2009: Water-Quality Testing in Northern Ghana

Conducting water-quality research around the city of Tamale

Jake Cohen

Silliman, Class of 2012

Jake Cohen

Thanks to the generosity of the Chase Coggins Memorial Fund, I was able to spend six weeks in Ghana this summer, conducting water-quality research around the city of Tamale. When I first became interested in taking on a water project in Ghana, I intended to set up a sachet-water business to provide clean water for people and to help the NGO Pure Home Water (PHW) become financially self-sustaining. “Sachets” are literally plastic bags filled with 500 milliliters of water; girls, and some women, carry them on their head in ice buckets and sell them on the street for 5 Ghana pesues, the equivalent of 3 US cents. Though it is a tiresome and often-thankless job, it pays relatively well: sachet girls, as they are called, buy packs of 30 sachets at kiosks for 75 pesues; if they sell them all, they make 150 pesues: a profit of 75 pesues. Though 75 pesues, about 60 cents, for a few hours of work isn’t much by our standards, it offers girls the opportunity to supplement their parent’s income (and, in some cases, make up for the lack thereof).

Setting up a sachet business for PHW posed a number of potential problems, however. First, our only method for filtering water would have been with the ceramic pot filters that the NGO sold; while great for domestic use, they filter water far too slowly to mass-produce sachets. Other sachet businesses had much more specialized and efficient filtering techniques: large scale UV-ray filters, sand and carbon filters, and micron filters. While we could have invested in setting up a factory with the appropriate equipment, it was not clear enough that selling sachets was the only way to make PHW self-sustaining. Second, though sachet businesses were extremely lucrative in the early nineties, when only two or three companies existed, the dozens of businesses in operation now make it exceedingly difficult to succeed, especially with some sketchy businesses not even filtering their water. And last, we knew that selling sachets was only a temporary fix, both for PHW’s problem of becoming self-sustaining and for Tamale’s problem of having clean water.

Instead, I, along with Jesse Williams*, who is also a sophomore at Yale, studied the water quality in the city of Tamale. I must clarify, however, that though Tamale is technically a city—it has a population of 220,000—it is far removed from our Western conception of a city: no more than a dozen paved roads start in the center of “town” and then go out in every direction for one or two miles, quickly fading into dirt roads in a vast and endless savannah.

Biking out to a different two or three villages every morning, Jesse and I collected and analyzed over 130 water samples. The water samples came from a variety of sources: dugouts, wells, ponds, rivers, pipes, and rain water, and we either collected them directly from the source or from the clay pots and oil drums in which people stored their water. Our interactions with the people at these villages were unpredictable, illumiating, and always memorable. Language, primarily, made things interesting: although English is Ghana’s official language, every region has a different language and only those who go to school speak English, so Jesse and I were forced to learn the rudiments of Dagbani, the language in the Northern Region, where we were. In trying to explain ourselves to the people at the villages we visited, we relied on a combination of motions, a few well-rehearsed Dagbani phrases, lots of smiling, and, when we were lucky, someone in the village who spoke English. Despite the language barriers, the people in Tamale were some of the warmest and most hospitable people I’ve ever encountered. (One of the best friends I made, Zaki, who spoke no English, wouldn’t let me leave his house without taking a basket full of guinea fowl eggs.)

In a “lab” at the house that PHW owned, we conducted four different tests on the water (this “lab” was probably farther from the Western conception of a lab than Tamale was from that of a city—it consisted of a small room with a fridge, a stove, an incubator, a heat-pressing machine, and a closet full of supplies students had brought from the US). One of the objectives of our research was to demonstrate that the combination of two cheap tests that require no electricity could provide the same level of information as a more expensive, energy-dependent test. The two cheap tests were Petrifilm and Collilert: Petrifilm consists of a medium on which E. coli and coliform can grow and be counted, and Collilert is positive/negative test for the presence of coliform and E. coli. Each one of these tests cost less than $1, and can be incubated using body heat. Quantitray, the more sophisticated and expensive test, also gives a count of the number of E. coli and total coliform, but it costs $10 per test and requires electricity to power a heat-pressing machine and an incubator. The last test we conducted, though not to study its effectiveness, was a positive/negative test for hydrogen sulfide bacteria, such as Salmonella.

Our data has shown that the combination of Petrifilm and Collilert do provide as much and as reliable information as Quantitray. The implications of this finding are far reaching, as NGO’s around the world that do not have electricity or enough money can now accurately test the quality of water. Perhaps more ambitiously, this finding could also allow for cities, and even villages, in the developing world to more readily monitor the quality of their water.

There were two other objectives in our study. One of them was to gather the data for a Google Maps-type of website, designed by MIT students, where one can click on a house or a water source in Tamale (or in the Phillipines, where a similar project took place, and hopefully elsewhere soon) and get a picture, the water quality, and a short story about that particular place. Though the website is not yet up, the stories about each sample, which Jesse and I switched off writing, are complete, and I am attaching the ones that I wrote in the appendix.

The last objective of our study was to gather the data for a sort of map of the water quality of Tamale, examining which areas have access to pipe water, which areas have wells and dugouts, and how the water quality varies throughout the villages. The purpose of this is to allow PHW to figure out which villages to target in terms of selling water filters, and how to target them, for clearly, villages that have access to pipe water are going to be unlikely to buy water filters.

Looking back on my time in Ghana, I can honestly say that this experience helped me grow immensely in nearly every way possible, not the least of which was academically. For one, my project reinforced my commitment to studying medicine. Listening to people talk about how many friends they’ve lost to malaria, how many kids die from dirty water, how many people go blind from trachoma and other preventable diseases—how much suffering is caused by diseases that we know how to prevent—makes it nearly impossible for me to not want to help, and I see medicine as the most direct route. At the same time, my experience in Ghana made me even more certain that I want to study history at Yale, for I’ve learned that one cannot solve problems—whether they are about selling water filters or toilers or bed nets, or eradicating guinea worm or preventing HIV/AIDS, or stopping genocide and corruption—simply by only looking at the problem through one lens, whether scientific, economic, or politcal. Cost-benefit analyses are useless when dealing with people who don’t reason based on economic interests; designing a filter that kills 99.99% of bacteria won’t do anything if the people you are trying to sell it to don’t see dirty water as a problem. Instead, what is going to make me most the best doctor, in both the US and the developing world, is an understanding of science and of people. This conviction has shaped my course of study at Yale, and I hope will continue to shape my academic and personal development.

Without the help of the Chase Coggins Memorial Fund, my experience would not have been possible. As such, I sincerely thank the Chase Coggins Memorial Fund for its tremendous generosity, and am forever indebted to it for giving me the opportunity to realize my passion. May the memory of Chase Frederick Coggins continue to empower people to change the world.


*Jesse and I worked together throughout the project–from collecting the samples, to analyzing them, even to coaching soccer together. He was sick for a couple weeks so I went out by myself a lot, but we were together for the rest of the time.

These are the stories that I wrote about the samples that we collected. The number next to each story corresponds to the sample number, which can also be seen in the Excel file with all of the data, which I’ve attached separately. Most of the missing numbers correspond to stories that Jesse Williams, my partner in crime, wrote.

5. We arrived at Taha on our second day and were impressed by a public standpipe, only to be told that the waster was not running. Instead, a boy of about twelve led us by bike to this dugout, small, unclean, and the village’s main source of water.

7. A middle-aged woman showed us her water. It was in a clay storage pot, barely a brown puddle at the very bottom. “Dam water,” she told us. The treatment? Merely poured through a cloth filter, and drank.

10. A rice field away from the main road, we found this long, brick house, which stood out from the mud houses we had gotten used to seeing. A young woman washed clothes and her little brothers ran around as their father showed us this clay storage pot. With no working municipal pipes, his wife and daughter fetch water from the Taha dam every day, and drink it just like that.

16. Deep in the sea of farms, four brothers emerged from a mud-hut compound. Soft-spoken but generous, they led us to this well. A bright orange star in an endless green sky, you would have thought the water was gold, but it was far, far from it.

18. Hidden behind a small hill in an otherwise flat land, this dugout, though not the dirtiest looking we had seen, proved to be as dirty as any. Even the heavy rain the night before didn’t help the water, though it did help make the rest of the journey a long, wet one. It featured a headfirst wipe out into a flood rice field by, of course, none other than myself.

20. Soaked in muddy water from head to toe, not excluding my digital camera, I rode grudgingly behind Jesse, who somehow managed to dodge every single muddy obstacle along the way. I finally smiled, however, when, upon our arrival at the village of Pauma, the group of women who greeted us pointed and laughed playfully at my dripping self. Out of the roaring crowd of women emerged a pregnant woman. With eyes and teeth that were tired and yellow, she told us in impeccable—and animated—English about the village’s problems: “We have nothing,” she said. “No roads, no water.”

22. When we left Bauma I was so ready to go home and forget about the “challenging” morning, that the last thing I wanted to do was to have to stop again. Of course, we stopped again. This time, we pulled over at a little pond hugging the side of the road. We had almost missed it, not because of how small it was, but because it was almost the color of the dirt all around it.

24. We had by this “Islamic Republic of Iran”-sponsored elementary school a couple days earlier, but as a school teacher informed us that there wasn’t enough water in the cement holding tank for it to come out. It having rained the night before, we tried again, and this time, though there still wasn’t enough pressure for the it to come through the faucet, the teacher told us he could get us water. He called a little boy named Rashid. As I knelt down next to the faucet with my plastic bag ready, uncertain of how this tiny boy was going to help, Rashid twisted his head under the faucet and began to suck on it, somehow “pulling” the water up from inside. With each pull producing only a fleeting flow of water, Rashid pulled and pulled until the bag was full, and, before I could even thank him, darted back to his classroom.

26. On our way to Goumane, a Grand Canyon-like valley appeared on the side of the dirt road. Like 8-year-old boys, we could smell fun, and we instinctively turned into it. It looked too much like the natural version of a skate park to pass up, and the brown puddles dotting it were perfect for chucking pebbles. Then, in the distance, on the far side of the valley of craters: a woman, collecting water.

28. Riding around one of the most striking landscapes we had seen—one of the few hills in the area—we passed a quiet primary school. As we strolled through the school’s yard, more and more kids started racing behind us until the whole school was in an impromptu recess. When we reach the main office, the principle, a large, stern-looking woman, ordered us to sit down. She listen carefully but seemed unmoved by what we said. Finally, she said simply, “When the kids are in school, they drink pipe water. But at home, all they have is the dam.” She must have repeated that three times. And then, “you have to help them.”

30. A woman holding a baby led us into her compound. She skillfully swung the baby onto its feet, and picked up an empty tomato can to scoop water out of large clay pot with. The baby started as my plastid bag filled with brown water.

32. Like most dugouts, you couldn’t actually see the water until you climbed over the rim of it. Once up there, it was an idyllic site, however: bushes lined the pond’s outskirts and the sun shone on its very center. The water itself, however, was a different story, saturated with E. coli.

34. The headmaster and a couple of teachers were sitting around a plastic table near the edge of an elementary school playground. Kids ran around like mosquitoes, kicking and chasing a flat soccer ball. As we walked through the playground, a teacher approached us and brought us over to the headmaster. When we explained ourselves to him, he offered to show us the school’s water source himself. He hopped on his bike and took off, as Jesse and I tried to keep up on ours. He led us to a sprawling dugout, and explained that students take turns walking over to the dugout and collecting water for the other students.

36. Across the main road from the school we had just been at, a village called Vitin lay hidden behind a row of kiosks. We approached the first house we saw, where we were given dugout water from a clay pot. The water didn’t turn out to be the worst we had seen, but it certainly wasn’t clean either.

38. Led by a little boy from the previous house, we came to a brick house that surrounded on a cement courtyard. Two well-dressed men welcomed us and took us over to a shower, where they get their water. Apparently, this house served as some sort of barracks, either military or, more likely, religious.

40. A woman in her early thirties greeted us. She spoke little English, and there was no one around to translate for us, so we kept our conversation simple and to the point. With a huge metal bowl, she scooped some water from an oil drum and splashed it into another metal bowl. Then, she filled one of our bags with water, which, surprisingly, was clean.

42-53. [Kula – no information written in field notebook.]

54. A man wearing a Germany soccer jersey looked at us suspiciously as we talked to his wife. When we turned and starting talking to him, however, his distrustful look faded into a friendly one, asking questions and commenting about our work.

56. On the side of the dirt road, a little girl, who couldn’t have been older than 12, scooped water from a puddle into metal buckets and bowls. She was diligent and proud of her work, and seemed annoyed that we stopped to talk at her. As soon as we left, after thanking her enthusiastically to make her seem less upset, she got right back to collecting water.

58. I can’t remember what the whole dugout looked like; I don’t know that I even saw. My eyes, and my camera, were fixed on the very edge of the water, right next to my feet. Faded footprints, empty Gatorades bottles, and black plastic bags stood motionless as warm, dirty water swirled around them. And to think that people drink this water.

60. A boy just a couple years younger than us walked us over to a little roof, under which were stacked a medley of pots of different colors and sizes, most filled with water. It was sad to think that you could take so much pride in the water you have, as this boy did, when the water you have is actually so dirty. Or maybe it’s inspiring? I don’t know…

62. Two eldlerly women sat on the cement ground with their backs on the wall, seemingly in the midst of some gossip. We gave them our usual shpiel, but they didn’t understand us. Luckily, three high school boys in uniform shirts were just getting on their bikes a few houses down, so we were able to get their attention. Osman, Alhassan, and Abulai translated for us, and, as usual, asked us for our numbers at the end.

64. Isn’t this a toilet, Jesse and I asked ourselves? As if reading our minds, or perhaps our puzzled looks, Seth, a gentle construction worker from the Volta Region, told us that they were in fact intended to be toilets, but when ground water was found during their construction, they decided to use them as wells. For some reason, they still finished building them as if they were toilets. Let’s just hope everyone is clear on what they are, Jesse and I thought.

67. A tall woman flung a rubber container down another one of the faux-toilet wells, and effortlessly pulled it full of water. When Jesse and I asked to have a try and, well, failed, the woman burst out laughing and saying something in Dagbani. Seth translated: she thought we were funny, and she wanted a gift from America. Unsure what to do, Jesse gave her his pen. She kept laughing, but as she held the pen between two fingers and examined it, said “Nandesogu,” thank you.

68. We began past Kalpohin, a village right next to our house where we had been the day before. After making two or three U-turns—almost every dirt path seemed to be swallowed up by corn plants into another dead end—we came across an idyllic stream. Just down from where the path met the quiet stream, a majestic tree rose from the water. Confident that people in Kalpohin fetched water there, we took a sample. Perhaps the scene’s beauty improved the water’s quality, for, though still quite dirty, it was better than most.

70. I couldn’t take enough pictures. This brown-water dugout—and I mean brown—had countless footprints dotting the entirety of its shore. The slew of mud and still, warm water looked more like a plate of brownies and melted chocolate ice cream after being eaten by a six-year-old than the rim of body of water—drinking water, at that.

73. A soft-spoken woman clad in a beautiful mélange of purple and yellow fabrics led us to this well in the back of her farm. As was too commonplace, the well had a cement cover, but because the mechanism built to pull up water through a tube was broken, part of the cover had to remain open—leading the water in it to become extremely dirty.

77. Behold, a scene we quickly became accustomed to: Jesse and I walked into the front yard of this house in Kanvilli, a village right next to Tunayilli, and the woman who greeted us, unable to speak English, went into the house to get her sons, two of them, both extremely polite and with excellent English. They gave us water from a pipe inside their home: It was perfectly clean! Hallelujah!

78. Yakubu introduced us to his father and brother. We had already met Yakubu a few days back, while we were in a different village. We talked for a few minutes—the two brothers managed their English quite well, though their father had some trouble. Meanwhile, four of their younger siblings kneeled over a game of Mancala (knowing that this popular game had been invented in Africa, I had been looking out for it during my whole stay—I was so happy to finally find it!)

86, 87, and 88. We lucked out. Within minutes of our arrival at the Nalu Electrical District (the name, ironically, of a village without electricity), we were introduced to a group of four friends who gracefully guided us through their village. They were 20 and 21 years old. Gafaro and Amin were taxi drivers. Alu was a “sprayer,” meaning he (spray-)painted motorcycles. Numan, however, still did not have a job. Curious, I asked him what he wanted to do. “Feed my family,” he answered simply. “Well, of course,” I responded, “but what kind of work do you want to do in order to feed your family?” This next line has stuck with me since: “Around here, one does not choose what job he wants to have,” he said. “One takes whatever job he can take.” They proceeded to take us to a number of places to get water. The last three were a tiny pond on the side of the road, one of the biggest dugouts I had seen, with goats and sheep grazing all around it, and pipe at a home.

94 and 95. Hassan was waiting for us next to his family’s kiosk. He was the boy who had taken us to a dugout on one of our first days. He led us to two wells we had not seen before, both nothing more than a hole in the ground reinforced with some sticks.

98. With Jesse suffering from the side effects of the antibiotic he took for an infected cut, I set out on my own. My destination was any village in the northwest of Tamale, a segment we had yet to explore. After knifing through the center of town and speeding down a long and hilly road, I reached the village of Nyanshego. Alone, I felt a lot more conspicuous; the first-day jitters that that had been washed away by the Ghanaians’ overwhelming warmth and friendliness returned. After circling the village a couple times, I stopped hesitantly at cement house and tiptoed in. A father and son received me plainly, but as I explained myself, throwing in a few well-rehearsed Dagbani words, the pair began to laugh and ask me questions, and the jitters were once again erased. The water they gave me, supposedly from a municipal pipe, was as dirty as any.

  • Feeling more comfortable, I got back on my bike and stopped just a few houses down. From outside the front yard, I could see a mother trying to teach her baby to talk. The scene was almost too perfect to disturb. After hesitating for a few moments, I cleared my throat and said, “Despa.” The woman looked up confusedly, and the unexpected sight of a white man made her clutch her baby against her chest. Nonetheless, she proceeded to greet me formally. As usual, a team of women, and one man, emerged from all corners of the house. My attempts to ask them about the weather and how their sleep was, in Dagbani, drew laughs, and they gave me a sample of their rainwater. As I was getting on my bike, a few feet outside the yard, the mother tapped me on the shoulder, and, still holding her baby, asked to hear more about my work.

100. From my conversation with the previous woman, I gathered that there were in fact a number of wells in the area. Crossing a small plank-and-rope bridge, I found a group of carpenters who led me to this pump well. Though the pump was locked (using a bicycle chain), one of the young painters was able to pump enough water to fill my plastic bag. For the hundredth time, I walked away amazed at how willingly these men put down their work to graciously help a stranger.

101. I asked a woman walking by about the other wells, but instead of pointing me to them, she pointed me to a boy named Razak. On his lunch break from school, Razak ended up leading me to three more wells. The first was an improved well in the parking lot of the mosque’s leaders’ quarters. Though the water could be pumped into the house through a pipe, we thought it’d be easier to collect it straight from the source. With the help of Dauda, a painter working on the adjacent mosque, and Razak’s sister, Shaukina, we rigged yet another device to collect the water, this time tying my backpack and cooler to a plastic pitcher.

102. Razak then guided me to Ibrahim’s house, tucked behind a school and some tall trees. Ibrahim, who was sitting in the far end of the courtyard with his baby son, was almost hidden behind the rows and rows of drying clothes. Unlike the previous two I had seen, the well, smack in the middle of the expansive courtyard, no cover, yet it wasn’t the dirtiest so far.

103. The last well Razak led me to was nothing like the others. To call it a well is a stretch; it consisted of a humongous tire on the edge of Yusef’s damp yard, and had green-brown water up to its rim. I had to take the Yusef’s word that it was a well at all—the water blocked all sight of the hole underneath. As I mounted my bike, Yusef, who had just set his daughter down, called out, “And what if my water is dirty?”

104. With Jesse still sick, I trekked to the village of Choggo on my own. Sitting atop a massive, out of place-looking hill just west of the center of town, Choggo offered a beautiful, sprawling view of Tamale. At the first house I visited, a 20-year-old man wearing a tidy polo shirt gave me a sample from a clay pot containing a mixture of rain and pipe water. A baby with a thick coat of navy blue eye shadow stood between his legs, holding on to a couple of his brother’s—or father’s—fingers—sometimes it was hard to tell.

105. Only a few houses over, I stopped for my second sample of the day. A pair of women and muscular teenage boys gave me a sample of pipe water from one of the three clay pots in the center of the compound. One of the few instances in which my dream to practice my French while in Ghana was realized, one of the women, Asata Awa, told me in French about how she was from Togo. When I answered where I was from, she exclaimed, “Obama!”

106. Wanting to get something other than pipe water, I biked deeper into the village. Tall, lush green trees suddenly appeared, providing a much needed escape from the scorching sun. A boy of about 12 had told me that there was a “dump” (a dam) hidden somewhere in this forest, and a security guard at a fancy school confirmed it, telling me to just keep going “small.” Finally, I came to a small pond. The water was the same color as a Dunkin’ Donuts ice coffee. “This can’t be the dugout,” I thought to myself. After getting a sample of the maple brown water, I approached a man about my age, and asked if this was the dugout. No, he told me, and led me to real one. Though ten times the size and with water that was actually clear, the dugout, called the Jeffernee Dam, produced the all-too-common result of TNTC, or “too numerous to count.”

107. As I walked back towards his house with Yusef, he told me he was awaiting his exam results to begin university. He, too, wants to be a doctor. Suddenly, my left contact lens, which had been bothering since the morning, became too painful to keep on—I couldn’t look at Yusef with my eye open without it watering profusely. I interrupted him, apologized, and asked him if he had some soap. Confused, he bolted inside the house and snatched a tea kettle filled with cold water and a blue cube of soap. I washed my hands—a must, I knew, considering the quality of water I had been handling all day—and fixed my contact.

108 and 109. The last two samples of the day—one pipe, one rain, both from the same house—came about in the most common of fashions. In a nutshell: I walk in, get a couple weird looks, smile a lot, say a few things in Dagbani, finally start getting some smiles, say a couple more things in Dagbani, get a couple laughs, get the samples, ask to take a picture, get a crazy story or two from one of the women (the other one starts looking at me weirdly again), thank them before the other looks at me weirdly too, say “Naunsontoma,” or “G-d be with you,” get laughs again, leave.

110. I wanted to go far. Where didn’t matter—just far. The center of town was as busy as ever—a dangerous hodgepodge of cars, motorcycles, bikes, trucks, and, of course, cattle. A wide, paved road Jesse and I had yet to explore caught my eye. I bounced through the crowded streets, pedaled as fast as I could to pass a row of parked cars, and escaped into the open. Fields, sparsely specked with tall blades of grass, were all I could see around me. Finally, a house on the right side of the now dirt road. I pulled in. Two 20-year-olds sat on a white bench under the shade of a tree. One was flipping through an English dictionary, writing down definitions on a sheet of white paper; the other, apparently, was helping him. As the second man was getting up to fetch me some water, I asked him what the name of the area was. “Old Airport area,” he answered. I then asked where the water was from. “From a pipe near the airport.” He pointed. I saw a tiny plane in the distance.

111. “Shouldn’t that not have been surprising?” asked one of my friends at home when I told him one of the women at this house, an old woman, at that, was bare breasted the whole time. “I mean, you were in Africa.” Maybe there’s some truth there, but it was the first time a woman didn’t cover up upon my arrival, not even while she got me a sample of well water from a clay pot. More than surprising, though, it was amazing: amazing how little clothing matters to some people.

112. I kicked myself as we slipped through towering corn plants on our way to a well. “There are so many samples to be had,” I thought, “how could I have only brought two bags?” But I had to hide my frustration with my carelessness. I smiled and took pictures once we got to the well. A pretty young lady translated for a muscular man named Zaki, who spoke no English. I kicked myself once again when he offered, through the young lady, to take me to three more wells. “Sorry,” I told him, “but I can’t go. Maybe another day,” knowing all the while, that I wouldn’t have time to come back.

113. Once over the little bridge I had crossed to get to the sample paradise, I stopped at a dingy kiosk on the side of the road to buy a sachet. I had given my water to the bare-breasted lady, pouring it into her clay pot so that I could use my water bottle to collect a sample. Apparently tipped off by my sour expression, the man asked me what was wrong. Impressed by his English, I told him completely. “Wait,” he told me, putting a finger on my arm as he looked around and called over a little girl. Moments later, the little girl returned with a new box of plastic baggies, perfect for samples. “Now, I will show you our water.” He led me to a “well,” the quotation marks a must, for it was barely that: a bunch of rocks surrounding an opening on the ground, murky water right below.

114. The store-owner, named Moniru, led me to another well, just across the road. Just like the one before it, it was nothing more than a hole on the ground, this one with a stick bordering one side, probably keeping it from caving in. Also like the one before it, its coliform and E. coli counts were through the roof.

115 and116. Next, Moniru brought me to a sophisticated rainwater harvesting tank. A tin was lined by a gutter which led, through a long pipe held up by a Y-shaped stick, to the wooden “tank.” I had lagged behind as he asked the women at the house for permission, which they apparently granted, for the oldest one of the trio came forward, and, without more than a “Na” to my “Despa,” filled two of my bags with rain water, one from the tank, the other from an oil drum.

117. For the third time that day, I crossed over the bridge that separated Gbambaya, the village I was just in, from Dungo Kukuo, the one I was in before. I asked the first person I saw for Zaki, and they disappeared into the corn, like a grasshopper in grass. Barely a minute later, Zaki emerged. We both picked up our strides as we walked towards the other, and shook hands and laughed. Pointing to what I assumed to be his house, he walked away quickly and returned on a Chinese bike, the one-gear type that everyone rides in Ghana. He looked at me and rode away, turning around to make sure I was behind him. Finally, we got to a well, this one completely different than the ones in the other village—it had a working pump, for one, which a little girl was pulling up and down as she jumped. For how promising the water was, the results were…a heartbreaker.

118. Zaki asked a young lady to come along with us. She sat on the back of his bike, and talked to me in impeccable English as we rode. While she mostly just translated, she also took the opportunity to give me her email address: she was studying in the university, and any help she could get, she told me, would be much appreciated. I took the piece of paper and dug it deep into my wallet, knowing that there was little that I could really do to help. Meanwhile, we had gone to another improved well, this one also built in 2003 by an NGO (the date was scratched on the surface), but with the peculiarity of not working. Instead, we went to a dugout. As a parting gift, Zaki gave me 15 guinea fowl eggs. With nothing to give him in return, I came back a few days later with a new Old Navy t-shirt.

119. Jesse’s sickness was gone! We biked, together, to “town,” because we realized that none of our samples came from slums in the center of Tamale. We arrived in Aboabo, just a few blocks from center of town. Four women sat under a wooden roof, held up by four wooden posts. They sat us down and talked to us for a few minutes—their English was quite good. In the end, it turned out their water was also quite good—totally clean, in fact.

122 and123. As Jesse and I were talking to a group of women, a man asked us to take a look at his water. Jesse went with the man, and I stayed with the women—we knew that we should try to get the samples while we could. After asking me a series of questions—most of which resulted in all of them chuckling while I tried to understand what was funny—they gave a sample of rainwater and a sample of pipe water.

125. An old man escorted us into his home. The courtyard was littered with all sorts of odds and ends, piled on one another to create a maze of junk. He poured us a bit of pipe water from a clay pot—the water turned out to be quite dirty.

126. Four siblings—two teenage boys, a 10-year-old girl, and a baby boy—were standing in the back-left corner of their courtyard when Jesse and I walked in. The older boys, and the baby, didn’t say much. Instead, the girl, her head shaven like all school children, answered our questions and got us a sample of their water.

129 and 130. As I asked the women if I could take a sample of their water, a man tapped my shoulder and told me that he would tell me if it was alright. It was. Though intimidating at first, Abdu Rashid took interest in my work, led me to a number of water sources (these two were pipe and rain water from his house), and even gave me some photography tips—he was a photographer.

131. Abdu Rashid led me across the road from his house. A man, a good ten years older than him, sat on a beach chair under a thick tree. Abdu Rashid greeted him formally and asked him if I could take a sample from his standpipe. The man said yes; he was used to sharing his water: he sells water from the standpipe to others in the village.

132. Done with the private standpipe, Abdu Rashid now led me to a public one, sitting on a hill in the middle of the village. The standpipe, which looked like some Greek fountain, had water been flowing from its many pipes, did not work properly. The water came out through a crack on one of the pipes, spilling all over the red ground.

133. If I wanted to see a well, Abdu Rashid told me I’d have to go back to the main road at the top of the village, where there was a nursery. I biked up the long hill and got to Queen Elizabeth’s Nursery. It appeared to be recess, for kids were running around all over outside, doing bridges and flips and making dirt castles. Three or four men—the teachers—sat on a picnic table, talking; two were playing checkers. As I had come to expect, the pump on the well did not work, so one of the kids got a bucket and a rope to pull up the water. Surprisingly, the water was actually clean.

134. After I took the sample—pipe water in a clay pot—I stayed for a few minutes, talking to a grandmother, her granddaughter, and the granddaughter’s friends. When I asked the grandmother for a picture of her with her baby grandson on her lap, she sprung off the bench, scooted inside, and came back out with a beautiful green cloth of her head and shoulders. Now she was ready for the picture.

135. As usual, I walked into the compound after pausing at the door to introduce myself, this time to a trio of women. As I stood next to one of the women while she filled a cup with water, the women’s husband barged in and began to yell at them angrily. He pointed at me during his tirade, obviously upset by my presence.

136/137. Abdul Waba Raza was sitting on a bench outside his room when I walked by. I asked him whether he could show me his water, and he agreed, but first he invited me to sit with him. We talked for a good while. He was studying to be a nurse, he told. Ever since his grandfather went blind from a condition easily treated in the first world, he knew that’s what he wanted to do. When we finished talking, he led me past his room, where he proudly pointed out the small desk he owns, to a little courtyard, where his grandmother gave me some pipe water and some rain water.