Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Last week we met our volunteer Stan Allen. This week, hear more from his experiences with NAOP in the second installment of this four part series! And be sure to check in next Saturday for a third update! 

I expected to be idle, even bored.  And then, the light dawned – almost literally.

Between the time we arrived at Nyaka and our trip to Queen Elizabeth National Park a mere five days hence, I had nothing official to do at Nyaka.  Unlike Emily, who is increasingly involved with curriculum matters, I was the deadbeat.  What could I possibly do that would be useful in 4 days (Monday – Thursday)?  That changed when I was conscripted on Sunday by the new guests bearing the light.

Linda, the founder of the NGO, Fifty Lanterns International, arrived with her friend Kelly from Minnesota with 250 solar powered lights.  Linda and, Nyaka in-country manager, Jennifer – friends since meeting in Rwanda when Jennifer was running a refugee camp for Amercian Refugee Committee – had been conspiring for a number of years to get these solar power lights to Nyaka’s Grandmothers program.  Basically, the lights consist of ~10 x 10 cm solar panels that plug into a small rectangular LED light powered by a rechargeable cell phone battery.  Accompanying the basic package are two cell phone adapters so that the power cord from the solar panel can charge a cell phone.

The day after the light brigade’s arrival, they were scheduled to meet with some 90 Grannies, as they are called, to distribute these lights through the Nyaka Grandmothers program – conscript in tow.  In brief, this program trains Grannies in practical life skills and provides, on occasion, items that will enrich their lives.  For example, on my farm tour yesterday, I learned from the farm manager that his stable would have had more goats had most not been given away to Grannies.  Today, they were getting solar lights.

For the light brigade giveaway, we met at the Nyaka library, just down the war torn, boulder strewn road from the school.  When we arrived at 9:00, about 20 Grannies were already there sitting around and chatting, so we started to unpack, assemble, and test the lights.  As we did, more and more Grannies came walking down the last approach to the library – for all of the Grannies arrived on foot, decked out in colorful skirts, shawls, head wraps, and the like.  At one point, a dozen or so Grannies arrived and paraded by our preparation area, stopping by each one of us assembling lights and extending the most sincere, grin-filled, hearty greeting, usually beginning with, “Good day, suh” and a bow, both hands extended either for a hug or a double fisted hand shake.  “How are you?” or “Nice to meet you” was my reply, followed by the double entendre, “You’re welcome.”  It was a 5-minute period of cultural immersion the likes of which I have never experienced, and at one point, I actually had an out of body experience – transcendent.

After I alit, the assembled lights needed to be stuffed back into their boxes for distribution and brought into the assembly hall.  The lights were given out after Grannie names were called off of a roster by the Grandmother coordinator, each Grannie arising, being presented by with a solar light by either Linda or Kelly – in a manner akin to getting the MVP award for the local football team, and returning to their seat awaiting training.  After I finished my appointed assembly functions and clean up duties, for I had ascended from deadbeat to gofer – I took a seat in the back, actually a front row seat to this extraordinary play unfolding before me.

Linda began the training to a noisy hall, her English instructions and Rukiga translation made all the more inaudible by a seasonal downpour exploding on the tin roof of the assembly hall.  While the solar light was a fairly simple device, at least by western standards, it must have been more or less unfathomable to the Grannies, or at least some of them, because from the back of the room, I saw several struggling to figure out how to get the box open, which contained the now assembled solar lights.  Nevertheless, Martin, the associate coordinator for the Grandmothers program, took the stage and was doing an admirable job getting audience participation, asking that various parts be held up, with Jennifer roaming the audience for one-on-one tutorials as needed.

Still, as I watched from my front row seat, I sensed only a mild excitement for the advantage the new solar light would afford the Grannie household, providing portable light to an otherwise darkened house for who-knows-how-long into the evening when there may or may not be something to keep a light on for.

When the basic training was completed, the subject of the two cell phone adapters came up.  By that time, I had taken an intermission from the front row seats of the play and had wandered out on the patio – the rain had stopped – to chat with Richard, the Nyaka farm manager who had lost his goats to the Grannies.  As we made small talk, all of a sudden the assembly hall erupted in to a cacophonous cheer.  Did the local football team score a goal?  Oh, that’s right, there is no TV here.  I looked at Richard and he returned my puzzled look with a broad smile.  “They just told the Grannies that they could use the adapters to charge cell phones.”  Seemingly bored by the idea of evening light, the Grannies had gone ape over the possibility of charging cell phones!

They knew something I did not and this is when I learned about cell phones, or more specifically – cell phone charging, in developing countries, like Uganda.  I knew, of course, that cell phones usage was ubiquitous in even the poorest areas.  Some of the most advanced cell phone systems are going up in these areas because, of course, if you are going to install phone service, why would you do land lines, and if you are going to install cell phone service, you are going to use 21st century technology.  Look, for example, at mobile money, ubiquitous all over Uganda or the fact that even at Nyaka in remote western Uganda, I have no trouble uploading this blog from an Airtel modem.  What I had never considered, however, was that all those cell phones need to be charged.  And it seems that electricity is a far scarcer commodity than cell service connection.  That is why, even in Kampala, there is a market specifically for charging cell phones – sometimes by kiosk, sometimes by mobile charging stations.  A charge cost about 500 UGX, about 20 cents.

But the value of the “charging service” may well be much greater than 20 cents for the Nyaka Grannies because now they have something everybody wants, the essential basis of bartering.  “Can you pick up this medicine from the drug shop for me?  I will charge your cell phone.”  “I will charge your cell phone this week if you will apply another coat of mud on my house.”  “Can you cut that tree for firewood, for a phone charge.”  Or maybe power will come from the light, too. “Come to my house for the community meeting tonight.”  Ostensibly, light, in reality – empowerment.

I think back on the vulnerable parade of beautifully dressed and gracious Grannies parading by me and now think they must have dressed up because they essentially knew they would return, Queen of the Villlage, thanks to the charge of the light brigade and the Nyaka Grandmothers program.