The Village Well

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Author: Erik Ness

At the end of a dirt road, on a rickety bus parked in a teak grove, Tchomi-Kandi Mondja keeps her eyes on a small jar of liquid. With a team of fellow students from the University of Notre Dame and the Université d’Abomey-Calavi (UAC) in the West African country of Benin, she’s helping filter a single liter of water, but each step in the process is moving slowly. The air in the bus is still and heavy. Moisture beads on foreheads. Outside, a gaggle of children gawk and giggle.

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Beyond the children, on the path between the cluster of small buildings called Ibyem and its well, a more traditional water work continues: Women and children stream past, each carrying as much as five gallons of water, usually in an open basin, always balanced solidly upon the head. It’s a chore Mondja knows well from her childhood in Tanguieta, in northern Benin. She and her twin brother went to the well twice each morning and twice again in the evening, each carrying 10 to 15 liters on their return. That journey is repeated almost endlessly throughout sub-Saharan Africa, home to almost 700 million. Nearly half lack access to an improved source of water, though even a hand-dug well or a cistern counts as “improved.”

Mondja left Tanguieta for university four years ago, and now she studies water instead of carrying it. Like all of the 10 graduate students on this field trip, she is under the instruction of Moussa Boukari, a soft-spoken hydrologist at the UAC, the national university. Boukari has spent years studying the ebb and flow of water through the ancient rock and layers of sand underlying this sliver of West Africa. He has a working relationship with Direction de l’Hydraulique, the government agency responsible for Benin’s rural water supplies. Water development is an essential problem for the future of Benin, says Boukari. It is the essential problem of life. (Boukari is speaking French; as elsewhere in this piece, quotes in italics are a translation.)

Boukari’s partner on this journey is Steve Silliman, Notre Dame’s associate dean for undergraduate programs in engineering, and a half dozen of his students. Silliman has been working in Benin since 1997. He met Boukari in 2000, and as their professional relationship has grown so has their list of projects. The students on the bus are following up on uranium found in this well a few years ago. Just a few kilometers to the north in the village of Adourékoman, Notre Dame graduate student Pamela Crane is developing a simple method for water testing that could revolutionize water quality for hundreds of millions of people.

That’s good news in a world that faces a tremendous water crisis. Already 1.1 billion people lack an improved water source, while 2.4 billion lack improved sanitation. Most best-case scenarios show this will continue to be a major problem into the future.

Silliman, who spends several weeks each year working directly on the problem, knows he can make a difference simply because water comes first. Poor water quality is still a major obstacle to human health. And he believes access to sufficient clean water is a human right. Yet every year 1.8 million people—90 percent of them children—die from diarrheal disease, largely from an unsafe water supply and poor sanitation. “The dominant thing that differentiates between their infant mortality rate [90 deaths per 1,000 live births] and ours 7 is water quality, water supply, hygiene,” he says. “Economic and social development is critically dependent on improved water resource infrastructure.”

From Haiti to Benin

The Université d’Abomey-Calavi lies on a slope facing Lake Nokoué, a shallow saltwater lagoon being slowly surrounded by the seaside metropolis of Cotonou. Most of its buildings were constructed in Communist days and sport a far more aesthetically pleasing touch than you would expect in cinderblock. Boukari’s laboratory classroom is on the first floor of a low-slung building, and the windows open upon a dirt courtyard where students park their motos and professors park their cars. Along two walls, geological specimens are stacked in simple dark wood boxes. Chalk marks identify minerals and collection sites, and a half-used bag of cement lies in the corner by a sledgehammer.

Huddled over laptops around the white-tile benches are some 20 students. David Hochstetler and Sarah Davidson, two of Silliman’s undergraduate research assistants for the year, hurriedly join their Beninese colleagues as they tweak their PowerPoint presentations. While Silliman prepares the projector he answers questions and teases. “Students everywhere are the same,” he says with just a hint of real impatience. “Always wanting a little more time.”

Silliman has spent two weeks on an introduction to groundwater modeling, hoping to solve a critical problem. While Benin has a decent groundwater supply along its populous southern coast, saltwater lagoons such as Nokoué pose a threat. Pump too much from the wrong place, and you’ll pull saltwater into the fresh groundwater. The problem is difficult to fix—three wells in Cotonou have already been shut down—but it can be avoided with strategic planning.

Silliman made his academic mark with meticulously crafted laboratory models of groundwater flow: sand, plexiglas and sensors arranged with painstaking precision. Now he’s teaching the computer version, in stripped-down French.

When he and his wife, Julie, arrived at Notre Dame in 1986, they agreed that Steve—the traveler of the two—should share his groundwater expertise beyond the ivory tower. Silliman went to Jamaica first, then planned to work in Peru until rising political violence killed that project.

In 1996 Silliman first went to Haiti to help repair wells and train with Lifewater International, an evangelical water-development ministry. He says he enjoyed the service work but wanted to build something more. And Haiti needed service. Silliman experienced the country’s chaos firsthand during a 1997 uprising. His flight left three hours ahead of schedule—without him on board. After a nerve-fraying 24 hours he got out.

Meanwhile, Christophe Kougniazonde, a Notre Dame graduate student who went on to earn his doctorate in 1999 and is now a Supreme Court justice in Benin, had been encouraging ND faculty to engage his African homeland. Silliman had met the Beninese ambassador to the United Nations, who became excited when he learned about Silliman’s work in Haiti because of cultural connections—many Haitians trace their origins to Benin. In 1997 Silliman went to Benin to drill wells with Centre Afrika Obota, a West African nongovernmental organization.

Three years later, when Silliman and Boukari met, the duo would do water sampling for a day or two in the countryside then return to Cotonou to negotiate the release of Silliman’s drilling equipment from customs. This cycle went on for three weeks, but finally the right palm was greased and they were able to drill a well. Over the next several years they got to know each other, tackling small projects. In 2003, another coup disrupted a field course Silliman had planned in Haiti. Casting hastily around for another project, Silliman’s groundwork in Benin paid off. Direction de l’Hydraulique had identified a nitrate problem in the central highlands region. It was the first time the Beninese had identified a problem to Silliman and asked for help, an important development in Silliman’s mind.

In 2003 Silliman also taught a short course in geostatistics to Boukari’s students. When he arrived for the course he learned that all the English-speaking students had graduated. Mustering his high school French from extreme disrepair, he wrote each lecture word-for-word in English and then translated. After he finished, the notoriously polite Beninese did admit the course might have been better if the professor learned the language.

The collaboration kept growing, spawning papers, two trips by Boukari to South Bend, and grant proposals to the National Science Foundation and private funders. You couldn’t blame Silliman if he’d never tried to teach in Benin again, but he returned in 2005 and 2006. By his own admission his French will never honor the poets, but it keeps improving. Language is the key to critical thought, says UAC student Mondja, who has now taken two courses with Silliman. I understand how to make analysis now, because his French is better.

The brain drain

Benin’s major road arcs north from the coast through the traditional heart of the nation. Not far from the asphalt, old palaces stand guard over memories of glory and of bondage. The area once called the Kingdom of Dahomey was one of Africa’s more significant political and cultural achievements, but it also prospered by feeding the slave trade. As the water-team’s bus heads away from Cotonou, this legacy is crowded away by a nonstop bazaar. Every imaginable product is stacked along the road. Different bottles signal whether it’s cheap Nigerian gasoline, lamp oil or palm oil for sale. Piles of red river gravel and rebar and metal doors reflect a booming building trade. Cell phone charging booths are everywhere.

Most people know Africa by its disaster zones or despots, and Benin is lucky not to be immersed in this chaotic stage. The lively roadside trade powers a hopeful undercurrent, a tentative African boom. From 1990 to 2004 Benin lowered its age 5 mortality rate from 185 to 152 per 1,000 live births, a better-than-average improvement for the region. Press freedom ranks the highest on the continent. Fortunate never to endure civil war, the former French colony’s transition from communism to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s was largely under President Mathieu Kerekou. In 1991 Kerekou became the first black African president to lose an election and honor the results. He won office again in 1996 then stepped down last spring after free and fair elections. He made no effort to change the constitutional term limit that forced his retirement. Benin is becoming a model African democracy.

The bus ride with Boukari, Silliman, geophysicist Nicholas Yalo and their students begins quietly as three UAC students listen on a cell phone to a first-round World Cup game between South Korea and Benin’s neighbor, Togo. The whole bus cheers when the Sparrowhawks go up 1-0, but soon the signal is lost and the crowd grows sleepy. Korea goes on to win, 2-1. One woman sings quiet hymns, occasionally joined by another. Then somebody starts singing silly grammar school songs. More and more students join in until the entire bus sings the Beninese national anthem. They sing a few songs in English—"If You’re Happy and You Know It,” “Moonshadow,” a few bars of “Cecilia”—trying to get the Notre Dame students to join in. Finally Hochstetler relents and teaches the group the Notre Dame “Victory March.”

As Cotonou fades away, the roadside commerce becomes intermittent. The rural landscape hardly seems farmed, but that’s just an American eye, expecting arrow-straight crop lines and right-angled fields. This is intimate agriculture, shaped by hand and draft animal. Many crops are unfamiliar, but virtually everything is under cultivation. After a few hours a rocky gray fin rises from the green horizon, then another. These outcroppings are collines, wild-but-worn spines of igneous rock soaring up regularly amid the fields. Piles of local building materials for sale along the road are of the same color. Each stone, everything from lintel to pea gravel, is wrought by stonebreakers wielding hammer and chisel.

At day’s end the bus deposits the students at the outskirts of Dassa-Zoumé. Here, in a cavern at the base of a colline, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared. Thousands of West African Catholics visit every year in pilgrimage. Silliman’s northern base is in a large but spare inn maintained by the Church. Workmen are busy expanding the accommodations. Silliman prepares for field work by fixing pumps in the twilight.

Sampling in a half-dozen villages near Dassa Zoumé is to begin the next morning, but during the night Hochstetler’s foot has swollen up. A faint bull’s-eye marks the spot where some many-legged marauder took a taste. Silliman has seen catastrophic allergic reactions before and will take no chances with somebody else’s kid. On principle he does not trust the local clinic. The plan is to a rendezvous with Pamela Crane’s group in the nearby market town of Glazoué, take their truck and retreat to a trusted doctor in Cotonou. The caution seems extreme, and Hochstetler’s not thrilled with the decision, but he quietly defers.

While waiting at the rendezvous site Silliman decides, at Boukari’s urging, to check out the local clinic. Satisfied with what he learns, he brings in Hochstetler to see the doctor, who prescribes steroids and directs them to the pharmacy. Silliman inspects the pharmacy and the drugs; they also earn his approval. Pleasantly surprised by the whole episode, he finds the crisis averted at a cost of around $5.

The bus rumbles out of Glazoué and turns off into the countryside. Sampling finally begins when the group reaches two wells at the outskirts of the village of Kpakpazoumé. Small children work the pump, with a practiced full-body technique that looks like jump-roping. They move aside as the students rinse their gear and begin their measurements. “The trick is not to sweat into the samples,” Silliman says, laughing. In the bus, the particle-filtering crew gets underway, and a crowd of villagers gathers to watch. Several elders show up and chat with Boukari.

The contrast between the villagers and the Beninese graduate students seems stark. They don’t mix much with the villagers, gathering instead under a tree. With the help of Professor Yalo, the students talk to this reporter about their lives and their professional aspirations. They were simple conversations, ultimately hamstrung by translation. Like Silliman’s entire enterprise, understanding was often a back-and-forth, dictionary-in-hand affair.

The students, all in their early 20s, are predominately rural. They love village life and are still overwhelmed by the swarming chaos of Cotonou, which they call “town.” Mathieu M’po grew up shuttled from village to village after the death of his father. In the village, the big difference is how we are helping each other, he says. In the town, everybody is alone. Diane Odeloui grew up in Cotonou but also prefers village life. It’s quiet, clean, and people are very, very lovely. “_Oui, oui, sincerement la village_,” adds Salifou Oroupete, wistfully.

Life in the town is too expensive, says Mathieu Edoun. The only way to make ends meet is to make lots of money. Daniel Hounton doesn’t like the air pollution or the preserved food. Village food is natural, he says. Villagers don’t need coffee.

The students say they would rather live and work in the villages, but they want the basics, too: water, electricity, communication. Few villages can offer this, so it’s probably town for them. They will also stay in town if their career warrants. But the first hurdle is completing their education. Most say they would like to stay in Benin, but they must follow their opportunity as far as they can. And that likely means Europe, particularly France, or the United States.

Will they return? That is a critical question for African nations. “_Fuite des cerveaux_,” says Boukari, who shakes his head at the gravity of the problem. Brain drain: The chronic loss of talent and education to the bright lights and economic opportunities of the West. Comprehensive numbers are difficult to come by, but there are more Beninese doctors in France than in Benin itself. Boukari himself is a role model here; after finishing his advanced degree in Senegal he returned to his homeland.

In this group, all but two say they want to return. Daye Rodrigue has cousins in Carbondale, Illinois, and hopes to join them for further schooling, and beyond. If I can work there I will work there, he says simply. Edoun, who wants to become a mining engineer, says he can’t refuse money. But most are inclined like Odeloui, a self-declared patriot: If I can’t continue school in this country I will go to France, but I will return.

Silliman’s modeling course reflects the challenge. Benin has no native expertise in groundwater modeling. Hiring a modeler is expensive, and training one is even more expensive if he doesn’t return. By teaching some of the basics in Benin, Silliman has helped build local capacity. Steve teaches us how to take theory and put it into practice, Boukari explains.

Testing the water

Pamela Crane sits in the empty schoolyard of Adourékoman. Comfortably at home nearly 6,000 miles from South Bend, she is both nomad and local. Born to Peace Corps volunteers in Kenya, she has lived most of her life outside the United States—Egypt, Fiji, Jordan—while her father worked for USAID. “Home was a very different concept,” she says, allowing that she sometimes feels like an immigrant within her own culture. “My experience doesn’t speak like a kid from Chicago or South Bend.”

Weekly water deliveries instilled an intrinsic understanding of the importance of water to human livelihood, and that’s what led her to Silliman’s lab for graduate school. She first came to Benin in the summer of 2003 to help study the nitrate problem in the Colline region.

Nitrate is a common groundwater pollutant, but its appearance in the Collines was troubling. Linked to blue-baby syndrome, miscarriage, thyroid disorders and some cancers, nitrates are also good indicators of other possible contaminants. They can arise naturally or from animal waste or agricultural chemicals, and the chemistry in Adourékoman suggested a likely origin of either human or animal waste. Somewhere in the maze of subterranean cracks below the village, contaminated surface water was leaking into clean groundwater.

Traditionally the residents collected rainwater or used river water. The first wells in the region were hand-dug, some plunging more than 200 feet through solid rock before hitting water. Drilled wells with pumps have replaced many of those wells, generally improving water quality and quantity. Still, Crane found that more than half of village residents report recent stomachaches, diarrhea, fever or dysentery severe enough that it was difficult to complete an important task.

Water quality in the United States is mandated by law and tested in multimillion dollar laboratories. Benin doesn’t have the laws or the resources for that approach in Adourékoman, let alone in the thousands of other villages that might have similar problems. But what, the ND/UAC team wondered, if the villagers could test the water themselves?

The technology was available—paper test strips wholesaled for little more than a quarter. In 2005 Crane trained three volunteers from the village’s water committee and began collecting data from the three wells. The data they returned was good—when she tested them against reference samples they did well. Because the strips may not be precise enough, she also began testing a digital colorimeter. The delicate piece of equipment required months of troubleshooting in the lab to make it field-worthy, but when she finally figured out the problems it provided a key insight.

When Crane arrived at the village last summer, nitrate levels had been holding low and steady. The rainy season started slowly, but the night before Silliman and Boukari arrived an intense storm hit the area. The next day it could clearly be seen where water had pooled and drained on the bare ground of the village. Nitrate levels in the well shot up. Groundwater travels no faster than 10 meters a day through the rock below the village, but somehow contamination had traveled more than 60 meters into the well. They would need still more proof, but here was strong evidence that, somewhere in the village, something was leaking.

Crane had a pretty good notion of the problem’s source. Just a few yards away from one well is the walled remains of one of the old hand-dug wells. It should have been capped when the new well was bored, but instead it was filled with trash, mostly sticks and leaves brushed from the front yards of village houses. It probably needs to be cleaned out, but Crane, Boukari and Silliman refuse to jump ahead of the evidence. Clearing the well would be brutal, and the crew won’t even suggest the job until the well is clearly shown to be the source of contamination.

“We have to build trust,” Silliman says. “As engineers, if we go in and say ‘this is the way it’s going to be,’ we are going to fail. By definition. We slow it down and try to gain trust.”

While it may make sense in the field, for Crane this approach could be hazardous to her results and to her career. The technical details for delivering clean water are simple and even ancient, thus the engineering and social challenges of finding ways to incorporate these technologies within various cultures can often be overlooked. Too many academic engineers might look at Crane’s work and not appreciate the challenge or the point, says Silliman. Instead they ask: Where’s the math? The science? “[They] forget that engineering is applied science in the service of humanity,” he chides.

Crane recognizes the dilemma, but for her Adourékoman comes first. She loves the culture, where children get to stay up late and play just to celebrate the full moon. She loves that a stick and an old tire can be the best of toys. “The sun goes down, I have to stop working.”

But she also knows that change is coming, and it is not hers to orchestrate. Electricity is just over the horizon. Eventually the town may want to install pipes to deliver water to houses. Crane knows from her research that this kind of change could fundamentally alter community dynamics. Wells are gathering places where news is exchanged and relationships built. “I’m not going to be the one that says no” to putting in pipes, she says.

Building foundations

Back at Cotonou, on the final day of his three-week tour in Benin, Silliman still has work to do. A geoprobe has made it through customs, and the simple hand-driven shaft should allow the water at the bottom of the back-filled well in Adourékoman to be sampled. While that sampling will have to wait until Silliman’s return next season, for the interim it can be used elsewhere. Direction de l’Hydraulique has an industrial contamination problem here in Cotonou, and the probe is perfect for driving through the sandy soil. It’s another opportunity to build local knowledge, and Felix Azonsi, head of water resources for DH, shows up for the demonstration. Each time the probe is used, however, it drops a tip, and they discuss the potential to have the simple part made locally.

Afterward Silliman goes over a research paper by Tchomi-Kandi Mondja. Then he has a final meeting with Davidson and Hochstetler, who are staying in Cotonou for another month. They will continue to build the foundations of a working model of Cotonou’s groundwater, along with Boukari and two of his students: Mondja and Salifou Oroupete. They will spend the next year collaborating over the Internet to complete it.

It’s just one of many loose ends. With Crane in Adourékoman are two more ND students and a recent graduate. Rachel Cota is overseeing an educational exchange between the Adourékoman school and an elementary school in Indiana. Sarah Runger will continue the particle sampling and help expand the nitrate-sampling program to three new villages. And Caitlin Rackish ’05 will stay on for a full year as an anthropologist, studying the local culture to determine whether “these crazy engineers” have caused any unforeseen local problems with their fancy-equipment, single-minded research.

Silliman has never left this many students behind before, and he’s clearly a little stressed by what he cannot control. Despite his well-stamped passport, he’s not the most relaxed traveler. He’s got the mechanics down: He knows every possible way not to drink the water. He knows how to outfit himself, how to handle an emergency, how not to get mugged on the beach. But despite the brown felt fedora, he’s also not got the knockabout social instincts of a professional nomad. He’s just a civil engineer with groundwater in his veins and a piece of this tiny nation growing big in his heart. “I have learned far more from my colleagues in Benin than they have learned from me,” he concludes.

His friend and colleague Boukari sees signs both good and bad as he surveys his growing nation. The new president is good, and democracy seems to be working. But he does worry about the cultural degradation that development brings and says the government doesn’t plan well enough. If we don’t take precautions now, water will be a source of war, he warns.

Boukari, for one, is thankful for Silliman’s style of derring-do. He understands what we are doing, he says. If vision is clear, with small money it is possible to make big things.

Erik Ness writes about science and the environment from his home in Madison, Wisconsin.

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