I had a pretty rough Monday… We collect samples from a local runoff stream that is atrociously polluted. It smells terrible, and we recently talked to a waterworks official who stated plainly that there is raw sewage being dumped in this stream. In lab, we run a membrane filtration apparatus that vacuums contaminated water through small filter papers that trap coliform bacteria so that we can incubate them in petri dishes and count them later. Occasionally the aspirating flask fills up to the top while we’re busy working. That’s when the vacuum pump stops expelling air and starts spraying water… waste water. Sometimes this is a bubbling, dripping mess, and sometimes this is a sudden spray of our effluent test water. Regardless of my attempts to catch the water with a large bundle of paper towels, a small amount of water was still sprayed all over me. Some semi-processed sewage water ended up on my head, neck, and lab coat. I continued cleaning up the lab in a hurry and was anxious to get home. I hopped into the shower with the only antibacterial soap we had: our dishwashing soap. On Sunday night I had found and cleaned up the bizarre little cut on my ear, so I had a very specific concern about killing any microbes in that area. At least I took a moment to laugh to myself about literally scrubbing behind my ear.
Nicola, another post-doc from UVA, arrived Monday afternoon. It sounds like her anthropology work is largely focused on critiquing the Water and Health in Limpopo (WHIL) research being done, which of course creates an interesting dynamic. No one really likes to have their livelihood questioned from the inside out, no matter how necessary a critical eye is. Her arrival coincides nicely with a lot of the questions I was already having trouble specifying. How do we apply technical research in a way that doesn’t harm local culture, economy, or dignity? Can effective change in a community ever come from outsiders? I came to South Africa hoping to find some direction or indication of what I should focus on within humanitarian aid, but so far have only found more complexities and more questions.
Monday was also Sid’s last night at Acacia so we had a full cookout after work. Hannah cooked for the herbivores, and Sid cooked for the carnivores. We ate lamb and marinated steak right off the grill, and then had a more civil dinner of pita, hummus, and falafel—all homemade by Hannah and her cooking minions. I stayed up pretty late just chatting with Sid by the fire, playing with the coals, and preparing for Tuesday morning’s surprises.
Oliver is the only guy in our REU team, so he spends a lot of time with us girls (Courtney, Vivien, Maya, Hannah, Carly, Teri, and myself). Courtney took it upon herself to prepare a “Minnesota Man Day Mandate” for Oliver. The silliness described herein should really be experienced, or at the very least seen via pictures, for full effect. We made tie-on beards out of gray yarn and also a paper Viking hat for Oliver. We woke him a little before his alarm to see us wearing beards and instructing him to, “Get up!” and follow the moose tracks. There were yarn and hand-drawn moose tracks leading to the other chalet. Inside, their cottage was decorated with paper snowflakes and icicles and a large moose head. We had a hearty breakfast of toast, eggs, and sausage to celebrate Oliver’s tolerance of the high estrogen levels.
On Tuesday night, we had a goodbye party for Carly at her favorite restaurant in Thohoyandou. There’s a gas station combined with a very sketchy looking Indian, Pakistani, and Chinese restaurant that we’ve visited a few times. No one has gotten sick yet and the food is delicious, so we keep going back. Afterwards, Hannah surprised Carly with another awesome homemade treat: carrot cake with coconut icing. Carly’s obsessive love for avocados prompted us to garnish the cake with avocado slices and pecans. Hannah and Carly both tend to call them “avo” for short, so others of us have taken to finishing their words by yelling out, “CADO!” in reply. Carly’s team will be continuing the Tshibvumo filter research without her, which I understand to be a fairly daunting task. Her leadership, humor, and interpersonal skills will be sorely missed for the rest of our trip here.
Wednesday was a fairly quiet day. Hannah, Nicola, Teri and I headed to Tshibvumo to collect water samples from their canal. We had a chance to speak with Chief Lucas for a few minutes and make plans for next Wednesday. When we asked the chief about observing Mandela Day (Thursday), he gave us a quick speech about how Father Mandela saved his people from slavery and oppression. Next Wednesday, we will hopefully come and talk with him for a while more and then head up to the ever-elusive Source!
By Wednesday night, we were told prepare a 10 minute PowerPoint presentation on our research for a local high school. Thursday was Mandela Day, a national day of community service. Hannah and I were excited to be involved in the local community, so we volunteered to present the ceramic filter project (which really isn’t what we work on daily). We gutted and edited an old UVA PowerPoint and prepared three parts for Hannah, Clement (UNIVEN microbiology student), and me to present. At 1 PM we were ready to caravan to the high school. At 1:30 PM we left that building. At 2:00 PM we left UNIVEN. By 2:30 PM we had been told we were heading to Tshapasha. By 3:30 PM we had arrived in Tshapasha and dropped off half our group. By 4:00 PM we were shuttled to a further away school in Tshibvumo and realizing that our presentation should be focusing on education, not our research. We listened to an hour long motivational speech for the entire school, encouraging them to study, pray, and apply to UNIVEN. The speakers switched back and forth between Tshivenda and English, while I enjoyed the awesome view of the mountains. As the sun was setting, the students were split into groups by interest, so we presented to about 12 students in their last year of classes who were interested in science and mathematics. We still used the PowerPoint, which was almost entirely off-topic, but we related it back to our academics as much as we could. Hannah is interested in water treatment because it’s a major part of public health. I’m working on the filtration devices because it’s a part of civil and biomedical engineering, and Clement is testing the biocidal effects of the filters because it’s a part of microbiology. Our visit was mostly pointless except for that explanation, stating that we are here and successful only because of education, and encouraging the students to apply to college. Hannah and I, of course, were very amused by the whole thing. We got the chance to hang out with rural high school kids and drive through different areas than we had seen before, and we made some new UNIVEN friends. But altogether we could have been so much more effective if we had just been told we were going to a career day, not a research presentation! We finally returned to Acacia at 7:30 PM. Our “hour of service” had taken more than six hours of confusion, travel, and patience, but I certainly enjoyed the new perspectives it offered.