Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hypochondriacs Beware

Some of you may have forgotten that on top of being in Peace Corps, I am also in grad school at the moment at Michigan Tech. I'm working on my Master's in environmental engineering and am doing my research while in Peace Corps. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do my research on, but I think I finally have something to look into at least. My idea is to look at drinking water quality from a bacteriological perspective at different sources and points of use to determine if aid agencies should promote source technology or point of use treatment.

So far my "research" has included sampling water at different sources (bore hole pumps and hand dug wells) and points of use (household clay pots) to test for bacteria. I'm using a very simple test medium (3M Petrifilm) which detects total coliforms and E. coli. To do a test you simply apply 1 ml of water onto the petrifilm, let it sit for 24 hours in a warm place, and then count the number of "dots" that show up on the film. Each red or blue dot indicates a CFU (colony forming unit), red for total coliform and blue for E. coli. Each CFU is typically made up of many, many individual bacteria cells.

In the US, the EPA water quality standard for municipal drinking water is 0 cfu/ml (ie. nothing!). We Americans have decided that the water coming out of the tap should be pathogen free. How nice.

The results for water in my village thus far are nothing to celebrate. I tested 3 pumps, 6 wells, and 45 household clay pots. Every single sample I took was contaminated except for two of the pumps. Most with a bacteria count over 100 cfu/ml. Many were over the detectable limit of the petrifilms.

The pictures below are of three different samples that were tested. "P4" is from one of the pumps. It's clean. No bugs to be found. "L2" is a well. Lots of nasties. "HL11" is a household clay pot. Bunches and bunches of yuckiness. The two contaminated films both have over 400 cfu/ml.

If you're wondering why there are air bubbles on the contaminated slides... that's because the bacteria on those films have been gorging themselves on growth media and are now belching and farting out waste products all over the place. (Coliform bacteria aren't known to be the tidiest organisms, which is why we don't want them in our drinking water.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Confounding Methods of Shopkeepers and Toddlers

I got up the other day in Segou and like every other day decided that I wanted breakfast. The remedy to this problem was quite simple. I could go to the patisserie next door and buy a pastry for a dollar, or I could walk down the street to the nearest full service boutique and grab some yogurt, eggs, powdered milk, and bread for less than a dollar. I opted for the less costly, more diverse option that morning and headed to the boutique.

When I get there I grabbed a sachet of strawberry Yoplait out of the fridge outside and then headed inside for the rest of my supplies. It was 8:30 am, and per usual, the boutique owner was in a semi-comatosed state of utter stupidity. I don't know if he was dropped on his head repeatedly as a child (possible), has a substance abuse problem (unlikely), or if his brain cells are slowly being destroyed from the fumes of the gasoline drums stored in the back (probable), but getting this guy to do anything with any sort of urgency or intelligence is on the same level as attempting to have a donkey do cartwheels.


Me: I want 2 eggs.
Him: Here are your 3 eggs.
Me: I said 2.
Him: ...

Me: I want a really small packet of powdered milk.
Him: This one? (holding 20g packet)
Me: No. Smaller. A really small packet.
Him: This one? (holding different 20g packet)
Me: No. Really, really small.
Him: This one? (holding 100g packet)
Me: No!!! Super, teeny-tiny, miniscule in size small!
Him: This one? (holding 5 gram packet)
Me: Yes!!!

Me: I'm done. I want to pay.
Him: (blank stare)
Me: Hey. Give me my change.
Him: Huh?
Me: Change.
Him: (gives me my change)


When my stimulating conversation with the shop owner was just about over I started to feel some kind of liquid dripping down the back of my leg. I though maybe I had backed into something in the overstuffed boutique and had spilled something. To my surprise, what I found behind me was a girl of about six holding a little boy less than a year old who had no pants on and was pissing all over me. Needless to say I was very angry (pissed if you will) and wanted to do something terrible to those children. However, common sense thankfully got the best of me and I realized that it was pointless to be mad at a kid who was too young to even know that he was pissing, let along all over the back of my leg. Instead, I stormed out of the boutique, went home, changed, and had breakfast in a bad mood.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

I am Shiva, Destroyer of Hair

It was a rainy day in Segou today, so I thought it would be a good time to get a hair cut. I've only had my hair cut one other time in country so far, and the experience was fine, so I figured if I went to the same place I'd come home a happy customer. That was fatal assumption number one.

Since I can't really explain how I want my hair cut in Bambara and the barbers here don't cut white guy's hair too often, my strategy in the past was to just point at one of the soccer players on a wall poster and say "do that". Last time I got the "Wayne Rooney". This time I was going for more of a "Steven Gerrard" look.

At first the barber had the right idea... except instead of bringing the clipper up to cut, he brought it down my head, which is a terribly inefficient way to cut straight hair. It's like trying to cut wet, matted down grass with a lawn mower. Doesn't work well. But, after a while "the look" started to take form. However, when nearing completion I pointed out that one side of my head was still longer than the other.

Instead of simply repeating the procedure he had been following up to that point, he chose to use an upward cutting motion this time, which left a giant divot on the left side of my forehead. I now had more of a "crater" look going on. There's no way a pair of paramecia sharing a brain cell wouldn't have been able to figure out why I was displeased with the result. Yet the barber seemed dumbfounded as to why I had become so disgruntled after what he had just done.

He then attempted to correct his colossal error and ended up shaving my hair all the same length in a buzz cut. Now I was mad. I could have done what this guy did blindfolded with my non-dominant hand after consuming copious amounts of alcohol, but apparently I decided to bike to the barbers in the rain and pay full price for work that I wouldn't even tolerate for my dog back in the States. AAaarrrgg!

Poisons and Perplexities

A known fact about modern agriculture is that most farming operations these days rely on synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Even in a subsistence agriculture society like Mali where manure and other organic refuse is hauled out to fields every year, inter-cropping with nitrogen fixating plants is practiced, and the majority of fields are still plowed with a team of oxen does modern agricultural chemistry reside. In my neck of the woods the primary products being used are herbicides and urea based nitrogen fertilizers for cultivating hundreds of thousands of hectares of rice.

There are several problems with modernizing subsistence agriculture. The biggest of which, in my opinion, is that the farmers are illiterate. Illiteracy only prolongs the other problems I've noticed which include over application of agricultural chemicals, overuse of land (nothing goes fallow), and poor soil conservation practices. People aren't able to educate/inform themselves.

The over application of chemicals results in higher costs to the farmer and a degradation to local ecology in the form of groundwater/surface water contamination and the promotion of algal blooms and other water flora which degrade water quality in surface waters. Water contamination from nitrogen fertilizers can lead to blue baby syndrome, which is pretty tough to catch when all the babies here have dark skin to begin with. Degradation of water quality in surface waters reduces fish populations, which diminishes available food supplies and a good source of protein.

Overuse of land and poor soil conservation practices go hand in hand. Overusing land depletes the soil of organic matter and nutrients, which makes growing more difficult in subsequent years and increases the reliance on synthetic organic fertilizers. Lack of organic material in soil also leads to soil loss and desertification caused by winds blowing away the remaining inorganic minerals. Poor soil conservation is manifested by farmers not constructing wind rows or erosion barriers to prevent soil from being carried off fields by wind or storm water.

***These are not problems specific to developing countries either. The US deals with the same things, but educated farmers and stricter, enforced laws mean these problems are much less common.

I recently had a conversation with my counterpart about spraying herbicides on fields. My concern was that people were applying excessive amounts of herbicides on their fields, which I felt could lead to groundwater contamination. (The fields which are treated are flooded for several months after spraying, and the waters from those fields help recharge the aquifers in and around my village.) At first my counterpart basically laughed at the idea, but when I started asking him where all the well water came from and made the link between rain water, irrigation waters, and groundwater recharge I saw the light click on in his mind. When he understood he said he thought everyone in village should stop drinking well water and only get drinking water from the pumps in town. I then had to calm him down by pointing out that if there was a significant problem a lot of people would be getting sick, which isn't happening, although this doesn't mean that people could still be at risk in the area.

It's funny. People here know that herbicides and pesticides are dangerous chemicals. They buy them in bottles of highly concentrated liquid or granules, which they then mix with water and apply with a hand sprayer. They wash their hands with soap after spraying (but not after pooping?....) and try to keep people away when they are using the chemicals. However, they don't wear gloves, boots, eye protection, or a face mask when spraying (which is indicated on all the packaging with pictures), and they let kids play with the empty containers after they've been rinsed out with water. They also use/mix all the chemicals the same way even though they come in different concentrations. Of course most people don't know this because the directions are in French of English, which they can't read even if they did understand those languages. I've even seen some people using herbicides in hand sprayers that are intended to be applied with an airplane.

I'm also a little miffed that people can't make the connection between a herbicide being bad for a person and an insecticide being bad for an animal. My counterpart's dog had open wounds on both ears the other day that were covered in flies. To "help" the dog out he wanted to dust the dog's head with an insecticide used to kill flies and other household creepy-crawlies. He seemed to have no idea that this might not be the wisest course of action.