Saturday, September 25, 2010

Potters for Peace

Every 15 seconds, another child dies from lack of clean water and sanitation.

One sixth of the world’s population does not have access to potable water.

Statistics like those didn’t really mean anything to me before joining Peace Corps. Now that I am living in Nicaragua, I realize that turning on the tap to a clean, strong stream of cold (or hot) water is a luxury that few will ever experience. Getting water is a daily battle here; many rural residents have to haul it from unclean wells, or collect rain water for daily tasks. Water-borne illnesses are common and other diseases are spread by the lack of hygiene resulting from water scarcity.

One of the organizations that I’ve had the opportunity to work with while in Peace Corps is “Potters for Peace,” or in Spanish, Ceramistas por la Paz. Their goal to provide safe drinking water to those who lack it is also one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals: “To halve, by the year 2015, the number of people who are unable to reach or afford safe drinking water, and the proportion of people without access to safe sanitation. By 2025, to provide safe water, sanitation and hygiene to all.” (Below: making the ceramic filter).
PFP makes and sells ceramic water filters to purify water. The filter is a simple porous clay container with a coating of colloidal silver that is reported to remove 99.98% of turbidity, parasites, and bacteria, including e-coli, vibrio cholera, giardia, streptococcus, cryptosporidium, and total coliforms. Since I have become sick from at least four of the aforementioned organisms, I was particularly interested in this project. (Below: a x-ray look at one of the filters).

In the urban center of my community, we have running water through a central system (well, on a good day). The water comes from a pump that is next to a small river. In the surrounding smaller villages (they are still considered part of this community), there is no running water and the residents use shared wells, sometimes located far from their homes. In the urban center the water goes out for several hours daily and when we have hard rains and the river floods it can turn a dark brown color.

After trying to drink tap water for a few weeks, I have now realized that it’s like playing Russian roulette. Sometimes you won’t get sick, but more often than not, you will. I buy purified water which cost U$1.25 for an 18 gallon container. I have to cart these large containers four blocks to my house from the store they are sold at. Needless to say, it’s quite annoying. Most families in the urban center buy these purified water jugs as well – sometimes up to 5 per week. Others that do not have access to purified water can use chlorine or boil their water, but this is often too time consuming, expensive, or simply not deemed necessary.

Recently PFP offered to partner with interested Peace Corps volunteers to provide filters and educational materials for free. I contacted them and soon received a personally-delivered donation of 17 filters (the whole set includes a plastic bucket, spigot, water filter and cover). They also donated coloring books for children that addressed water sanitation issues, crayons, education posters, a “Ceramic Filters for Sale Here” sign for use in a store, and water testing materials to test for bacteria and parasites. Two of the filters I donated to local organizations for public use: the Health Center and a non-profit which works with special needs children. The rest of the filters I have been selling out of my home and at a local store. With the money earned, we will buy more filters – hopefully creating a sustainable cycle and a way to earn money for businessmen who choose to sell them for a profit at their stores.

The only problem that I’ve found with the filters is their price. They are C$575 c√≥rdobas, (about U$28) which for most families is a substantial amount. However, local health promoters and I have been trying to promote the filters as a way to actually save money. For the average family who buys filtered water jugs, the price of one ceramic filter would buy them 23 jugs. When you do the math, the ceramic filter pays for itself quickly. That long-term vision is a little difficult for most Nicaraguans to grasp- most would rather spend a little bit now rather than a lot- no matter what the long-run savings is. No one has a large amount of petty cash just lying around (there’s a reason that you can buy single eggs, single-use baggies of spices, and single cigarettes in the stores here). We have been working with local stores letting people pay for the filters in 2-4 payments.

PFP is in 21 countries in the world. They train locals to learn how to make the ceramic filters; creating jobs and providing income for the most poor. The filters are long-lasting – PFP told me that one woman had the same filter for 10 years and it was still working for her. They also make sense; local artisans work with clay and stone, so these filters are not such a new idea. The health center has often done projects with rock and sand water filters – a less sophisticated version of PFP.

I am very grateful for the donation by PFP. The water filters are selling – slowly, but surely. Locals are very interested in how they work and how they can possibly save them money. I have recently purchased a filter as well – no more lugging around purified water for me! When so many Nicaraguan children are affected by diarrheal diseases, hopefully this project can reduce sickness and infant and child mortality. I encourage you to check out their website at:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mid-Service Crisis (a blog post from 8 months ago)

NOTE: I recently found this blog on my computer. I wrote it quite some time ago, in January 2010. It expresses the feelings of anger and insecurity I’ve had in my site; the other side of Peace Corps that volunteers don’t often talk about. I’m feeling much better now than when I had written this blog- I think my kickboxing DVDs help me a bit! I guess I forgot to publish this entry to my blog, so I’ll do it now:

So, not all is well in my site. I’ve been trying for the most part to keep my blog positive (I mean, who wants to read something that just makes them sad?) but recent events have pushed me over the edge. I’m having a mini “mid-service crisis” I think and am struggling with deciding how to approach both my work and personal lives.

To begin with, at the beginning of December my house was robbed. (This is my second robbery. The first was the housekeeper in my host family’s house. She stole $50 from my room). The robber somehow obtained a copy of my front door key and they came in when they knew I was out of the house one night and stole my laptop, some earrings, my hairdryer, toothpaste... It was obviously just a small-time robbery, but it really shook me up and I am still recovering emotionally. What if I had entered the house while the robber was still inside? What if I was in the house when they tried to enter? My Christmas vacation back to the states was well-timed in that I was able to go home for a bit to relax and take a mental break from Nicaragua. The police here are well-intentioned, but due to lack of training and support, my case fell by the wayside and ultimately was closed. At least I had personal property insurance (thank goodness Peace Corps told me to get that!) so I was reimbursed for my laptop. What hurt the most about the incident was that it had been someone I knew (there is a strong suspicion that it was my old host brother) – someone who knew my movements and knew how to get a copy of the key. It was someone that I had placed my trust in and they had violated that trust. I felt sick to my stomach. Didn’t they know that I was here to help them? Didn’t they know how hard it is sometimes?

I changed my locks the very next morning of course, but my spirit was broken. Before the details of the robbery were known, every time I saw a young man in the street I would look at him and think, “Was it you?” I had to remember to take a step back and realize that there are larger systemic influences in effect. Poverty can make people do horrible things and I am probably looked at in the community as someone who has money (although trust me, my $190/month stipend from Peace Corps is nothing extravagant!)

After the robbery I was barraged with neighbors and friends giving me the “I told you so” speech. I was so sick of it. “Oh Penny,” they’d say, “didn’t you know you can’t trust anyone?” or, “You should know better!” I wouldn’t say anything in reply. Should I really have known better? Who should have told me? It seemed like after something bad happens here, you just can’t stop getting advice – but before the event actually occurs; no one has the courage to tell you.

My Christmas vacation made me feel much better about everything until I came back to town to discover that the barbed wire at the side of my house had been ripped down and someone had broken into my backyard. I think that they were just getting back there to steal mangos from my tree since nothing was stolen or messed with, but it still upset me and made me feel less safe. It was probably just some bored neighbor kids who knew I had mangos back there, but the fact that they broke-in so easily made me uneasy and worried. It makes me think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – it’s difficult for me to concentrate on ¨higher¨taskes such as work when I’m not feeling safe or secure.

This morning while on an early morning run, a young man on a bike passed me from behind and grabbed my butt as he whizzed by. Not just a passing touch, but a real grab. I started yelling profanities and running after him, but he sped up his cycling and disappeared. No one was around to help me. I was so upset by what had happened. Things like this happen every day: profane things are yelled at you in the street, men disrespect you… but I had never been touched before and it made me feel very vulnerable. Who did this punk think he is? I realize that the culture of machismo is strong here in Nicaragua and I have definitely had to chew-out a few “vagos” or “street punks” for getting too fresh with their comments or verbally harassing me. What bothers me is that I don’t know who that biker was and I’ll never be able to confront. I need to live with this frustration – take it out in other ways, channel it into something else. Maybe in my work with youth I can stress the importance of equality between the sexes, of respect, of morals and values. Maybe if these kids had better role models for behavior when they grew up they wouldn’t harass women on the street or steal from their neighbors (believe me, I’m certainly not the only person in my town that has been robbed this year).

I’m pretty upset about these recent incidents and I am finding it hard to concentrate on projects. My mind keeps wandering at work and I get upset. No, I get mad. At the same time I feel helpless, and I’m not used to feeling that way. I don’t know how to make these people stop treating me this way. And I guess the answer is that I can’t. This is their world and I’m just trying to function in it as best I can. Hopefully with time and with cultural insight and understanding I can make peace. I have to realize that these incidents are just singular events and singular individuals out of an entire town. I know many men who are respectful and friendly to me. I also know several other community members who have been robbed this year – I’m not as “targeted” as I might feel. This is going to take some time though and right now I’m just doing it one breath at a time. One deep breath at a time.

I’m sorry this post is so negative; I just really had to vent. I think it’s important that my blog show how real life is here. All Peace Corps volunteers experience things like this; lack of feeling safe, feelings of disrespect and harassment, complications adjusting to the culture… I feel much better after talking to fellow volunteers and getting advice. For the most part, my service thus far (9 months down) has been going well and I’ve been feeling positive. I think this is just the difficult mid-point. Peace Corps warns you about this, the “mid-service crisis.” Hopefully I’ll come out of this soon and get back to some positive blog posts…!