Light for Those in Darkness

Different kinds of darkness and light

Isaiah spoke about spiritual darkness in the famous passage that Christians interpret

Many parts of Africa are beautiful, but dark.

Many parts of Africa are beautiful, but dark.

as pointing to Jesus. But 67% of Africans live in physical darkness, beyond the reach of national power grids.

According to USAID and the Power Africa Initiative, many Africans will never get national electrical service. What is life like for them? Not romantic, like going “off grid”here in the US! Imagine your children sick in the night, and you groping in the darkness to respond. Imagine the cattle in the enclosure next door       becom

We forget that the simplest LED light is a miracle!

We forget that the simplest LED light is a miracle!

ing restless. You go out in the dark to see what’s attacking them—a hyena? A snake? Imagine carrying your cooking, washing and bathing water up steep hillsides, five gallons at a time—40 pounds—because there’s no power for a pump. One power expert titled a Time Magazine article:

Why Energy Poverty is the Worst Kind of Poverty. He wrote, “As long as people remain in the dark they will remain poor.”

Abeza, an elter of the Maji church took me to see the Maji Health Center.

Abeza, an elter of the Maji church took me to see the Maji Health Center.

“Will you help us?”

Church elders in Maji, Ethiopia, where I grew up, met with me last year and asked “Can you bring us a solar panel for our clinic? Our women who come to deliver are suffering.” If the women went into labor at night, they told me, the nurse held a flashlight for the midwife. If both the mother and child needed help, the birth assistants held the flashlights in their mouths.

Solar Lights for Maji Health Center 

I went to Ethiopia in September 2016 to follow up on that request. I met with the solar provider


Notice the chair on the box . . . simple technology can work.

the first afternoon after arriving in Addis Ababa, paid the downpayment on our vehicle rental, and made arrangements for transport.

I took with me a technician from the solar company. He not only installed the clinic unit, but came back to the guest house and voluntarily put a switch in one room, ran a line and a light and switch to the new latrine, and installed a porch light for security in the guest house.

Four women waiting in the clinic guest dormitory watched the Health Center installation. Everyone on staff, both from the Presbytery and from the Health Center participated. Four lights were hooked up—one each in the delivery room, the examining room, the office, and the women’s dormitory. I was later told that the women were thrilled, and were asking,

“Can this be put on grass roofs? If I had this, I could have light in my

The women didn't miss a minute of the installation process!

The women didn’t miss a minute of the installation process!

house and light in my cattle bier!”

Interestingly, I had a flood of Facebook friend-requests from Ethiopia as a result of posting pictures of this process. I thought I was updating US Facebook friends, and what I received was not only thanks from them, but thanks from Ethiopians.

The Maji Story

The Maji waterfall, where my dad installed a small grain mill and generator in the 1960s.

The Maji waterfall, where my dad installed a small grain mill and generator in the 1960s.

I’ve written about Maji before. Just to reorient you–Maji lies on the southwestern edge of the Ethiopian highlands, 8500 feet high, near the Sudan border. It was once the most remote outpost of the Presbyterian mission. The beauty of Maji’s mountain views,waterfalls, and eye-popping sunsets gave me endless joy as a child growing up in Maji.

The Ethiopian power grid ends 80 miles away. The cost to bring diesel the three day drive from the capital makes generator power unsustainable. Development has stalled. 

For decades, the tiny church in Maji also floundered for lack of leadership. Dad almost left mission work, he was so discouraged. But he had obeyed his call to plant the seeds.

Maji is beautiful, but dark.

In time, as local leadership matured, the church began to grow. It is now strong enough to step forward and serve the community effectively. “Your father brought us the light of the gospel,” the leaders say to me. “Please help us bring the light of electricity to our people!”

I leave on Friday to talk to the women of Maji, to see if they would be interested in starting a co-op to distribute solar home systems (SHS) to families in the county. I have registered a non-for-profit organization to support them. If they are willing to do the work on the ground, I will promise to be a channel for their support from the USA.

I’ll let you know what they say! Stay well!

High Tech, Low Tech

Saturday, the day I arrived in Maji, was market day.  I walked around “downtown” for a half hour, enjoying the bustle of activity–not much different from when I was there as a child half a century ago.  But wait . . .

 Wait.  There was a difference.  What’s that hovering over the cattle, the piles of hot peppers for sale, the raw honey in gourds, the

butter wrapped in leaves?  It’s a cell tower!

All over Ethiopia–all over Africa, I believe–cell phones are connecting people to worlds they may never visit.  I hadn’t taken my iPad with me to Maji–could I have gotten on Google using my 3G connection?  Amazingly enough, it’s possible!

But I had realized my battery would quickly run down and make my iPad into a flat, dead piece of plastic and chemicals.  Now I realized people face the same problem with their cell phones.  After all, the real key to technology is electricity.

It turns out that in Ethiopia people can get small solar systems.  They set the collector panels on their thatch or tin roofs, or prop them up carefully on chairs in front of their houses.  The panels hook to car batteries, which store the electricity for evenings or cloudy days.  People who can afford  two- or three-outlet systems power light bulbs for a few hours in the evening.

Cell technology has scuttled the slow, laborious process (that wasn’t really happening) of erecting telephone poles across the world’s second largest continent.  Now it seems entirely possible that the solar technology going with the cell phones could bring “rural electrification” efforts to a halt.  It’s a good thing, because no matter how many dams or generators are erected across Africa, the kilowatts are snatched up by industry, malls and equipment-rich urban Africans, leaving nothing for people who still live in the country and farm.

I was intrigued to think about how owning a cell phone and a solar system to keep it running is going to change cultures that have non-initiative woven into their languages.  In Amharic, you don’t drop something, it “falls from you”.  You don’t catch a cold, “a cold catches you” (and indeed–who would chase down a cold?)

In our years of working in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan, my husband Mark and I ran into problem after problem that seemed rooted in the lack of cause-and-effect thinking.  Pre-science cultures, with a pre-science languages.  That will change for these children–what an interesting process it would be to study–as they grow up watching their parents figure out how to think ahead and keep their cell phones alive!

Another question got me chuckling.  The Suri people also have cell reception in the hot lowlands where they live, off the escarpment from Maji.   (These two tribes flare into violence with each other from time to time, violence fueled by the gun, another high tech import that is changing  cultures).  Where do you carry your cell phone if you don’t have pockets?