Engineering Service Learning in Ghana

Josh Fuchs

For my step experience, I worked with a group of Ohio State engineering students throughout a semester preparing for our two-week trip to Akumadan, Ghana. After hearing some feedback from the University’s partners in Ghana, our team researched and designed a BioSand filter to help provide a way for families to obtain clean drinking water, which is a problem throughout many communities in Africa.

How my life perspective has changed through this experience

Before my trip to Ghana I had never been out of the United States before. I recall excitedly walking from the airport after our arrival and wondering what we would experience in the next two weeks. I expected Ghana to be very different from the U.S., and being there first-hand went beyond what I imagined. Immediately I started to see many things that I have always taken for granted. One of the largest is how mindlessly I use water, which is available at any home or almost any public place I go. I’ve learned to really contemplate on my simple access to a kitchen sink to drink water from, wash my hands, clean dishes, and help with cooking food every day. I got a glimpse of life without operating bathrooms, or somewhere to take a daily shower. Instead of department and grocery stores like I’m accustomed to, these streets of Ghana were filled with smaller shops and markets—and although thriving with energy and smiling people, it is not so simple for people to access the things they want or need. Many families there live without many of the things that I feel I could never go without, including electricity or internet access. Although I felt very safe in Ghana, there was no quick trip to the doctor’s or even a reliable police or fire station to turn to in emergencies.

Another thing really stood out though. People there were happy. They were also very friendly with us and with each other. From conversations with locals, I learned they are very grateful and do not worry about what they don’t have. Sitting here now reflecting on my experience, it takes a real effort to appreciate using a computer in a spacious University lab, streaming music from the internet, drinking water from the fountain down the hall, and checking an occasional message on my smartphone. I don’t have to worry about what I will eat tonight, how I’ll get home, whether I’ll sleep well, or if a might get sick tomorrow. These experiences in Ghana are what drives a different understanding of my life and how much I’ve been privileged with. I realize that the feats I face in my life right now, like final exams approaching soon, are in reality small problems. Come to think of it, obtaining a college degree for a future engineering career is quite a blessing.  After experiencing another drastically different way of life in my short time in Ghana, I can begin to have a better perspective of my life and everything surrounding me. I think of how great it would be to share the life outlook I experienced in Ghana, and what it would be to live my life gratefully as they do.

Experiences in Ghana that led to my changed perspective

While developing our projects for Ghana in the weeks leading up to our trip, my team had an abundance of resources to work with. We had instant access to studies around the world for sustainable water filters in communities similar to those we were designing one for. A quick trip to Lowes allowed us to get all the materials we needed for our project, rather than a whole trip of finding supplies like we did in Ghana. Engineering in Ghana involves many more challenges, and requires extremely intelligent and innovative people. Luckily we worked with talented engineers like these with our partner governmental group, the Offinso North District Assembly. We saw engineers there make use of things in ways we would never think of, and make important design changes to our filter, which would not have been a success without them. In Ghana I was able to experience another important layer of engineering, one that is more than a science, but also an art.

In addition to what I’ve learned about engineering and what this is like in Ghana, I got to experience a very unique culture here. We were warmly welcomed and greeted wherever we went, not just where we lived or in the villages we visited, but even from people just passing by on the street. It was quite different from the way that Americans might act towards random or new people. On one occasion, I approached a man at a shop to simply buy a bottle of water, and he was so welcoming he invited me to sit with him and share his dinner. We also had random children come up and help us with our projects, working with us to wash sand in a river for our filter. I found a culture of people who really cared for those around them, and who knew how to celebrate life communally and really enjoy it. I’m very thankful to have been so highly welcomed into their lives and culture. I enjoyed learning to speak the native language of Twi, and having fun dance music at every dinner while I enjoyed new food. One thing that was difficult however was moving beyond some of the material things and amenities that I’m used to in the U.S.  I hope that I can learn to be less preoccupied by these basic types of worries, and at the very least just be more thankful for them.

One of the most impactful experiences of my trip was when my team delivered our filter to the village we had been building it for. After a bumpy hour-long drive on a dirt road that was damaged by pot holes and erosion all the way, we arrived at the homes of maybe 30 families known to be suffering from Typhoid and E. Coli in their water. Most of the homes here appeared to be made out of dried mud and sticks, there was no electricity, and I did not see any cell phones for outside communication. All of the people we had previously seen in Ghana had access to water through small vendors, nearby wells, or surface water from a river or stream. Whereas many these sources were known to us to make people sick, here in this village they did not even have this nearby water at all. It was incredibly sad to walk with some of the villagers down the side of a near mountain to collect water from a small stream that was contaminated, off-colored, and filled with bugs and an odor. However, it was the tiring walk back up the hill that really hit me. We walked alongside small children who carried heavy jugs of this contaminated water, realizing that they had to do this multiple times a day, every day. Then in a village that does not have an easy ability to boil water, it was evident that this water was making people sick—as we could see how many kids had bloated stomachs to go along with their open sores and lack of shoes. It was incredibly sad to deliver one family-intended filter to this entire village, desperately wishing more could be done to help. It is this experience especially that I will never forget, and will help me recognize how easy I have it. Looking to my future, I am considering options working with people in areas like this to try to improve the health of their communities, and I hope to find a way to make this kind of positive impact.

Why these experiences have been valuable in my life

This trip to Ghana has overall been a very transformative experience for me. From an engineering perspective, it gave me a chance to collaborate with engineers at Ohio State and across the globe with the valuable goal of clean water access. I learned to work and live in a new environment and how to adapt when things did not go as planned. From a personal standpoint, this experience has opened my eyes to many of the daily things that I take for granted and don’t have enough appreciation for. I hope in my future that I will continue to work with developing communities such as these, and make use of all of the resources that I am lucky to have in my life. Travelling to Ghana and meeting so many people there was such an enjoyable and rewarding experience, and I am so thankful to have had this opportunity.

 

My team made a video as a final report for our project. It is more of a technical project video but worth seeing. Click here to view it.

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