And Then Came Light

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I stumbled over a bag of shopping I’d forgotten to unpack that morning, and cursed my own laziness, whilst stretching out both hands in front of me, crouched down so as to avoid chairs and other bits of furniture I might have forgotten about.

Inching my way forward I finally made it to the bed, slid under the net, tucking it in as best I could on all corners but feeling the uneven stretched fabric becoming dislodged at the opposite corner every time I pulled in any given direction. I’d clearly done it wrong, but I couldn’t see for the life of me how. But I knew why.

Living in the darkness is like that every day before the sun comes up, and every night when the life-giving ball of fire decides to call it a night. I was only doing this blackout role-play because my light switch was on the other side of the bedroom and because I was too lazy to go and buy a bedside lamp (it’s such a tedious task, buying useful home appliances).

But the people I interacted with on a day-to-day basis didn’t have this choice. They would have loved to have the choice of whether or not to go and pick a lamp for a few thousand shilling (the equivalent to a few dollars), or of just leaving the lights on at night out of pure laziness, as I have been known to do. 

For the millions of people who lack access to safe, reliable energy across the continent, there are billions more who are unaware of their struggle. And as I almost fell over my own momentary blindness in the darkness of the night in my comfortable, electrified bedroom, I knew that I was one of the lucky ones, because I was aware of how fortunate I was.

When I started working for a solar energy company I knew very little, but I was aware that it was  a necessary good which could have  a far-reaching impact on the people we would work with and the wider international community. This never hit me harder than the first day on the job. When we arrived at Paul’s village in Sengerema District, he first guided us through the centre of the community, past the mobile money shop, the grocery shop and the bike repair shack, and then we were out of the village already.

It wasn’t a long journey, but the route to his home wasn’t finished there. We veered to the right, and the dirt track turned into a dust trace, barely visible amongst the overgrown grass crowding in on either side. We filed along, one behind the other, like electric particles through a narrow cable to power one feeble yellow light. The sun was almost thinking of setting, so we had to hurry to be able to finish the job before absolute darkness fell.

Paul was up at the front, guiding the way, plodding along with pride at being able to take us to the house that he’d built for his family with his brother and his brother-in-law just 6 years ago.  George was behind him, carrying the solar panels and equipment, piled high on his backpack and loading down his arms. I was in charge of the paperwork and tools, a lighter load, but I was scared of losing something important, so I clutched my backpack to me like a newborn.

A good 10 minutes later we arrived at a small homestead, where children stopped playing and stood in dumbfounded silence at seeing the unusual party approach their homes. Goats bleated at us and then turned away, disinterested in us as we didn’t carry anything edible or which even resembled greenery.

“Are we here?” exclaimed George expectantly, as he started to loosen the straps from his shoulders in order to swing it down from his aching back.

“Nearly, very nearly”, he was calmly reassured by a stoic Paul, who didn’t stop walking, and so it was difficult to read his face.

We carried on like this for a further 15 minutes. The closest electrical cables connecting to the grid (which actually passed over the village but were only connected to one house, owned by a local politician who had built a home here when vying for power) were so far behind us that I couldn’t even remember what they looked like. My mind and vision were filled with yellow grass, rolling, flat-topped hills and the repeated movement of one foot in front of the other which it felt like I’d been doing since birth, though it had only really been 25 minutes.

And then I saw it. A perfectly-proportioned, ever so slightly wobbly mud hut with a corrugated iron roof and an outhouse with pots and pons, where Paul’s wife was sitting and scrubbing dishes clean, no doubt from that day’s ugali feast.

“We are here”, announced Paul, and almost pushed us into the house, eager to power up his new solar investment.

His 2 children sat on the ground by the entrance, and scuttled to the side to let us through, dirtying their clothes even more, and no doubt part of the reason why Paul’s wife dragged them off to throw buckets of water over their hot, dusty bodies once we were safely inside.

It took my eyes some time to get accustomed to the lack of light. I tried to open my eyes as wide as possible to be able to inspect the surroundings, but after a couple of minutes, I realized that it didn’t get any better. One meager ray of dusky light broke its way in through the crack in the top layer of mud, and the doorway afforded some secondhand daylight, thankfully, so we could just about make out where Paul intended us to set up his lights.

Once we got down to work, it took us only about 45 minutes to power up Paul’s house. It would have been quicker but we had to keep flitting between outside and inside to be able to see which cables we were attaching to the other for fear of making disastrous mistakes in our inevitable blindness.

Paul called the family in to see the big switch-on. His wife, Rachael, came in first, followed by the 2 small children, Paul’s brother, his 3 children, a neighbor (who in reality lived a 10-minute walk away), his sister-in-law from his other brother and some children who could have belonged to anyone.

They huddled together in the small room, pressing against the dusty walls and chattering away in Sukuma, the language of the lakes region of Tanzania, at a  speed and volume that made it impossible for me to even make out the tone of their conversations, and then they held their breath as I pointed at the lightbulbs we’d just fitted to the ceiling, and then pointed my forefinger and middle finger at my eyes, then their eyes, then back to mine, indicating that they should watch closely. I pressed “on”. The children covered their eyes, astounded by the brightness, and Paul smiled at Rachael, as she nodded back at him.

2 months later we came back to Paul’s house. I would never have been able to find the way back, but George had a keen sense of direction, and was able to guide us. It was, essentially, a straight walk, but I’d been so distracted by my thoughts on how to give these directions to others, that I hadn’t even properly noticed them the first time.

Rachael greeted us, and brought us chairs. They hadn’t had these plastic chairs last time we had come. She explained that they had been making extra money since having the panels and lights, and had been charging the phones of members of the community in their homes, bringing enough money to buy the chairs. One of the children was outside, taunting a goat walking in circles round its peg. Where was the other?

It was a similar time of day to our previous visit, and the day’s last ounces of sunlight were being used up in a celebratory exhalation of vibrant yellow.

We walked inside, and instead of being plunged into darkness, as I’d expected, we hardly noticed a difference between the brightness outside and that which we found inside. There, in the corner of the room, by the lights, was the other child, sitting below the lights counting on her fingers and scribbling down answers to maths problems.

She smiled coyly at us and got on with her homework. Paul explained how her grades had improved since we’d paid a visit and delivered their new appliances. He gently tapped her head as we walked back outside, and then with that same proud, fatherly hand, he took my hand, held it between his 2 palms and nodded his head gratefully, though I had done nothing.

I was mesmerised by his parenting, the way he provided for his family and respected the members of his community in a way which made me ashamed for all the times I’d dismissed other people without a second thought.

As I got into bed that night after nearly tripping over a shopping bag, I looked as far into the darkness as I could, and saw just how much difference a little bit of light can make in a person’s life.

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