Let There Be Light

Michele's Mission: To assist with the installation of solar panels and lights at the school located in the village of Kidewa, Tanzania.

Michele’s Mission: To assist with the installation of solar panels and lights at the school located in the village of Kidewa, Tanzania.

I’m driven to volunteer in ways that can help raise people up. As a new employee, I watched a video on NRECA’s work in South Sudan, and I felt the same motivation as the linemen to connect communities with power and hope. I wished I had some expertise to volunteer with the linemen overseas. Then seven years later, my wish came true. I won an essay contest on volunteering, and NRECA was sending me to Tanzania to help with the installation of solar panels and lights at a school.

Two days after I left Virginia on October 9th I found myself on a bus traveling on Route A7 cross country with seven new friends: Gwen Thomas from East Central Energy, Deb Pangerl (founder) and Joe Lewis with The IMAGE Project. Representing Fifty Lanterns International were Linda Cullen, Mike Gallagher, Eric Hanson, and Rachel Whitcomb. And so began our three day journey from Dar Es Salaam to Kidewa.

We stopped midway and spent the night in Morogoro, home for many of the girls at the Kidewa secondary school, to attend a village elders meeting. There several Maasai women spoke up to offer support and money for the girls—a testament that their girls and daughters are worth more than cows given as dowry for marriage.

The next day, we travelled through beautiful country, where there are nearly no villages or huts but I did see electric transmission power lines all along Route A7. We traveled through Mikumi National Park and the “Valley of the Baobab Tree.” I was told these trees can be 1500-6000 years old and many people believe they hold up the sky.

Greeted by Harmony

We arrived in Kidewa on Sunday with the village welcoming us with songs in beautiful harmony in front of their church. Deb, Gwen and I spoke during the church service about service and commitment to the community.

Throughout our stay in Kidewa, all the food and water was prepared outdoors in the housing compound over an open fire. Here, you knew exactly where your food came from. No frying, no fats, no extra sugar. Breakfast was often boiled eggs or potatoes and coffee. Lunch and dinner was typically Ugali (similar to grits, made from maize), beans, and vegetables. One night, our dinner was a chicken (a gift to honor us from a villager) that I saw killed, plucked and gutted.

Gwen woke me up super early on my first morning in Kidewa. After a night listening to critters scurrying in my room, I wasn’t too happy about it, but then I saw the pre-dawn sky without the moon. The millions of stars left me speechless. I resolved to get up early with the roosters to take pictures the next day

On Monday we gave out the soccer donations provided by NRECA and Touchstone Energy staff, and that afternoon, the girls played their first game of soccer ever! A few teachers gladly offered to coach. It was fabulous.

Throughout the four days I documented the progress of the installation, and helped as much as I could with the solar installation that used the proprietary Triple Junction silicon solar cells. Occasionally I was asked to organize community activities so the solar team could concentrate. This meant I could spend time with the girls learning Swahili and teaching them English. They wanted to fix my hair and found a small birth mark on my head— they thought I was injured but I told them I was kissed by God. They understood immediately. At some point I gave my camera to the girls and they took some fantastic pictures.

Let there be light

On the morning of the lighting ceremony, I listened to Deb and Gwen talk to the girls about empowerment, about being a lioness with courage and bravery. And on this day, my last day, I found this lesson very moving.

Many of the villagers helped build this school. Everyone has contributed something. And thanks in part to the village electrician who climbed up rafters skillfully without ladders, the solar panels and lights were connected a full day ahead of schedule! I started to realize that this solar power installation is not just about the school or about The IMAGE Project. Seeing the school formed around the community, and the possibilities that come with it is like watching a co-op get formed.

More than 100 people attended the lighting ceremony! The school girls sang many beautiful songs, followed by prayers and speeches of thanks. Then with only the moon lighting the darkness, everyone filed into the main classroom. The girls sang, “Let there be light “and then the lights were turned on. I cried during most of it all while the girls and villagers celebrated, danced, and howled ululations.