Dirty business: Sanitation in Ghana

October 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

“Aww, so much plastic. 😦 ”

“I wonder where this is all this coming from.”

“Are there no landfills in Ghana?”

“This can’t be healthy!”


"Free range" chicken and goats

“Free range” chicken and goats

My thoughts about trash in Ghana quickly progressed from a mild curiosity to a burning desire to understand all the social ills that cause this phenomena. It baffled me that a country with a thriving social sector and stable government hadn’t yet figured out how to dispose of trash in a way that kept it contained.

I started my search by asking everyone I met about their thoughts on trash. Ben, our driver, told me that people knew that littering was bad but simply didn’t care and thought that the government should do something about it. Others admitted that openly defecating was bad but at the same time didn’t seem too bothered by it. I then bolstered that data with online research from NGOs and interviews with leading figures in the country. Here’s what I learned.

  1. It’s not even about the trash – I realized quite quickly that the plethora of trash is a symptom of a larger sanitation problem that exists in Ghana.  Littering is the last thing you’re worried about when your children are malnourished and sickly due to ingesting contaminated water and food from all the fecal matter piled up in the gutter just a few feet away. And nobody’s going to blame the poor bloke urinating in the corner when the closest latrine is 7 minutes away and costs 10 pesewas. The issue is exacerbated by poor infrastructure and lack of education on how the status quo perpetuates very real threats to one’s health. Which brings us to number 2.
  2. Malnutrition isn’t necessarily about not getting enough food, but more about being able to absorb the nutrients in the food that you do have access to – I attended a talk with Fiona Edwards, from SPRING, and she spoke at length about this topic. She spent her entire career battling malnutrition all over Africa and Southeast Asia and she found that malnutrition and sanitation issues are very highly linked. Poor sanitation leads to more viral and bacterial outbreaks and those outbreaks result in compromised internal systems. If you’re constantly having diarrhea due to a bacterial infection, it doesn’t matter how much food you put in your mouth – it will all just come out the other end. To read more about the link between diarrhea and malnutrition, see here.
  3.  Politicians are all talk – Multiple politicians and parties used sanitation as their election platform during the December 2013 elections. However, many have failed to enact actual policies that do anything to curb the endemic. $52 million is earmarked to address sanitation issues in Ghana every year with 96.5% of that money coming from foreign donors (Source: WaterAid).  Yet somehow that money often fails to realize tangible improvements. According to WaterAid’s 2012 report, Ghana only reported a 1% growth in sanitation, a stark juxtaposition to their goal of 54% by 2015.Modern Ghana reported in June 2013, “Ibrahim Musah, head of Policy and Partnership at WaterAid Ghana said since 2010 the government of Ghana has designed several sanitation policies, except they have all been kept on the shelves. He said although government had made provision for sanitation, the issue was how the environment directorate of the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development would be able to access the funds for use, as ‘the funds do not just get to them.'”
  4. Shit gets imported – Part of the reason Ghana has so much more trash than a country like Malawi is because so many more products wrapped in plastic, and other synthetic materials, get imported. As the Ghanaian economy continues to improve and the average Ghanaian’s purchasing power increases, this will only become a bigger problem. I also discovered that Ghana is a literal dumping ground for unwanted electronics from the first world. Agbogbloshie, a suburb of the capital, is the world’s largest e-waste dump. It’s a sad depiction of the wealthy using their influence to send toxic materials far, far away. The UN tried to combat this with the Basel Convention (The Basel Convention prevents the transfrontier shipment of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries) but countries either never ratified the convention or conveniently forget that they signed it. Each month, cargo containers arrive in Agbogbloshie, often illegally, from countries all over the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan (Source: Wikipedia).

So how can we solve all of these problems?

We (you and I individually) probably can’t. But in searching for the answer to my original question of why there was so much trash, I also came across many commendable initiatives. A few enterprising individuals have created businesses and/or community efforts that use and recycle waste, turning them into things like bags or bracelets. There are also a few private companies that are tackling the waste issue, head on. However, I do think that more action from the government is needed, especially in the development of key infrastructure like closed sewage pipes, landfills, and latrines. The people also need to keep politicians accountable and demand that they follow through on their promises.

But there’s a lot that first world citizens can do as well. Greenpeace advocates putting pressure on electronics companies to phase out toxic chemicals and introduce global recycling schemes. There’s also a lot of opportunity for social entrepreneurs to make a difference by introducing cutting edge research and practices around safe trash disposal. By sharing best practices around landfill development, incineration, and biomass/biogas processing techniques, we can help prevent Ghana from making the same mistakes we did.

Hopefully by writing and delving into this topic you’re at least a little inspired to make a change, whether that’s thinking more deliberately about your next electronics purchase or reaching out to a friend at a lab working on converting waste to biomass. Ghana has such a bright future ahead of it so why not help accelerate that progress?

My hope is that the next time we ask a kid to draw a picture of their community, it doesn’t include imagery of people defecating and urinating next to their homes.

Ghanaian village

Just lovely




Littered with apathy: Ada Foah

October 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

Ada Foah beach

At first glance, Ada Foah is a beautiful, lush, beach oasis. Palm trees painted with the colors of the Ghanaian flag line the water and charming boats are rife along the waterfront. But look a little closer and what you find will surprise you.


It literally looks like a landfill exploded and all of the ensuing debris washed up on this very shore. I spoke with a few people about this afterwards and the origin of the trash is unclear but most likely locally generated. Apparently there are local groups that sometimes conduct beach clean ups but this particular stretch of land did not look like it had ever been cleaned.

I couldn’t help but think of a recent exhibit in the Anchorage museum that showed countless images of animals killed because they mistook trash for food. The artist cut open their stomachs and took pictures of the plastic trapped inside their stomachs. It was extremely graphic, and almost painful to look at, but very effective at driving the point home.

At the beach there was an enterprising young girl who kindly told us that crocodiles swam in the river (after a few folks had already christened their swim suits with Ghanaian water). All in all, it was an interesting one day excursion but not something I would say is a must do in Ghana.

girl on beach

One thing I really enjoyed here was creating a makeshift fishing rod and swirling some raw chicken in the water to try to catch some tilapia. While the rest of the group was finishing their lunch, I asked the staff where I could fish. They didn’t have any pre-set opportunities so I started getting creative. After failing to catch the attention of a local fisherman gliding by on a boat with his lobster traps (I was planning to volunteer my services as first mate), one guy took pity on me and found a metal hook on a string. Prosper, the guy, then involved the grill chef, Baba, to procure a pipe that we then tied the string to. After attaching the string to the pipe we tied a little bit of foil to the string to act as a bobber and dropped the line along the dock. Unfortunately I didn’t catch any fish but I did get to see some fish nibble on the bait in the clear shallow waters. I also unsuccessfully tried to catch a lizard and pet a baby goat. But it’s okay. Failing to pet the tiny, adorable baby goat only furthered my resolve to catch one before I leave. I will prevail.


Ghana keep on blogging

October 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Aaanndd the Ghana puns just keep on coming!

I’m on pun 2948347 now and it still hasn’t gotten old.  Ghana is one of those few countries with a name that sounds just close enough to an English word (like Belize) so that unoriginal foreigners like me can incorporate it into pidgin English. But no one’s Ghana stop me so the puns will live to see another day!

I’ve been in Ghana about 24 hours now and I’ve already learned so much. Let’s start with busting some myths.

Myth 1: I’m Ghana catch ebola
There are currently more cases of humans with ebola in the US than in Ghana (Ghana has 0 reported cases). Therefore, one could argue that traveling to Texas is more dangerous (in terms of ebola) than traveling to Ghana. Sure, there are risks posed by animal to human transmission of the disease in all the West African nations but I’m under strict orders to avoid bushmeat and roadside stalls. And while I do enjoy good street food, I’m willing to sacrifice that culinary adventure for the peace of mind of loved ones abroad.

I will say that there is one conspiracy theorist in my group who mentioned the possibility of government cover ups to keep up tourism and the pristineness of the Ghanaian global image. However, I don’t give credence to this theory as the UN ebola crisis response team is based here in Ghana and it would be extremely hard to cover something like that up. And as unhappy as locals are with President Mahama’s handling of the economy (the value of the Ghanaian cedi is lower than ever), he’s never been known as a particularly corrupt or shady politician.

Myth 2: It’s hot and dry in Africa
Africa is huge and although that statement may be true for other parts of the continent, Ghana is not at all dry. It is extremely hot but the weather here has been mostly overcast with 80%+ humidity and approximately 85°F temperatures. Imagine Singapore but worse. Then pretend you’ve been out and about all day, dripping with sweat, only to discover that the water isn’t working in your hotel. Yup, that was me tonight.

Myth 3: Lodging is cheaper in Ghana
This is a myth I fully believed until I learned that the prices for our nondescript hotel rooms were on par with a Hilton in San Francisco or a W in Seattle. To add insult to injury, there’s paltry wifi, power outages, and water shortages. Out of all the regions, Accra has the best infrastructure so I’m curious to see what the more rural regions will look like.

But despite the heat and lack of water, I love Ghana! The people are extremely friendly, crime is very low, the government is stable, and the food is delicious. And, I’m learning a TON. Here are a few fun facts I learned today.

Fun Fact 1: Taxi prices are arbitrary
Taxis here don’t have a running meter or transparent system by which they charge by so every ride is a negotiation.  I’ve been told that the main variables are traffic, distance, oil prices, and the taxi driver’s mood. It helps to ingratiate yourselves to the drivers because they almost always ask for double the price if you’re a foreigner. I need to work on my charm offensive as I’ve only been able to negotiate half the amount to get it down to the “local” price.  To be fair though, a 15 minute ride will cost about 10 cedi (this is the foreigner price) which is only about $3 USD. Ghana’s taxi system is especially interesting to me after reading this detailed analysis on how services like Uber, Lyft, and taxis compare in the US.

Fun Fact 2: My name is Friday
Today I learned that Ghanaian parents name their child the day of the week their child was born. It’s only after the 8th day that they assign another name to the baby. The origins of this custom are sad as it’s due to the high infant mortality rate (even today it’s still 40 deaths / 1000 live births) but this custom results in some rather fascinating names. Most people here have their “day of week” name, traditional tribal name(s), surname, and, if they work in hospitality, an American name.  Former UN Secretary General  Kofi Atta Annan is a Ghanian citizen and goes commonly by his “day of week” name, Kofi (Friday).

When I discovered this custom I quickly researched my day of week and was delighted to find out that I was also born on a Friday. But it wasn’t until after I told several people to call me Kofi, only to be met by raucous laughter, that I learned that Kofi is the male version and that I should actually be called Efua. For the rest of the night I introduced myself to all Ghanaians I met (the hotel staff, random local students we met at a bar, etc.) as Efua.

Fun Fact 3: Girls Generation and Khan Academy are alive and well in Ghana
I was walking down a street in the hip area of Accra called Osu when I noticed a huge video display billboard playing this Girls Generation music video. What the…? Girls Generation? In Ghana?! It still baffles as to how that happened but it did give me a new appreciation for the pervasiveness of Korean pop culture.

Once we reached the bar, I was determined to make some local friends so I surreptitiously joined a circle of university age boys and started chatting with them about the upcoming music festival, their backgrounds, internet usage patterns and what they wanted to do once they graduated university. It was awesome to hear that one of the boys, Tunde, uses YouTube primarily for educational purposes and cited Khan Academy as one of his favorite channels. Mentions of Khan Academy elicited a round of smiles and bright eyed concessions to the usefulness of the content. I love hearing stories of how people use the Internet to better themselves and I felt lucky to run into such humble yet ambitious young men. One boy studying to be an accountant said that he wanted to fix the economy and that he and his friends (studying finance and economics), were going to make it happen. Well, Ide, I truly hope that dream becomes a reality.

Doggone it!

May 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today was a very sobering day.

Back in 2010 when Stephanie and Kyson were last in Malawi, they spent some time at an orphan care center in Govala, playing with the children and teaching them English through songs. Stephanie wanted to go back to check up on the kids and also to deliver some books, toys, and treats we brought for them. Thankfully we were able to tag along and hitch a ride from some missionaries in town and visit the kids today.

It was my first time in a rural community and at first glance, it was the typical depiction of an African village – something you would see in National Geographic. The 30 children or so were crowded in a small cement room with a thatched roof and no windows. They sat on a tattered, brittle mat on the hard concrete floor and flashed their exuberant faces at the foreigners who came to sing them songs and take their picture. I felt very conflicted visiting because I wasn’t actually doing anything to help the kids and I was simply a spectator, watching them, not with pity, but with a regretfulness at how unfair life can be. 

However, the children gave me hope. There was so much potential and so many bright futures ahead of these kids. I started playing catch with one little girl and when other children crowded around us to get in on the game as well, she instinctively picked up on my hand motions and started organizing the children in a circle and directing them on how to toss the ball so that everyone got a chance to play. She did all that at the ripe old age of 4.

Little girl from Govala

Leader in the making

Children grow up fast here and there were two year olds walking home alone from the orphan care center. Thankfully the village is safe enough where there is little risk of harm besides the fact that they may forget the way home. It’s a little scary though because bikes and cars do traverse the same dusty roads the children use and it would take little more than a smudged rear view mirror to result in a horrific accident. But all in all, the children were happy, healthy (from what I could see externally), and full of energy.


What really broke my heart today was the dogs. 

I saw two dogs in Govala today and both dogs made me tear up. I came across the first one as I was walking through the market. It was so malnourished that I could count all of its bones and it barely had enough energy to stand. The edges of its ears were torn and bleeding and flies languished upon the open sores. I wanted to run to it and pet it and feed it something hearty but all I could do was stand there and stare as tears filled my eyes. No one seemed to care that a dying dog was in their midst and in that moment, the world seemed so cruel.


The other dog I saw was underneath a truck. It was also a walking skeleton and it had taken refuge underneath the wheel of a truck yet when the truck needed to leave for another city, it refused to come out from under the wheel. The situation generated a crowd of spectators as the locals found the stubborn dog hilarious as it refused to leave the side of the tire – as if that tire were its mother. For a while I thought people were just watching the truck struggle as it moved back and forth, trying to get a grip on the road and I wasn’t entirely sure what was quite so funny until a man pointed out the dog underneath the truck to me as his eyes crinkled with glee. Rather than laugh, I gasped, as I saw the poor dog struggle under the truck to stay underneath the covering of the body and I watched fearfully as the truck moved back and forth, trying to get the dog out from under it. At times the truck would run over a part of the dog and it would yelp in pain. I looked for something I could use as a noose to catch the dog by the neck and pull it out from under but I couldn’t find anything and the crowd had blocked the way to the truck so that I couldn’t get through. After a few minutes of watching this I had to walk away because I couldn’t bear to see the dog get run over. It made me sad because I knew that this wasn’t a battle I should fight and I felt so helpless knowing that anything I did would be like putting a bandaid on a broken leg. 

Eventually the truck left and I ran back looking for what I thought would be the remains of the dog. I didn’t see them though so I signed to a woman, indicating that I was looking for the dog. She replied in broken English that the dog had gone. Apparently it wasn’t run over and as soon as the truck left, it followed, hobbling along until it no doubt ceased to exist.

After the orphanage visit I ate lunch with Stephanie, three missionaries who worked with the children at the orphan care center, and Pezo, a local Malawian and Reverend of a local church. We ordered a typical meal of rice, goat, and beans each and had an extra plate of seema so that Stephanie and I could try the more typical fare. It was too much food for us and I asked Pezo if I could feed the leftovers to the dog. He seemed confused at my question and said that they would feed the leftovers to the kids. When I repeated my question he assured me that the food would not go to waste and that they would distribute any leftovers to the children. When I protested that the dogs were so skinny, someone else remarked at how the children were also so skinny and often only had one meal a day.

Seema, beans, and goat meat

Seema, beans, and goat meat

The exchange made me feel like I was ten again when I told my mom that I wanted to become a veternarian and she responded telling me that for that many years of schooling I should just become a doctor. When I protested saying that I wanted to be an animal doctor and not a human doctor, I received a very stern lecture on how people were more important than animals and how I needed to reprioritize my feelings.  It’s a speech that I get often, even today, usually from a well meaning adult. 

To me, it’s not I think humans are less important than animals. Rather, it’s because I feel like animals have too few people to speak for them while humans have billions of advocates merely in the fact that we are all of the same species. I’ve always rooted for the underdog and in this case, it literally was an under (the truck) dog. Also, my animals have created such joy and happiness in my life and it’s hard to see harm come across something you care about, even if it’s not your own.

Some people have questioned my line of work and asked why, if I love animals so much, why I don’t simply work for a wildlife organization or the Humane Society and work with animals. And the answer to that is because I believe in long term win-win solutions. I believe that I can significantly positively impact a population (human and animal) by implementing sustainable economic practices and raising the standard of living for all. Once people are not starving and have excess food to spare, animals will stop starving. That is the far reaching type of impact I aim to reach with every project that I work on – starting with Bamboo Lota, the Nonhuman Rights Project, Girls 20 Summit, and hopefully many more.

For the time being, I’m doing what I can and trying to learn new skills as quickly as possible so I can turn all of this into a reality. I also take my small wins as they come as long term plans take much patience and planning. 

After lunch I snuck a piece of seema and goat meat that had fallen on the floor and peeled off from the rest of the group to try and find the first dog. Once I found it, I dropped the food at its head, trying to attract as little attention as possible. The dog appeared to be blind and deaf as it’s ears hardly twitched when I called to it. I finally nudged the food with my shoe until it was right underneath its nose. It was heartbreaking to see the dog lie there, with no strength to even put the food in its mouth. Thankfully, after a few minutes, it realized that the food was there and slowly started to eat. I teared up as I watched it eat, sorry that I hadn’t grabbed more food, but more sorry that I couldn’t do more to help that one dog and all the other dogs that were undoubtedly in the same situation. It was a sobering view of the reality of living in Africa – one I had been shielded from experiencing firsthand until today. And as painful as today was, I’m thankful for the experience because it further hardens my resolve to truly make a difference. It sounds so idealistic and childish when I say it out loud but I do feel like there are a lot of people and animals counting on me (and people like me) to make a difference and I refuse to let them down.


May 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

It has almost been a year since I went to London. It was an amazing trip but sadly, it looks like I didn’t keep up with the blog while I was there.

Now, I’m moving on to Africa. In a few short minutes I will be leaving for the airport and begin an excruciatingly long journey to my final destination: Zomba, Malawi. There aren’t any direct flights to Zomba so my route will be SFO -> Amsterdam -> Jo’burg (South Africa) -> Blantyre (Malawi) and then a one hour car ride to Zomba. Stephanie, Kyson, and I are headed there to continue our work on Bamboo Lota. You can see our Indiegogo campaign for what we plan to do while we’re there.

I’m looking forward to learning more about Africa and soaking in the culture. I’ll definitely be checking in and updating everyone on how I’m doing.


In the Fatherland

June 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve been back to this blog. I’m traveling again so I thought I would update regarding my various excursions. I was still planning to update the onmortality blog with father related material but due to an unforseen problem with the server, it looks like all the updates will be via jokidoki.

Anyway, I’m in Korea now but I will do a proper update with pictures and stories later. See you then!

Stephanie in Dubai

September 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

Check out Steph’s fascinating post on Dubai!  Oh how I wish I was there! From http://stephaniewu.tumblr.com/

Saturated is the way of this city, dripping heavily with perspiration in the hot humid air, painted an opulent color of glistening gold and silver, sagging under the weight of money made from thick, dark oil.

However, Dubai’s majestic alien towers house nothing but air-conditioned, fake circulating air. It is an empty, affluent city redefining superficiality and westernization.

So, calling all Dubaians— where are all of your people? This city feels lonely and cold, echoing hollow without laughter or noise, just unvoiced silence and stares. I am fairly certain that all of this modern infrastructure takes a ton of money and time, but dear me, in my opinion you chose the wrong place to do so! The desert is a flushing hot and humid experience, and I am happy that when we head back there on our next layover, we’re not headed back outside away from 12degC AC.

Fascinating facts I’ve learned from our tour guide (we got a night tour of the city, glowing and futuristic under hazy fog, 93 degrees at midnight, damn.):

1) Petrol is cheaper than water. It’s about 35 cents a litre for gas, and 80 cents a litre for water.

2) Locals get free education and health insurance, to name a few benefits. Foreigners pay much, much more.

3) However, foreigners make up about 80% of the population (working or living), the other 20% are local people.

4) Foreign women can easily obtain citizenship, as local men can marry foreign women; however, local women are forbidden by law to marry foreign men. Thus, it’s also very difficult for foreign men to obtain citizenship.

5) Our tour guide lived in the Dubai Desert— in a labor camp (literally. We looked it up on the bus map today). He gets paid about $500/month for working 6 days a week for 12 hours a day.

6) He explained that there is no crime in the city because the city is so expensive, you must work hours upon hours a day. There is no time to go home and formulate criminal plans after work.

7) Houses here go for an average of about $8 million (we drove past many, and also the Shiekh’s palaces!), and apartments are about $40K for a 99-year lease (in the Palms). In addition, only locals are allowed to buy certain property, such as the apartments on the Palm’s fronds or houses on Jumeirah Road.

8) Of the seven United Arab Emirates, Dubai is the very commercial and rich city, which then allows more lenient laws on alcohol, religion and clothing. I’m trying to understand all the dichotomies between different religions and customs, but still was surprised at the sheer number of women dressed/veiled modestly. My long dress and cardigan didn’t even compare.

While briefing us about Dubai, the driver took us around to see many distinctive points of interests. I’ll post pictures soon! Settling into my hotel in Nairobi (which is an awful adventure in itself, will describe more later!) Good night, world.

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