This is a guest post by Ian Muir, the Director of Technology and a co-founder of GIVEWATTS partner organization, Read and Prosper, which aims to promote access to knowledge through the use of technology. Ian also serves on the advisory board of GIVEWATTS.
This past week, I was privileged to accompany GIVEWATTS CEO, Jesper Hornberg, to the Maasai Mara region of southern Kenya. We were delivering over 150 solar-powered lamps to two underserved rural primary schools, a mere elephant’s echo from the famous reserve. The specific mission was routine, posing few logistical hurdles, but the overall context of the trip turned out to be an incredible eye-opener for me.
Zipping along the paved road from Nairobi to the Maasai trading town of Narok, you could be tempted to forget you’re in the heart of a developing country. Well, that assumes you are oblivious to the crammed-full matatus (public transit minivans) overtaking recklessly, and that you’ve grown accustomed to the plethora of livestock and wild game along the roadside. But directly after Narok, as you swing south toward the Mara, a dramatic transformation occurs. Smooth pavement is suddenly replaced by a potholed dirt track more fit for the Paris-Dakar rally than a fully-laden minivan. And shortly thereafter, power lines—which, along with good roads, are surely the backbone of a modern economy—disappear completely.
From bump to bump, I pondered how this lack of infrastructure might impact the lives of locals. So disconnected from their world, I must admit that real comprehension eluded me. This would change very quickly. Later that evening, after dropping off the solar lamps at Oiloburmurt primary school, our team hitched on to Robert, a tall, lean, and talented, if decidedly soft-spoken, 14 year old. We trekked back to his family home, where Robert introduced us to his life. Despite past travels, TV documentaries and the stories in the Press, there is no equal to smelling, touching, and seeing the real thing. Before long, we were caught staring at each other, our mouths agape.
The livestock-dependent Maasai usually live in boma, huts made out of mud, grass, cow dung, and tree branches. These homes are situated within manyattas, very small villages surrounded by a fence of thorny bushes to keep predators at bay. Robert’s hut, as is typical, was split into several small rooms, two of which house the family’s sheep overnight. However, it was by no means this element that shocked us most. Rather, it was the almost unbelievable lack of indoor light. It was substantially brighter outside, even after the sun had set over the packed red earth. Choices are few. While some families are able to afford kerosene for lamps, many opt instead to build small indoor wood fires for both cooking and light. In Robert’s boma, the smoky haze was stifling despite the fire having burned down to mere embers. Visibility was practically nil.
For Robert, of course, this was nothing out of the ordinary, although he did regale us with stories of how he had occasionally sent his school papers up in flames while attempting to illuminate them with burning twigs. Talk about a real and depressing twist on “the dog ate my homework.”
So imagine the emotion we all felt as we fired up a solar lamp, and literally brought his home out of darkness. The potential impact of just one of these lamps was brought to life and became as clear as day. I walked away from the experience both dismayed and encouraged. Dismayed by the conditions in which some eventual African leaders are currently living, but exceedingly encouraged by the dramatic changes such a small, low-cost device can engender. The lives of Robert, his family, and those of all of his classmates will simply never be the same.