Instead of being surrounded by family and friends on Christmas Day, UC Berkeley junior Donovan McNiff spent the holiday refurbishing a well in a west African village.
The mood was nevertheless festive as the people of the village, Winkogo-la Bisi in northern Ghana, celebrated while McNiff and other volunteers worked on the village’s 40-year-old hand pump that had broken from age-related wear and tear.
“Once they understood what we were doing, all of a sudden all these women of every age come out in wild song and dance,” McNiff said. “I never imagined anyone getting that excited over water, but when you don’t have it, it becomes paramount.”
McNiff spent three weeks in Ghana with UC Berkeley alumnus Saad Karamat — who is still in Ghana conducting research — refurbishing 30 wells and repairing six others on a volunteer basis.
“People (in Ghana) will walk two to three miles one way to bring back water on their head,” Karamat said. “They have to make that trip two or three times a day, spending five to six hours a day just getting water. I know this is something where I could actually make a difference as an individual.”
The two worked with Shahid Malik, the project director for international humanitarian aid organization Humanity First USA’s Water for Life initiative, and a handful of local volunteers in order to complete all of the well work in a span of 10 days.
After those 10 days, Malik returned to the United States, leaving Karamat and McNiff to speak with villagers as part of Karamat’s research. Karamat was given a $10,000 research grant from the Clausen Center for International Business and Policy at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
Shortly after they arrived Dec. 22, Karamat began collecting quantitative data about the population and interviewing villagers to specifically look at the effects of water availability on health, education and socioeconomic status in Ghana.
“The hope is that this research will lead to more grants for Humanity First to do more work like this,” Karamat said. “Millions of people in Ghana have no access to clean water. Humanity First might refurbish 100 wells in a year, but why should they be capped at doing 100 wells when there are thousands of wells that are not operational anymore due to lack of maintenance?”
While conducting research and looking into ways to enable the Ghanaian people to maintain their own wells on a long-term basis, Karamat has been filming with the intention of making a documentary on Ghana’s need for clean water.
Given all of the goals he wishes to accomplish, Karamat said he is uncertain when he will return to the United States.
Since Humanity First USA is composed almost entirely of volunteers, Karamat and McNiff had to pay their own ways to Ghana. While Karamat was able to use part of his grant money to pay the approximately $2,000 airfare, McNiff had to rely on bake sale proceeds, donations and money out of his own pocket.
McNiff returned to the U.S. on Sunday after a 36-hour flight, and though he said he was concerned for Karamat’s well-being, he was confident that Karamat would succeed in his research and filming.
Energized after getting back to Berkeley, McNiff’s focus has shifted to what volunteer work he can do domestically.
He is the president of UC Berkeley’s branch of Humanity First USA — which Karamat founded in 2009 with the goal of initiating a Water for Life trip — and he said that the club is looking into opportunities to volunteer in Oakland elementary schools.
“It’s great that we have people willing to go (to Ghana), but it’s very expensive and requires a huge commitment,” he said. “Not everyone wants to fundraise all the time. We want to make a tangible difference at home in addition to sending people overseas when we can.”
Christopher Yee covers Berkeley communities.
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