Jeff Lahl, Solar Electric Light Fund
Friday, 6 Jun 2003
The end of the week finds the Wawan-Rafi installation gaining momentum, as more and more of our crew show up. We have four staff members from JAEF (our Nigerian partner organization) acting as crew leaders for the village technicians, of whom there are four from each of the three project villages. They’ve all had a week of training at a local university energy-research center, and they seem eager to apply what they’ve learned.
We have a mixture of people: early 20s to late 40s, experienced and inexperienced, even male and female. That latter mix was specifically requested by SELF and is truly paradigm-stretching in this traditional Islamic culture, where gender roles are still deeply entrenched. As I’m getting to know all of the people involved, I’m sensing a mixture of high interest and good humor that tells me this is going to be a fun group to work with.
With preparations largely done and our photovoltaic equipment liberated from the evil customs agents, we are getting to the good parts — the parts of this work that are so rewarding and that speak to so many of my values. No question about it, this is environmental work. If the 2 billion people in the world without electricity turn to fossil fuels, the prospects for human life as we know it are collectively and positively screwed.
With regards to Nigeria, my extended stay in Kano, with its filth and pollution, showed me what cheap and careless development looks like. By contrast, the villages we are working in now are beautiful places sculpted largely of thatch and earth. As these villages develop — and they clearly want to develop — it is important to offer choices that will not degrade their environment and turn them into mini-Kanos. We hope this project will offer a model of comprehensive and sustainable energy development for Africa and elsewhere.
And of course, in addition to being environmental work, this is fundamentally development work. It’s about sharing with others and helping them gain tools with which to improve their own lives in the ways they see fit. Preserving the environment without offering a compatible vision of development is of little interest to those living with poor prospects for health, education, or even feeding themselves. Supporting sustainable development in whatever way we can as individuals or as a nation is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do in a world where the gap between rich and poor widens and peace and justice remain elusive.
Speaking strictly for myself, I also like the political nature of this work. I like the idea of empowering individual families and villages with their own energy source, especially in countries where governments and institutions are either unwilling or unable to help — or as in too many cases, are actually an obstacle to individuals improving their own lot. Independence and empowerment in one area can catalyze empowerment in others. I also like the idea of reaching out in a positive way to an Islamic society at a time where distrust and tension are growing between Western and Islamic worlds.
Probably the best part of this work, though, is sharing with others the experience of doing something meaningful and positive, no matter how small. Given the sheer scale of global environmental and development challenges, our little project may seem like lighting a birthday candle in a hurricane. Certainly it won’t make a dent in global warming, and nor will a hundred similar projects. But today — when the villagers came running up to greet us, excited to help unload a truckload of our photovoltaic equipment; when people who at first seemed so different from me came up to joke or share a thought; when they looked at this solar equipment with such hope in their eyes for their village where nothing much has changed for the last few centuries — it seems like a candle worth lighting.