PureMadi Means ‘Pure Water’: Students Share Their Stories From South Africa

People standing looking through a wooden shelf left to right:  Helena Gallager, Damaris Paris, J.C. Panagides, Derek Meyers, and Charles Burgis

UVA’s PureMadi summer 2016 team, left to right, undergraduates Helena Gallager, Damaris Paris, J.C. Panagides, Derek Meyers; and graduate student mentor Charles Burgis.

Waterborne pathogens sicken millions of people each year in countries with limited access to clean drinking water. Children and AIDS sufferers in particular can suffer devastating long-term effects, and even death, from repeated exposure to tainted water.

Through a University of Virginia program called PureMadi – “madi” is the Tshivenda South African word for “water” – students from a range of majors have been working in South Africa in recent years, collaborating with local citizens to build water filter factories in two villages with a great need for clean water.

The goal is to provide exceptionally affordable water filters to thousands of families using local materials and labor. Already, one factory in the town of Mashamba has produced more than 2,000 filters, which serve about 10,000 individuals. Each filter, costing about $20, can provide a family of five or six with safe drinking water for two to five years. A second factory, being constructed in the village of Hammanskraal, just north of Pretoria, will begin operations in the fall.

Four students involved in the PureMadi project have written essays about their experiences this summer.

J.C. Panagides: To Purify Water, A Student Team is Building a Filter Factory in South Africa With Local Residents

Damaris Paris: Talks With Local People in South Africa Lead to Understanding

Helena Gallagher: A Lion’s Lessons on Mutual Respect

Derek Meyers: The Value of an Education

To Purify Water, A Student Team is Building a Filter Factory in South Africa With Local Residents

By J.C. Panagides, a rising third-year biomedical engineering major with Rodman and Jefferson scholarships

It’s June 2, just one day after my team of four undergraduates, a graduate student and Dr. James Smith, our faculty adviser and group mentor, stepped off a plane in Johannesburg to begin the seven-week project of establishing a water filter factory in the smaller South African township of Hammanskraal.

My bone-dry water bottle must have given away the fact that I was very thirsty, because the receptionist at the lodge check-in desk kindly offeres her own unopened bottle. I oblige, and she steps out from behind her desk, bows a bit in my direction, directs her eyes towards the floor, and offers me the bottle in her right hand with her left palm wide open, resting on her right elbow. Stunned, I reflexively utter the words thank you before gently reaching for the bottle.

J.C. Panagides, a rising third-year biomedical engineering student who serves as the PureMadi team leader this summer, discusses filter-making with Sara, a worker with a pottery cooperative in South Africa.

J.C. Panagides, a rising third-year biomedical engineering student who serves as the PureMadi team leader this summer, discusses filter-making with Sara, a worker with a pottery cooperative in South Africa.

She responds, “No, thank you, thank you.”

The next day, we were similarly thoroughly thanked at the supermarket checkout line and again the next day at a hardware store. Everywhere we go, “thank you” is nearly always echoed back to the person who says it first. Finally, I work up the courage to ask one of our community partners in Hammanskraal why “you’re welcome” never makes it into South African conversation, and I learn my first and most important lesson about South African life – the importance and universal acknowledgement of unprompted service.

Much of South African life revolves around the concept of “Ubuntu,” a philosophy that reflects the fundamental connectedness of the human condition. Literally translating to “humanity to others,” Ubuntu is largely interpreted as “I am what I am because of who we all are.” The underlying presence of Ubuntu in South African life explains why, for example, it is considered rude to eat in front of those who do not have food without offering an equal portion.

In the case of the lodge receptionist offering me a water bottle, making me feel comfortable might have been an effort to better equip me to help the community. Ubuntu also explains why Dr. Smith is so highly viewed in Hammanskraal – establishing a water filter factory may not be viewed as a “gift” as much as a selfless extension of his abilities and resources to improve access to perhaps the most fundamental necessity of human health (news of which has permeated much of the local community since the conception of PureMadi nearly seven years ago).

In my personal experience, the idea of Ubuntu succinctly highlights not only the difficulty of attempting to complete a project alone, but also the importance of being thankful for the willingness of other people to engage themselves in our work. Learning about Ubuntu has helped our team establish beneficial connections with the local community while maintaining our independence as an organization. Ultimately, these developing relationships will strengthen the influence of the filter factory once it is completely self-sustaining in the future.

Having the help of the locals on our side has also been a major advantage thus far, especially in resolving the daily conflicts that stem from basic differences between South African and American life. Understanding how homes receive electricity and water, finding shops that sell raw metal and lumber, and staying safe while looking for the perfect clay deposit to make our ceramic filters are a few significant tasks that would indefinitely extend the length of this project if we didn’t have someone to help us at least get started. Working continuously with the people who will eventually work at the filter factory full-time has facilitated a mutually beneficial relationship; we learn about South African culture as they learn the technical nuances behind producing PureMadi water filters.

The end of this summer will mark the third year of the Hammanskraal factory’s planning and construction, by which time it will be the result of many stakeholders’ long hours of work. When I first arrived in Hammanskraal, I thought most of our work would be governed by an objective approach to establishing the factory that is as efficient and effective as possible. However, I have learned that project objectives are better achieved via a motivated, focused ideology that is tempered with a sensitivity and appreciation for South African culture.

As the group leader, I have learned to not only identify, but also appreciate individual strengths and tailor them together to work toward a long-term communal goal. I am thankful and proud to be involved with PureMadi and its multi-year effort that will end up helping as many as several hundred thousand individuals per year in full operation. As our in-country partners keep reminding us, the factory is what it is because of who we all are to make it that way, and I am personally very excited to see the factory flourish in the future.

Talks With Local People in South Africa Lead to Understanding

By Damaris Paris, a rising fourth-year foreign affairs major, with a minor in global culture and commerce

Lack of access to clean water is a public health crisis that disproportionately affects the developing world. According to the South African government website, South Africa is the 30th-driest country worldwide. Although South Africa has one of the most developed economies on the African continent, it still lacks the infrastructure and resources to provide clean drinking water to all of its citizens.

Similar to other countries, the poor are the most marginalized in this public health crisis. The facts are hard to put a face on until the situation is seen firsthand, though.

The opportunity to conduct research in South Africa has given our group a unique opportunity to see how the daily lives of individuals in Hammanskraal, where we have spent most of the trip, are impacted by the need for the basic necessity of water. Local men and women are unable to grow food in their gardens to ensure food security and prevent malnourishment and starvation. The two main filter makers, Grace and Paulina, rely entirely on the JoJo tank located in the factory for their daily water. Conservation signs are located everywhere that remind the general public of how little water the town has. Yet these small details remain unknown unless experienced alongside these people. This research trip has given me an invaluable experience that can be carried on to my future career and add depth to future opportunities.

Additionally, the trip has given me perspective on how much public health issues affect all areas of a country. I personally have learned the most from speaking with locals working with PureMadi. For example, I had a long conversation with Nkosi Ndebele, the awesome new manager of the Hammanskraal factory. She was a previous water, sanitation and hygiene intern at Dabane Trust, located in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

She gave me a brief overview of the objective and outcomes of the previous non-governmental organization where she was employed. Dabane Trust’s main aim is to alleviate water scarcity and quality challenges in rural and semi-rural areas of Zimbabwe. Its major focus was to install sand abstraction systems, which is a technology that cleans water from river sand. Other focuses include toilet construction programs, awareness-raising of sanitation protocols, reconstruction of bio-sand filter tanks and rehabilitation of bore holes that were dysfunctional.

I learned a lot from the conversation with her and she provided invaluable knowledge in an area that I know little about. Furthermore, she shared some of the results of their efforts. There was an increase in education and awareness of sanitation practices and the community members learned to value water more.

Another excellent example of a very knowledgeable and fascinating person I have had several in-depth conversations with is our community partner contact, Zaine Halle. He works for Khulisa Solutions, a South African NGO. He is in charge of managing several community projects around the Gauteng province and surrounding areas. He has a lot of knowledge to share about the issues Hammanskraal is facing with water and food security. The most interesting piece of knowledge he shared with me was regarding the allocation of resources throughout the community. He told me that if people began to focus on the resources they do have, instead of what they don’t have, the community members would depend less on the government and more on themselves.

The allocation of water in the Hammanskraal region has caused political unrest among residents. Several months back, in May, residents of Hammanskraal staged protests over the quality of tap water the local government provided. The issue was never fully resolved, but the protests eventually died down.

Nonetheless, the experiences in South Africa have given me perspective on the small details that make up the larger issue of the lack of clean water. It has definitely been a once-in-a-lifetime experience to come to another country, especially such a beautiful country like South Africa, to help out in any way we can. I have also realized what a privilege it is to learn from the locals themselves about the issues affecting their health, their families and their lives.

A Lion’s Lessons on Mutual Respect

By Helena Gallagher, a rising third-year politics and religious studies major

At a ranch outside Pretoria, South Africa, I was able to hike with a lion.

I admittedly did not pay attention during the safety briefing, so when they opened the gate to the lions’ enclosure, I panicked. Two male lions, about 8 and 11 months old, came padding out. They moved much more quickly than I thought they would – they seemed to spill down the hill toward us. With any cat there is a measure of grace, but these two were gangly teenagers who looked too big for their paws. Yet they were at my feet in a second or two.

The smaller cub was about the size of a Labrador retriever. The bigger cub was about 50 pounds heavier than him. Neither looked shockingly large in photos later, but in person you can feel a lion’s strength between the two of you, an unacknowledged presence, but as constant as your fear.

 Undergraduate student Helena Gallagher with a lion cub in South Africa.

Undergraduate student Helena Gallagher with a lion cub in South Africa.

We had been told to ignore the cubs until they greeted us by rubbing their faces on our legs. This grooming behavior is a dominance indicator. If you stroke them first, you tell them they are the boss. Neither cub would acknowledge me, which was not a good sign.

The man who works with them told us to watch out for the “McDonald’s” look. This look is an intense stare, like you are suddenly the most interesting thing in that cub’s world – or a hamburger. I was the first to receive it, and the bigger cub swatted my ankles to try to get my feet out from under me.

The handler redirected him before he could hurt me seriously, but I was blown away. The rock and roll of the lion’s shoulder blades under his thick fur. The way they toss out their front paws and stroll molasses-slow, until they have a reason to be quick. The chuffing sounds they made were quiet and nonaggressive, but I felt nervousness around these animals that ran bone-deep.

Interacting with lions is magical, but it is a constant test of who is dominant in the relationship. We could walk with these lions because they had not reached puberty. Like humans at that age, they begin to test everyone around them non-stop. These lions still trusted their handler as the leader. He said something to us that really stuck with me: “I love these boys, but it doesn’t mean they love me back.” The lion handler has their respect – for now.

A huge struggle for us during our work here in South Africa has to do with respect as well. Our team of undergraduates has to respect that we are coming into an existing community, ignorant of the problems its members face. We come with our own ideas about where the problems lie, but it’s when you lack the respect to learn from the people you came to help that a project fails.

The lions do not know what the handler carries into interactions with them. They do not know he loves them, and has since they were mewling newborns. They do know that they have a relationship of mutual respect with him. He is in power now, but he demonstrates it in their language. He chuffs at them, he gives them their food after they ask for it in a submissive way. The handler works for an organization that breeds lions to be released in the wild, in order to increase genetic diversity and stronger future generations. The lions do not know why the man takes care of them, but they do know that they respect him.

Of course, the people we work with here in South Africa are our equals. I draw the parallel between the intentions that two parties carry into a relationship. We came to this country to get a water filter factory up and running, in order to provide a sustainable point-of-use solution to dirty water. But most of the people here are far more concerned with employment. They want to help us build the factory; they have a son who is a welder and willing to help; they have a brother who is a gardener and willing to help; they have a husband who has two master’s degrees and …

Nearly every person we meet at the hardware stores where we purchase supplies asks us two questions. One: “What project are you in South Africa to do?” Two: “Are you hiring?” The only way to reconcile this difference in intention is to listen to what the community wants, and try to meet our goals while respecting theirs.

In our particular factory, we can locally source construction for now and eventually draw the factory’s employees from women in the community. Jobs and clean water.

I think that too often, organizations that want to do good in the world fail to make a difference because they fail to make the difference the community actively wants.

Which brings me back to the lion encounter. Awhile into our hike, the bigger cub threw himself down beside the path. He had to be cajoled into rejoining the group – not because he was tired, or thirsty, or uncomfortable in any way. He watched his handler with calculating golden eyes, waiting to get his way. One day, he will. One day, that handler will not be able to ask anything of a fully-grown male African lion. But for now, they have a relationship built on mutual respect and understanding built on a far more solid foundation than love.

The Value of an Education

By Derek Meyers, a rising fourth-year psychology major

The worth of a college education, at least according to some people, can be summed up by a simple formula. It goes like this: Take the sum of the cost of your tuition, textbooks, housing, lost earning potential, late night trips to Little John’s, etc. Subtract that number from your potential earnings for the job you’ll get after getting your degree. If your number comes back positive, then college was worth it. Seems sensible right?

Well, not really. For this formula fails to take into account the intangible variables that make college such a worthwhile experience.

Never has this been more apparent to me than during my work here in Hammanskrall, South Africa, constructing a ceramic filter factory on behalf of PureMadi, a non-profit founded by UVA students and faculty.

This formula could never place a value on the laughter I’ve shared with the potters in Mukondeni when, while learning the filter-making process our first week here, we discover that the compulsive need to pop bubble wrap whenever it is laid before us hilariously crosses all cultural boundaries. It can’t quantify the worth of seeing animals, like the white rhino, that may not even exist in the next five years.

This formula can’t put a price on the lessons I’ve learned from Abbiot, the security guard at the filter factory in Hammanskrall and most importantly, my friend, about gratitude – about how to appreciate what you have, even if it is just a low-paying job watching over a factory and a bag of maize meal. And from Grace and Paulina, the two elderly women who have watched over the factory since its inception three years ago, about responsibility – about how we all must see that everything we do is done with care, from the construction of filter drying racks to making a simple bead necklace. And from the South African people in general, about faith – not the religious kind, but faith that things will get better regardless of how dismal your current circumstances are and your past has been.

Because of these intangibles, my perspective on the human condition has forever changed – and no formula can put a price on that.

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