Zimbabwe’s rural waters and the safety of millions

Photo by Andreas Karlsson

Biologist Peter Morgan MBE, DSc (BSc Zoology 1964, PhD Marine Biology 1968) left Hull in 1968 after his further studies in Marine Biology. He began his career at the University of Malawi, and developed many innovations linked to environmental and public health, which now serve millions of people in the African sub-region and elsewhere. These include the Blair VIP toilet (known internationally as the VIP), the Blair Pump, Bucket Pump and the ‘B’ Type Bush Pump, which has been the national standard hand pump in Zimbabwe since 1989. He researched and initiated the Upgraded Family Well ‘self-supply’ programme in Zimbabwe, and his further studies in ecological sanitation led to simplified methods of recycling human excreta, including toilet systems known as the Arborloo and Fossa alterna.

In recognition of his work in this area he has received a number of prestigious awards. He was awarded the Zimbabwe Scientific Association Gold Medal in 1983, and three years later received the International Inventors Award, Stockholm. In 1991 he became an MBE for his major contribution to the field of water sanitation and drinking water supply in developing countries. Six years later he received the Paul Harris Fellow, presented by The Rotary Foundation, and in 2009 was presented with the Water AfricaSan Award for Technical Innovation in Sanitation from the African Ministers’ Council.

More recently, Dr Morgan received the 2012 Rural Water Supply Network Award for Lifetime Services to Rural Water Supply, and in 2013 he was named the Stockholm Water Prize Laureate for his work protecting the health and lives of millions of people through improved sanitation and water technologies. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Science by the University in 2014.

We asked Dr Morgan about his memories of his early days in Africa.

My supervisor, Dr John Sudd, an entomologist and lecturer in the Department of Zoology, suggested I go abroad for a year to gain experience. Go to Africa he advised. He had worked in Ibadan in Nigeria. I had enjoyed the years of studying marine biology along the Yorkshire coast and had been offered a job at the marine laboratory in Galway, Ireland – if I could pass a test in Gaelic!

The offer of a job as limnologist at the University of Malawi came up and I went for it. At that time the little known Lake Chilwa was being studied in great detail. My allotted task was to study the fish and fisheries of this alkaline lake.

Lake Chilwa after the storm, 1969
Lake Chilwa after the storm, 1969

On arrival at the end of 1968, the open lake had dried up. Not a good start, I thought. But Chilwa had been known to dry out before – and then recover. And it did just that. The massive rains of that season filled the lake up again. The fish returned. We had many adventures on that lake, which included being overturned in our small boat in a storm and being rescued by a fisherman in a dug-out canoe.

I spent three enjoyable years in Malawi, and left in 1971. I was given the choice of either flying from Chileka airport (near Blantyre) to London or taking a mail boat from Cape Town to Southampton. I chose the latter. I guess in those days I must have been more adventurous, as I chose to get to Cape Town via Uganda!! I bought a second hand car suitable for ‘sleeping in the back’ (a Volkswagen Variant) and drove up through Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda to return to Malawi, then pass through Rhodesia and South Africa to Cape Town.

That was quite an adventure to put it mildly, where I saw many parts of the fantastic Rift Valley of East Africa, the Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti, the Coast and its coral gardens, and the pygmies of northern Uganda. And much more. After a rest, I then proceeded, passing through Rhodesia to see the Victoria Falls ended up in Cape Town as thin as a rake and ate as much as I could to fatten up on the boat! My old car, naturally, accompanied me on the boat.

A few months later, after arriving in England, I was offered a job in Rhodesia at the Ministry of Health’s Blair Research Laboratory. I had written a couple of papers about schistosomiasis (bilharzia) when studying Lake Chilwa and they had been published in Salisbury and I was offered the job on the strength of these. Rhodesia was in turmoil at the time, and has been for most of the time since – but I went for it. I took a mail boat back to Cape Town together with my old car. Then drove up to Salisbury to take up the job.

I came under the influence of my next mentor Dr Dyson Blair who had been Secretary for Health in the days of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. He was then retired but came to the lab to study his old passion – Schistosomiasis! He was like a walking encyclopedia. One day he spoke to me and told me I should take a close look at technologies that might reduce the transmission of bilharzia –like improved water supplies, hygiene and sanitation. But I am not qualified I said – I am a biologist! To which he replies – just do it. So I did it. So I guess I became a sort of plumber. But even as a small boy I was a “tinkerer.”

And if the truth be known – I still am.

© Dr Peter Morgan MBE, DSc (BSc Zoology 1964, PhD Marine Biology 1968)

4 thoughts on “Zimbabwe’s rural waters and the safety of millions

  1. I lived in Zim for five years and Sudan for one year, Zimbabwe is so dear to me, so very precious, I have a copper of Zim on my wall and an old print from Salisbury (now Harare) archive too. Do let me know if you have any public talks on Zimbabwe… if you don’t, may Nyami Nyami catch you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember Peter well as my father also worked at the Blair research Laboratory and had a lot of time for him. Zimbabwe owes the men and women who worked at this lab a tremendous amount for their dedication to the research into the reduction and elimination of tropical diseases in Zimbabwe.

    Liked by 2 people

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