We drove in the morning to Rukoma, a small village about an hour outside of Kigali. Claver’s grandparents were from this village, and he visited them frequently as a child; his great-aunt still lives here. He is remembered with great love and fondness here, not only for the memories of him in his youth (one man called him by his childhood nickname!), but also because he has been installing solar panels, slowly, throughout the hills and turns of this village for many years.
Our first stop was at a home where Claver had installed a solar panel system three years ago – and the system continues to work perfectly. The bulbs are still good (Claver provided him with a spare he has never needed), the battery still works, the command box (or “brain,” as I nicknamed it) still runs things as smoothly as ever. The farmer and his children have light every evening, and their neighbors pay them tiny sums of money to charge their cell phones from the system.
That being said, the incredible poverty of this family’s situation was overt, and unadorned. The floor of the home was an uneven rubble of clay and pointy stones. The walls were simple mud-and-straw brick; the three or four rooms had only the most basic necessities needed for everyday survival – blankets, a few clothes, buckets, tools, a tiny amount of food.
The farmer and many of his children wore no shoes, and their feet were hard and calloused, caked with mud. The cow that they had owned three years ago was gone, though the chickens still meandered through the yard.
It was a shocking sight to see, and none of us were unaffected. One team member became emotional at the sight of their life and home, and had to step away for a few moments. The solar panel system is an incredible tool that allows a family to begin to move forward towards a more secure future, but it is not a panacea, nor a quick fix.
Poverty is a terrible, chronic, and treatment-resistant disease.
As we left their home, I nodded to the farmer. “Murakoze.” Thank you – for welcoming us to your home.
He smiled back. “Murakoze cyane.” Thank you very much.
It was a very long day indeed of installing solar panels. We worked from about 11am until nearly 6pm. We were fortunate in that it was mostly cloudy throughout the day and not too hot, and that once we found our stride, we swarmed the house and usually got the system installed within about 30 minutes.
Claver was stopped frequently along the way to be enthusiastically embraced by neighbors and friends. We were able to quickly evaluate houses and decide if they met our qualifications for an installation, which were fairly simple, and very easy to meet in this area:
- Off the grid
- Obvious poverty (by the end of the day were could pretty much tell by glancing at a home)
- Children in the home (and definitely if the children were being raised by a single mother)
Team members with headlamps identified the rooms where the lightbulbs would go (often living room, two bedrooms, and just outside the front or back door), and began stringing the wires for the bulbs from the beams supporting the house, securing them with zipties.
Claver’s friend Fischer borrowed a ladder from the home (or, if they were too poor, from a neighbor), and climbed up on the roof, securing the panel and feeding the wire through the inevitable hole or gap in the roofing down to the battery, commonly placed in a back store room.
I wired the brain to all the different components, ensured all the lightbulbs were screwed in, and connected the cable to the battery –
And the lights came on.
When the lights came on, we cheered. At every single installation that day, all six of them, the lights coming on prompted cheering and applause from everyone on site.
At the first home, the mother greeted us all with an enthusiastic “Muraho! Amakuru?” (Hello! How are you!) and refused to let go of our hands until we had responded with an equally enthusiastic, “Ni meza!” (I’m well!). This was uniquely challenging for the team members who hadn’t been taught this particular social nicety. (They learned very quickly.)
At the second home, we were greeted by a (very young) wife and her (equally young) husband, and their tiny children. In the middle of the installation, the father of the husband also returned home, and didn’t even bother with a handshake. We were all immediately enveloped in huge hugs and a delighted rapid-fire speech in a mixture of French and Kinyarwanda.
At the third home we first had to dispatch the hornets nests that had infested the home, then wait for a borrowed ladder to be carried over. An enormous crowd of children and women surrounded the home as we worked, entertained by a particular team member who played soccer with the children and took many, many pictures, sending the kids into spasms of delight when she showed them the photos.
Then we came to the fourth home. At this point we were getting word-of-mouth recommendations from other neighbors, nominating the poorest amongst them to receive a panel. This was a young woman raising her three children by herself, the youngest just an infant, in a home with almost no possessions at all.
The only other adult in the home was her father, severely disabled by what I assumed to be cerebral palsy (or a mimic thereof).
They had a steeply pitched roof that was quite high, but after seeing the home, Fischer was up on that roof faster than any of the others.
As we waited for Fischer to drop the wire from the rooftop, we watched the young daughter playing with a home-made handball, made of old plastic bags and discarded bits of netting and string. Many children create their own toys out of any garbage they can find, as there is often literally nothing else to play with.
Claver saw me watching her, gave me a look, and said, “Martha, would you like to buy this child’s ball from her?”
As a quick aside, on a density scale using standard conditions for temperature and pressure, I rate somewhere a little north of Platinum, but not quite yet Osmium.
I literally replied, in a somewhat horrified tone, “No, of course not! Then she wouldn’t have a ball to play with!”
Claver then gave me a look of deep patience and tolerance – with a little bemused resignation thrown in – and said, “You could give them 2,000 Rwandan francs for it. I bet they could use that money for important things. And she can make another ball.”
The penny dropped then, and dropped hard. (To be fair, it had a long way to go.)
To offer to buy the toy made of trash allowed the mother to accept desperately needed cash without the humiliation that frequently accompanies a charitable handout. I couldn’t get to my wallet fast enough.
By the way, for perspective, the 2,000Rwf that mother needed so much? It’s roughly equivalent to $2 USD.
The fifth panel installation went quickly, the sixth went slowly, and then we were done. We piled into the van and, silent and exhausted, headed for home. I was so filthy from dirt floors, dirt sprinkling from the ceiling as Fischer climbed on the roof, and dirt blowing in the windows from the dusty roads that I could actually see the grime as it swirled down the shower drain back at the hotel.
One team member later told me that that was one of the best days of her life. “How often do you get the chance to completely change someone’s world for the better?” Then she paused. “Although I suppose you do that every day in your line of work.”
She’s not wrong, though I feel that the frequency of such opportunities in nursing is actually relatively rare (we often improve people’s lives rather than wholly change them, but I can see the argument that that’s all just semantics and I should get over myself). But the intrinsic rewards from experiences such as the day we just had in the hills of Rukoma feel separate and apart from those I receive in nursing.
And, most importantly, Rukoma will feed back into my nursing practice in its own subtle, fundamental way –
Because gratitude is a measure of perspective.
Rukoma will be filed into a bank of memories that bring incredible gratitude forward in my life. It will share space with memories of mothers lovingly caring for their severely disabled children in Haiti. With sisters mourning outside the Ebola Treatment Unit as their brothers died inside. With the hospitality and warmth of people in the Philippines, sitting outside the remains of their home torn and flattened into rubble by Typhoon Yolanda. With the homeless and schizophrenic woman in Bellingham who sat in my triage room at two in the morning, weeping over the death of her daughter many years prior, convinced that her schizophrenia was God punishing her for letting her child die.
It is not that I view these people as inherently pitiful. I want very much not to lump the people of Rukoma into the typical Western mind-set of “the simple folks who are happy despite their poverty, how lovely!” I can guarantee you that any of the mothers and fathers of Rukoma would leap instantaneously at the opportunity to haul their children out of the red clay and heat of the hillside.
But, rather, I use their memory as a way to build gratitude in my own life. To recognize the almost appalling abundance of what I have available to me in the United States. To judge what I really “need” in my life to be happy. And to never allow the life I lead to deceive me into believing that I am in any way “better” than anyone else.
And the moment I am able to manifest that last sentence into practice – I become a better, happier, kinder nurse.
That is the gift the people of Rukoma have given me.
And thus, as we left every home, just before we got back in the van to bump down the dirt road a little longer, I pressed my hands together and nodded at each mother, each father.
Thank you, so very very much.
I am grateful.
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