Smith, Barab, Burgess, Wallace: Water Filtration in Ha-Mashamba

This summer, four UVA undergraduates (Civil engineer Matt Smith, French & International Relations major Max Barab, Global Development Studies major Alice Burgess, and Environmental Science major Anna Wallace) are on a mission to learn how to make ceramic filters that purify contaminated water using colloidal silver (an ongoing UVA research effort for the past six years under Civil Engineering professor Jim Smith) and to build another open-air filter factory in a village named Hammanskraal, based on a pre-existing factory in a village named Ha-Mashamba.

Stage One: Learning to make filters in Ha-Mashamba, June 14 – July 5

wf1After an 18 hour plane ride and many hours on the crazy roads — donkeys, goats, cattle, huge potholes, hitchhikers, and getting used to the left side — we arrived at our home in the Limpopo Province. We spent these three weeks learning how to make the ceramic filters (some with a colloidal silver wash) at the Mukondeni filter factory is at the same site as the Mukondeni Pottery Cooperative. Actually, the filters aren’t the main “output”, and instead the focus is on making and selling different sized urns, jugs, and bowls — all handmade, very detailed, and with a varying designs based on each potter’s signature style. While we say “filter factory”, we do not mean a big industrial complex, and instead are referring to the open-air, tin-roof, dirt-ground space where the clay gets mixed, pressed, and dries out before the kiln.

The potters who make both the filters and their own pottery are our teachers, mentors, and friends. They wear patterned African skirts and wraps, but many have American tee-shirts (brands like Adidas and Hanes) and wear sandals or wellies. They smile lots and they teach us new Venda words each day. They are very patient with our crap pronunciation!

Boas was our community partner in Mashamba — he is a kind young man who has superb English and who is in charge of the filter factory in Ha-Mashamba. We first met him back in February, when we took him out for soup to warm him up during his Virginia visit!

We were lucky to spend a day at the University of Venda, where we met some other undergraduate students who are from a range of American universities working on similar projects in the villages of Limpopo, ranging from diabetes and hypertension to medical pluralism. We also got to meet some of the UniVen graduate mentors, who are getting their PhD’s and masters in engineering and microbiology. It was very cool to see what a South African university was like, and it sounds like the student life at most universities across the globe are quite similar… dancing, arts, sports, cafeteria food, lots of studying, a nice barbecue, and imbibing spirits for unwinding! The UniVen faculty kindly are helping us to test the filters using the membrane filtration method.

One of the coolest experiences was when we got to meet the chief of the village, Chief Mashamba. A very handsome high school teacher escorted us to the Chief’s home overlooking the village, and we all knelt on the ground and clasped our hands together next to our knees when Chief Mashamba approached. The teacher translated the Chief’s warm welcome to us — “this friendship between UVA and the village bears good fruits”; “we like to benefit from your great ideas, Prof”. The Chief jokingly expressed interest in traveling to America, as Boas did this past February. I still cannot believe their first ever flight was 15 hours across the Atlantic! Professor Smith presented the Chief with a photo that the team last year took with him, which he seemed to like very much! People here love photographs of themselves, as they do not have mirrors, let alone cameras or printers. The Chief told us that 80% of the residents of the village are unemployed, and that the pottery cooperative and a few government social grants are the only sources of income for the people of Mashamba — thus, they are overjoyed for the big filter orders that have started coming in.

wf2We also got to meet Chief Lucas, who was much less formal than Chief Mashamba. Chief Lucas visited UVA for Pure Madi 3 in February 2014, and he seems incredibly committed to every house in his village having access to safe and clean water. He had rented a big flat bed truck to load up about 160 filters and bring them back to his village, thus creating more storage space within the Mukondeni Factory.  This means the potters can start back up, “full speed ahead”, with the filter production.

As for practical matters, we wore long skirts, trousers, and tee-shirts — anything less would be culturally inappropriate but anything more would be boiling. All the South Africans wear long sleeves and wooly hats — they think it’s freezing despite the fact it’s normally a sunny high-70/low-80 by 2pm! The mornings were chilly but warmed up fast.

wf3Our team got really close during our stay in Ha-Mashamba. We bought cheap CD’s at the market and burned our favorite songs onto them so we could listen in the car. At night, we cooked “gourmet meals” (burned grilled cheese, tuna salad, and soggy pasta with sauce from a can!) A few nighttime power-cuts led to many rounds of charades, candlelit card games, and even a few chick flick films we persuaded the boys to watch! The best weekend featured a trip to Kruger National Park–  we saw elephants, giraffes, crocodiles, zebras, hippos, and kudu (a WILD trip indeed!)

The last day at the factory was a cultural experience indeed — we bought the potters bottles of soda, 4 live white chickens, and 12.5 kg of pap as a “thank you” gift! The chickens got their throats cut off on site, and about 3 hours later, we were munching on perhaps the freshest bird we have ever consumed! Leaving the factory was so sad, but after many “roh-le-voo-ah”s and “kabisari”s (so long’s and thank you’s) we said goodbye!

Our time working in Mashamba flew by! In Mashamba, were able to successfully mix and press two different batches of filters with silver mixed in (saving time and money, since it hopefully will not have to be painted on later on in the process). One batch had more silver than the other, plus some additional sawdust got added along the way to compensate for the recent issue with many of the filters failing the flow rate test (adding sawdust increases the space between the silver nanopatches in the filter). The bad news was that had to leave before all these filters could be fired in the kiln and tested in the labs for total coliform and other contaminants at the University of Venda. Luckily our graduate student mentor, Katie, agreed to help us out with this.

We were shocked at just how many steps there are in making filters — before we arrived in Limpopo, we assumed you chucked some dirt and dust into a mixer, put that into molds, fired them, and that was that! We never realized just how labor intensive it is to make a filter… kneading, drying, testing, drilling, wrapping, painting, firing, smoothing, carrying, packaging, etc. A whole arsenal of potters are required to make filters. That being said, we now know how valuable the filters truly are. Alice had quite an upset stomach our first few days here from drinking from the tap, but as soon as we purchased a filter from the factory and used it in our own kitchen, she felt like “a million bucks” again. The water the filter gives us is clean, pure, and safe — such a simple technology with such great results.


Stage Two: Building a new factory in Hammanskraal, July 5 – August 2

The day after American Independence Day, we journeyed to Hammanskraal to set up the new factory. We arrived to see the big tin roof had been completed. Our work over the next month is cut out for us: install a bore hole to withdraw water from, build a brick office at one end to store records and valuables in, dig out a septic tank, and construct the wooden tools needed for the filter making process (drying racks, soak tanks, etc.)

Our first day, as soon as we clambered out of the car, we were enveloped in hugs from Grace and Paulina, a pair of sisters who are about 70 years old, who are wise Go-Go’s who are in charge of this community filter project. They call us “darling” and sit next to us each day, threading seed bead bracelets, and offering high fives with each completed step.

During this first week, we met with Zain, our new community partner, who got the ball rolling straight away. He has the best South African voice, and makes us laugh when he says things like ‘are you smoking your socks?’ and ‘these American kiddos are the happy helpers’. Zain interviewed some local builders, and chose Steve the builder, who charged a reasonable price for the office construction and had the best diagram of the space. A few hours later, we white kids were sweating buckets, attacking firm ground with picks and shovels.

Jack (Grace’s son’s best friend) has helped us so much with the construction, and together, Jack and Steve are an unstoppable team, making us students look so weak and slow. The zealous Pastor of the local church also volunteered to dig out the foundation of the office, alongside Jack’s friend Richard. They are patient with us, and seem excited at the prospect of having a filter factory that can employ them and their friends who are without work. As of now, the foundation has been dug — 2 ft wide and ½ meter deep for the 6×12 meter square– and filled in with a mix of cement, sand, and stone. Next week, we will lay the bricks, buy the windows and doors for the office, and install the bore hole.

We are learning so much, and thus far, our trip has been eye-opening, thought-provoking, and culturally fascinating. We have made great friends along the way, including our own teammates, and cannot wait to spend another month in South Africa. Thank you, CGH, for this wonderful opportunity.


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