Tuesday was our second day installing solar panels. We had a day in-between the two projects, and that will be covered in other travelogues going forward, talking about the country, the culture, its people, and its history.
But for now, it’s Solar Panels Part II: Back Up The Ladder
An unpleasant and rather debilitating GI bug has been making the rounds through our group. By Tuesday morning, three of the six team members were out of commission. Jean-Marie and Claver hastily reconfigured hotels and plans and transportation, and those three stayed at the hotel for the day to rest and take their antibiotics. Us remaining three mzungu slathered on sunscreen – the cloud cover that had been sitting on us since our arrival to Kigali had finally lifted – and headed out to the van.
The solar panel installation team was fantastically augmented on this trip by the addition of Claudine (Claver’s wife, and my friend and co-worker) and their two school-age sons, Kevin and Chris. In fact, the aim of this trip was to install at least four or five solar panel systems into homes in Mbazi, the village where Claudine grew up and went to primary school. It’s also Phocus’ home village – he and Claudine have known each other since childhood.
Mbazi is a solid ninety minutes out of Butare (where we stayed the night), which is itself nearly three hours west and south of Kigali. A good road leads out of Butare for 45 minutes, and then the road dissolves into dust and rock and starts to climb. And climb. And climb. Mbazi is at an elevation of nearly 6,000ft, and the village is built into a hillside.
About three-quarters of the way up the mountain, we passed yet another urwibutso, another small Genocide Memorial. It has been sobering to drive throughout the southern province and see urwibutso in literally every village, every town. It reminded me of exploring rural northern Scotland many years ago, stopping in tiny villages along the coast, and realizing that every village had a World War One memorial, listing the names of the young men of the village of went off to the Great War and never returned.
The 1994 genocide had exactly the same effect on Rwanda. There was not and is not an area of the country unaffected.
Claudine watched it pass outside the window of the van. “My grandmother is there,” she said, pointing at it. “My uncles, my aunts, my cousins.”
Phocus said nothing, and we carried on up the road.
We knew we had reached Mbazi when Phocus stepped on the brakes of the van as it passed an old man, walking slowly down the road, wearing a fedora to block the sun and leaning heavily on a cane. Phocus shouted to him, the man looked, and his face lit up, broke into an enormous smile and he started to laugh. He reached through the van window to shake hands and grasp arms, and Claudine threw herself across the front seat the reach out Phocus’ window as well.
Thus Claudine and Phocus’ 2019 Homecoming Tour and Celebration had begun.
We could barely drive 500 feet without stopping to enthusiastically greet someone, and when we first parked the van Claudine was overrun by delighted, laughing neighbors, all of whom embraced her and then went down the line, greeting us with handshakes and hugs. I don’t know if they realized yet why we were there, but it didn’t matter – we were friends of Claudine, and that was enough.
We were iwabo – at their home.
The first two solar panels were installed in neighboring houses, but the first house posed two interesting problems. First, the roof was very steep and Fischer wasn’t with us (and none of the rest of us were particularly inclined to climb on the roof). Second, the interior walls of this home were built all the way up to the slant of the roofline above – most of the houses in which we had previously installed had interior walls that were only six or seven feet tall, and we could toss the wires to the bulbs right over the top.
There was a short period of discussion in Kinyarwanda, and suddenly a ladder was against the side of the house and a local man was up on the roof, lining up the panel, moving the clay tiles to feed the wire inside. And then another man walked into the living room with a 3-foot-length of rebar, climbed up another ladder, and fixed the problem of the inside walls.
What do you do when you could have electric light in your home, but it means poking a big hole in the top of the beautiful interior wall of your home? You poke a damn big hole in your wall!
A colony of ants expressed their displeasure as their home was transected, cascading down the wall and over my feet, but the de-struction for the sake of con-struction was a success, the wires went through, and the lights went on.
The third house we wired was actually the home where Claudine grew up. It is a beautiful home. Her father built it, and she grew up on farmland on the hillside with family members in homes on the land all around her. They fled as the interahamwe approached in 1994, and never returned. Distant family members now live in the home, and it continues to be well-maintained, well cared for, and well-loved.
(I can personally attest that their outhouse is extremely well-constructed and very clean.)
In this home, however, although the walls were only about seven or eight feet tall, there was a tightly-woven reed “ceiling” laid down over all of them. The effect on the house was lovely, but we weren’t sure how to get the wires of the system connected.
The solution was to send one of the teenagers living in the home up into the space between the roof and the reed ceiling, and poke sticks up through the reeds to indicate where he should drop wires. This worked perfectly, and the young man emerged triumphant, covered in an impressive layer of dust.
Claudine then gathered the troops and headed us out on a fifteen-minute hike down a hill, across fields of cassava, sweet potato, and banana, and back up another hill, to the fourth house.
The road was in such poor condition (and suffering from a faulty bridge) that Phocus couldn’t bring the van to us, so a caravan of villagers, from tiny children to grandparents, picked up all the supplies needed for install (as well as our cooler full of water bottles!) and walked it all across the land.
The fifth house – that of the village chief – was back up a hill, to where the van was parked, and then straight up a very steep hillside. His very beautiful wife and their three very beautiful children were there when we arrived.
“Good morning,” said their eldest formally, a boy of maybe eight or nine. English is now the language of instruction in school (it was French prior to the genocide), and nearly all children in Rwanda know this one particular phrase: Good morning. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 6am or 5pm, little children see us, run up, and yell “Gooood morning!” at the top of their lungs.
“Hello, how are you?” I replied, smiling.
“I am very well, thank you.” Again, careful, formal English.
“How old are you?” I asked.
He smiled uncertainly, looked suddenly shy, and shot out the back door into the yard. I looked down at the youngest, a tiny toddling boy. “And how are you, sir?”
The two-year-old stared at me blankly for a moment, then opened his mouth and shrieked, and took off after his brother.
With the installation of the fifth solar panel complete, we called it a day. It was sunny and very hot, and it was late in the afternoon; it would be dark by the time we got back to Butare. The van was pointed the wrong way down the hill, and Phocus drove off in the search for a safe place to turn it around. Claudine continued to stand amongst a throng of neighbors, chatting and smiling and laughing.
“Come on,” said Claver. “We might as well start walking. She’ll be here a while.”
So Kim and Shannon and Claver and I started a slow, easy walk back up the road. We talked about lots of things, about the educational system in Rwanda, how it’s changed since 1994 (compulsory and free education through grade twelve), about the challenges faced by the children in remote villages such as these – how do they get money for uniforms, books, food? How do we find enough teachers, when there were barely enough teachers before 1994, and education was only free until grade six?
We also asked about a young albino girl living in the village. She had rushed out to see us with everyone else when we first arrived, but the sun was so bright and so hot that she didn’t stay long, and retreated back to her home.
“Is she safe here? Is she accepted?” I asked, thinking of Tanzania in the late 2000’s. Witchdoctors spread rumors that the severed limbs of people with albinism were particularly potent for certain rituals, and the slaughter began. The Tanzanian government responded by placing these children into shelters and trying to arrest the perpetrators and instigators, but the terror and trauma lingers to this day.
“Yes, she is safe. She is known here in her village.”
“How can we get her a hat?” asked Shannon, getting directly the heart of the matter.
There are plans afoot to return next year with hats, specialized sunscreen, and UV-protective clothes.
Kevin and Chris also had gifts to give: they’d brought shoes with them, and gave away a pair or two of shoes to children in Mbazi.
Claver asked later, during the van ride home, “How did you choose which children to give the shoes to?”
Kevin gave his father a mildly quizzical look. “I chose the kids with no shoes, Dad.”
It was a very good day.
I’ll stop here and let the pictures tell the rest, but let me share one final story.
Yesterday, on Wednesday, as we drove to Lake Kivu, Claudine received a phone call from someone in the village.
After we’d left, everyone in Mbazi stayed up until 3am, gathered together in the homes where we’d done the installations, admiring the light.
And I have all of you and your generous donations to thank for that.