10/20/2017 08:14 EDT | Updated 10/20/2017 08:14 EDT

Going To Ghana: Hygiene Saves Lives

WaterAid/ Karlye Wong

At 6:00 am my alarm goes off and I step out of bed to walk to my bathroom sink and splash my face with some warm, clean water. By 6:30 I fill a pot with water for my morning coffee. I squeeze a fresh lemon into a glass of water and drink every last sip. By 7:00 am I'm out the door, coffee in one hand and my paddle in the other. At 7:30 I slip my boat onto the water for the first of my training sessions. By 9:00 am I am driving home to shower after getting sweaty from my intervals session.

By only 10:00 am, my day has already depended on water for so many things.

Last spring, on World Water Day I was reminded that the majority of the world does not have the same access to clean water that I do. To share my gratitude, I tweeted @WateraidCanada thanking for protecting the water we live in. Not long after I had a response asking if I would become an ambassador, to tell my own water story, a story also about gender inequality.

It was a no brainer for me to get involved.

Within a month I was supporting "The Water Fight" and visiting WaterAid's work in Ghana.

As soon as I arrived in Ghana, I could feel the heat and humidity of the coastal city of Accra. I had never been to a place this hot before and it was almost a shock to the system.

Driving around the city, I really got a feel for how different this part of the world was from what I am used to. Just down the road from our hotel were rundown buildings and slums in every direction that you looked. At each stop we were greeted by locals selling trinkets like old DVD's, random books about how to learn English, drinks, local snacks, and fresh baking. The men and women carried massive trays on their heads with a scarf under to protect the top of the skull. They made it look so easy walking up and down the streets while conversing with their friends and looking back and forth with no trouble.

The next morning, we met the WaterAid Ghana team and together we boarded a plane to Tamale, in the northern region of Ghana.

We traveled even further north to our hotel in Bolgatanga, which was another shocking experience - a massive building with running water, toilets, clean white towels and air conditioning, surrounded by traditional mud huts. These are small run-down stands selling guinea fowl eggs or some sort of textile.

After getting settled in our room, the wind started to whistle and a torrential downpour began. It was rainy season in Ghana which meant almost every night we would fall asleep to the sounds of thunder, rain and wind.

We awoke early to have breakfast on the road and drove for 3 hours until we turned off paved roads onto dirt roads and barren looking territory. We were traveling along the Burkina Faso border and not far off from the Sahara Desert. When I looked out I could see for a long distance, as it was a very flat land, with small shrubbery. There was not a lot of vegetation due to the lack of rain, and a layer of dust covered every surface.

When we finally arrived in Kayoro, I looked out the window to see groups of young children in matching school uniforms. As we drove through the field, all of their eyes were glued on our car.

Our first order of business was to visit the new latrines that had been installed in Akania. We drove on the dirt road to stop just outside a cluster of mud huts.

The Chief took us on a tour to the new latrines. They were solid looking structures with a sturdy roof and located just outside the main living areas. WaterAid had trained local latrine artisans to maintain and build new latrines in the surrounding communities as a way of sustaining these facilities and also providing a source of income. Locally-built structures meant that they were constructed with community considerations in mind. For instance, latrines were built on elevated foundations to be flood-resilient during heavy rains. These particular structures were still very new and still needed a door installed so they had not yet been used.

After gulping down a big cup of my routine coffee I needed a pit stop at this point. The Chief showed me to a sectioned off area with little privacy, indicating this was the current latrine area.

I peered in and there was a metal bucket and in the corner a pile of sticks. I looked back up at the Chief and asked to confirm "I just go in here and then poor it on the sticks?" He nodded in agreement and walked away to give me privacy.

I squatted over the bucket and relieved myself and then picked the bucket up and poured my urine over the sticks. I wondered why it did not smell absolutely terrible and why there was not more human matter there, maybe it had just been cleaned? I also wondered how many people had touched this bucket after going to the bathroom without washing their hands. I tried my best to push these thoughts out of my head.

In Canada, from a very young age we are taught about germs and how they can make us very sick. I walked out and asked the chief where I could wash my hands and he pointed to a bottle that was empty. Needless to say, I could not wash my hands.

On the way back we met some residents making a local dish called 'koko' which is a millet porridge they made with their hands in a deep bowl. In Ghana utensils are not very common. You use your hands to scoop the food into your mouth. The millet porridge is mixed with water and then it is put into a bowl and set out to sit for a few hours where it hardens. It is used like a dumpling scoop to get smothered in curry soups and then shovelled into the mouth.

I wondered if the man offering me porridge had washed his hands? I looked up. The Chief said "Yes, please it is customary that you try some of our food. It would be an honour."

I hesitated, but I did not want to offend the chief as he was so kind to share his home with me. So, I stuck my hand into the mixture took a little bit out and quickly put it in my mouth.

Despite my best effort's that day, that night I shivered with a violent fever and truly found out what it was like to be sick in Africa.

The rest of the day unfolded with such joy and curiosity for learning. There were about 500 school children in the program and they were all divided up into smaller groups to learn each of the play-based learning activities being coordinated as part of the partnerships with Right to Play. The program uses play and games to educate children about the importance of handwashing, what it means to transfer germs, and menstrual hygiene management. As these groups played games with the kids their elders joined in as well, it was very cool to see all generations participate in the program. The day included handwashing relays, germ hand ball and menstruation dances. Many times, while participating in the games, I had to hold back tears of joy because of how accepting and powerful the community was. After each game, the group would stand in a circle and they would reflect and go over what they learned from each game.

Africa Changed me. It changed me for the better. I have not looked at a toilet or clean water the same way since. We are so lucky in Canada and I think a lot of us forget or choose to be ignorant to that fact. The river that I paddle in Kananaskis county is so clean, I can lean over while paddling and take a sip without any worry.

WaterAid has been doing amazing work in places like Ghana for many years. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with them to help kids have a little more time for dreaming and a little less time worrying about collecting water.

This is my Water Fight and I'm glad to be part of it.

Haley Daniels is a member of Canoe Kayak Canada's National Team. She is an Athlete Ambassador for WaterAid Canada.