as quickly as they had come. Later, we asked Garrick what had happened and, calmly as ever, he said they had mistaken him for a criminal who had driven off in a white Corolla. That was the most intense false alarm I have ever witnessed.