Gonna Get Water to Ghana - Michael Henry, Immunology and Infectious Disease Major , Global Health Minor


Posted: September 5, 2013

Over the past year, I think I’ve spent more time in Africa than at home, but this trip was a special one...
Walking back from a hard day’s work with one of our new friends

Walking back from a hard day’s work with one of our new friends

Over the past year, I think I’ve spent more time in Africa than at home, but this trip was a special one. My sophomore year of college I helped start the Global Water Brigades at PSU, and this was to be my last trip with “my baby” after traveling twice to Honduras and helping plan another trip to Ghana. We were heading to Ekumfi Srafa Aboano in rural, coastal, Ghana to build a number of rainwater harvesting systems during Winter Break 2012-2013.

The trip was interesting from the start, as we bumped into Snoop Lion (or to those of us who haven’t caught up yet, Snoop Dogg) during a layover, and he gave us his well wishes on our journey. Eighteen of us set out on three different flights, and we all ended up in the airport in Accra around the same time. A large passenger van and a pickup truck for the luggage was there waiting for us, alongside several representatives of Global Brigades, the international non-governmental organization (NGO) helping run the trip. After several hours of driving, we arrived at our compound on a cliff over a beautiful beach, wolfed down a quick meal and went to bed without much ado.

HenryGhana2.pngWe spent the next few days preparing for our projects. We had an opening ceremony with the community which involved dancing, meeting elders, and making many speeches with us thanking them for hospitality and them thanking us for our help. We then took a tour of the community, talking to members about their water issues, and looking at the existing (lack of) water systems. The community was so far from the nearest water pumping plant that the previously installed pipe had a significant enough pressure drop that water could not make it to the community, leaving them to collect water from a tiny, dirty pond. A previous Brigades trip to install a community-wide rainwater harvester nearby showed that there was insufficient water collected to sustain the community through dry times, so our objective was to construct a number of concrete/rebar tanks to connect to community members’ rooftops to collect and store water during the wet season for use in the dry season.

It was the first Brigades trip I had been on since my freshman year that I was not in charge of planning; I had recently handed off the club leadership to some younger club members after mentoring them. I learned on the trip that being a leader doesn’t always mean being the one explicitly in charge and in the spotlight. Behind the scenes I had many important conversations with people on the trip; HenryGhana3.pngthere were some doubts as to the sustainability of the project we were doing, for example, but I did the best I could with my past experiences to explain what we were doing and why. I tried to help out the trip leader, Kate Ortbal, in every way I could without stepping on her toes. And I learned that part of being a good leader is knowing when you have prepared you successor enough, and the time has come for you to step back and let them do their job.

In describing the trip to a future employer, I would probably first mention how we succeeded in building the water system at the home we were assigned to, that we became close with the family we were working with, and that the mutual appreciation of the new friendship will not be easily forgotten. But I would also mention how it was the perfect way to end my undergraduate run with international service trips. It showed me that, indeed, I am destined to work in global health. While we made a great impact in our ten days in Ghana, I look forward to returning to Africa in the future as a Fulbright scholar for nine months after my graduation and then after four years in medical school to continue this type of work.