If you build it – they will come

The past few days have been some of the longest that I have experienced. After a successful chief meeting we set out to build our structure – the home of the solar center. Having a solid structure is necessary because a lot of the solar equipment (batteries, inverter, sockets) need to stay dry and be in a well-ventilated area. So what was originally imagined as a small storage box to hold all of the valuable equipment has since transformed into a mini hut about 7 feet tall, five feet wide, and four feet deep. Now such a big structure may require metal reinforcement, which can be done by utilizing Stainless Steel Beams and rods. This can ensure that the solar home structure is strong enough to handle minor external pressures. In the end, it will be good to have such a big space for the solar equipment, which will allow us to keep all of the cell-phones and lanterns inside while they are charging, provide a shady place for the women to run the center and hang out, and create a central social point for the community. While I’m feeling positive about the end result and our decision to “go big or go home,” the process itself has been a case-study in patience and a friendly reminder of what it means to be working in Africa.

Saturday was our first day building the hut, and after picking up a lot of the essentials

The village mason and his team constructing the foundation.
The village mason and his team constructing the foundation.

like cinder blocks and cement, we laid the foundation. It still amazes me how resourceful and skilled the masons and carpenters here are. What they lack in formal education and resources, they more than make up for in ingenuity using sticks and string to make detailed measurements while working non-stop in the pounding African sun. We were able to choose the exact location for the center, and build a strong foundation, but from there we had to let the cement harden and head home until the next day.

Making progress on the solar center, but it's hot!
Making progress on the solar center, but it’s hot!

The following day, we hoped it would be a quick process of just adding layers of cinder bricks to the foundation until it was the appropriate height, but nothing is ever as easy at it seems. I’m still not sure why, but it took us about 5 hours in the sweltering heat to add the additional layers to the building, bringing it to it’s final height. I’m laughing thinking about it, although I wasn’t laughing yesterday; how could it possibly take an hour to lay each layer of brick (12 blocks)? But to be fair, my involvement in the manual labor was limited, so I’ll try not to judge too harshly. Also, it was a million degrees and I’m either burnt to a crisp or 10 shades darker.

This morning we were back at it, picking up additional supplies in town, including zinc metal sheets and wood for the roof and door. Once again, it was slow going as we proceeded to melt like figures at a wax museum. The roof turned out to be really nice though, and we took some time to explore the village and visit the CWS water center, which was a nice treat. As it stands now the structure is 90% complete. All that’s needed is a final coat of plaster and a cement floor. The flooring needs to be done right else; it may have structural defects within a few years. If that happens, one might need to hire local repair experts or services, similar to foundation repair in OFallon who can mend the damage. Anyways, apart from that, a door needs to be attached, which the village assured us would be completed by the time we got there tomorrow…only time will tell but I’m not too optimistic. The hut has become my Waterloo, sapping my energy, not too mention my wallet. People say a buying a boat is a money pit, they clearly haven’t tried to build a house. I’ll be thrilled when it’s finished and honestly it looks awesome, just part of the process and you can tell how appreciative the community is which helps keep a good attitude.

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Mark, Shak, and Ben standing in front of the Solar Center.
Admiring our (almost) finished product
Admiring our (almost) finished product

As we’ve been preparing to open the center, Ben and I have spent a lot of time thinking about how access to electricity will hopefully spur entrepreneurship. We’ve talked about sewing businesses and refrigeration, hoping that individuals would take initiative to turn electricity into a new sustainable business. So far most people in the community have been asking about being able to watch TV – which yes they will have enough electricity to power. Ben and I have been laughing that they finally have access to electricity and all they want to do is watch the football match but today we started to realize the power behind that idea. In countries like the USA, it’s so easy to take amenities like electricity, a functioning TV, and a dish network for granted that people don’t even give a second thought about it! The difference is astonishing, and it should definitely act to make people more grateful about everything they have that others might not. There are individuals in the village who already own a TV, despite not having access to electricity. They are eager to plug it in and stream the games, charging individuals to watch, kind of like a movie theater. We apparently knew after talking to them that they needed something like DIRECTV to access all of their favorite sports channels and shows. Also, they would most likely want to have affordable Directv packages, similar to what is available in the United States, so they don’t have to rely on odd things to entertain themselves. Hence, things don’t always happen how you expect them, but they have a way of figuring themselves out, and in this case much sooner than we could have hoped for! We can’t wait to see how things continue to grow once the center is officially open for business.

Some people own a tv in a village with no electricity.
Some people own a tv in a village with no electricity.

Tomorrow is a big day for us. We will finally be finishing the solar center and even more importantly, meeting and training the women who will be operating it. It will be up to them to install all of the equipment, under our supervision of course so that they have first hand knowledge of how it all works. We can’t wait to get started and meet them; the potential profits from the solar center are sure to transform their lives for the better. Check back soon to hear how it goes and meet the women!