The dream lives on

Intisar (right) and I standing with the latest design of the Solar Suitcase headed for a clinic in Northern Somalia

It has been a while since my last blog post, but in that time, the We Care Solar community has been growing and touching the lives of mothers around the world. It’s always amazing to meet people within the We Care Solar community, and last week I had the pleasure of meeting Intisar Ali, a native Somalian who took time off her job as a registered nurse in San Jose, CA to take a solar suitcase back to her community. She made a quick stop over in Nairobi and invited me into her home where we talked about our expectations, experiences and most importantly how we can get more community involvement and localization of the Solar Suitcase.

Older version of the solar suitcase

Latest Version | source: wecaresolar.org

I love observing evolution, and the evolution of We Care Solar has just been absolutely remarkable. It has been a little over a year and a half since I first met Laura and Hal in the backyard of their house assembling the solar suitcase that I would be bringing with me to Kenya. Now looking at the newer version that Intisar has with her, the solar suitcase has a cleaner design, greater efficiency and increased capacity.

And that’s not the only thing that has gotten a face lift. The website has a new look and feel. I especially love the interactive map where you can click and see what parts of the world solar suitcase systems are enhancing maternal health. And even more exciting news, We care solar will be featured on ABCs prime time news with Diane Sawyer on October 20th, as part of  ABC’s Million Moms Challenge. Check your local listings and be sure to tune in.

Can’t wait to see where the We Care Solar road leads!

Happy Birthday to the Wonderful Woman behind it all

From Kageno Nursery School to Laura and the whole WE CARE Solar team.

Kageno Nursery Kids holding their finished poster

February 20th was Laura Stachel’s birthday, the co-founder of WE CARE Solar whose efforts are going beyond borders, touching mothers and changing lives. I spent some time with the KIDS at Kageno Nursery School, a school supported by KVF and whose mothers visit the clinic that just received a solar suitcase. Together we made posters as a token of appreciation for the wonderful work that WE CARE Solar is doing.

I first met Laura in March last year and we spent an hour on her couch in her Berkeley home getting to know each other as she meticulously took notes on her notepad. She has this presence about her that was slightly intimidating, but very open and warm. As we talked, I was immediately impressed by how well versed and spoken she is in her field. She exudes this aura that seems as though a cloud of knowledge floats around her head. Her phone is constantly ringing, and people dropping by her house, but she somehow manages to welcome us all and still balance being a great wife and mother.  That March meeting spiraled into me getting into a project that has led me to meet so many great people, see so many different places and really understand what a huge problem maternal mortality is. Spending all that time at health facilities had led me to greatly respect health physicians and especially mothers in developing countries for their strength and endurance in bringing life to this world in the most meager health facility conditions.

Thank you seems like such a small word for all you are doing Laura, but thank you for inspiring me to find something I am passionate about, get off the spectator seat and grab the proverbial bull by the horns. Wishing you many more years of health and prosperity. Happy Belated birthday and a million hugs and smiles from all of us here in Kenya.

Training and Installation

A mother and her children waiting patiently to be attended to

It was a busy morning for Magdaline. Mothers were slowly streaming in, some with their lovely children in tow, ready to see the nurse. On this particular day she also received guests from Tunza, an organization that provides them family planning support, and some old friends from Germany. While we waited for Magdaline to attend to her patients and guests, Alphonce – the Kageno project director – and I began work on installing the solar panels. We identified a spot on the roof that would get the most sunlight throughout the day and that would still allow the wires to run all the way into Magdaline’s office. Alphonce proved to be very resourceful. He quickly sent out the panels for a frame to be welded around them and found someone to mount them on the roof. It really was a great team effort and I couldn’t be happier with the support I received from everyone.

The solar panels in their welded frames ready for mounting

It took a team effort to get the panels on the roof

Securing the panels onto the roof

Presenting the solar suitcase to Magdaline (right)

Things slowed down in the afternoon and I took some time training Magdaline and one of the project staff members on how to use the solar suitcase. It really is designed to be plug and play and very user friendly hence they quickly understood how to operate the suitcase. We then discussed strategies of monitoring and reporting on the use of the system. The feedback data is very important in improving the design of the system. It was a very successful day. Magdaline was very grateful and could not stop smiling – she had really been longing for some light.

Kolunga Village Project

One rides the ferry from Uyoma to get to Rusinga Island. I was privileged to be crossing over just as the sun was rising, its rays causing the water to glisten.

Rusinga Island has a population of about 25,000. The roads are bumpy and dusty and shared by motorcycles, cattle, human traffic, and the occasional automobile. It is hot but they enjoy a nice breeze blowing from the lake. Evidence of poverty is everywhere you look and de-afforestation has greatly afflicted the place. This is why when you get to the Kolunga village foundation site, it really seems like an oasis in a metaphorical desert.

Entrance to the Kolunga Village Foundation Project Site. The clinic is the structure on the right.

The foundation is set amidst a fishing village which means that the population fluctuates greatly depending on the seasons catch. The fishermen mostly catch Rastrineobola argentea, tiny fish more popularly known as “omena”. These seasonal visits by fishermen also results in a huge problem of HIV/AIDS infection – they are quite the promiscuous bunch.

Fishing boats by the KVF site

Kolunga Village Foundation (KVF) project sits on approximately an acre of land right on the shores of the lake. Together with Kageno trust they have their hands dipped in several projects: water purification, tree planting, supporting a nursery school, textile making and weaving, facilitating computer literacy among others.

Kageno Nursery Kids whose school is supported by KVF

They purify lake water and supply it to interested community members

Dairy goat project which involves giving of dairy goats to community members to supplement their diets, increase income, and the passing of off-spring to the next community member.


Kageno Mobile Computer projector-That's a solar panel mounted on the roof of the car to power laptops housed within. The car is driven to schools for basic computer classes. The system was donated by Kids Against Poverty

A re-afforested area that is part of 1 million trees planted in the island and supported by UNDP-GEF

Kolunga Community Dispensary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kolunga community dispensary (formerly Plasse Community Clinic) was started in 2004 and is managed by the head nurse Magdaline, a very lovely lady who has been here since  its inception and accounts for 50% of the dispensary staff.  The other 50 is her nurse aid who is currently on maternity leave. In the meantime, she has to juggle between treating patients, welcoming visitors (like myself) and managing the clinic. I spent the first afternoon getting oriented with the project and assessing the dispensary needs.

Dispensary Tasks

The clinic provides pre-natal, post-natal, cervical cancer screening, family planning among other services. They also conduct regular mobile clinics to reach out to the women at the beaches who are often too busy trying to make ends meet to come to the clinics. I am planning to return to witness one of these clinic days as it involves getting the equipment and supplies on the back of a motorcycle and handling business accordingly. The only source of energy at the dispensary is gas to power a refrigerator for medical supplies.

Observing Magdaline and interacting with her during the next couple of days truly showed how dedicated she is to the clinic and the community in general.

Quick Update

I can’t get my images to upload out here so I will be making blog updates when I get to the city tomorrow. Nonetheless, it has been a very successful trip and I have lots to write and share with you.

All roads lead to Kolunga Village

It’s been a raininy evening today in Nairobi, a sign that my slightly superstitious side relishes as a great way to embark on a journey – all roads will be leading to Kolunga Village, a small fishing village by the shores of Lake Victoria.

Kolunga Map| Source: kolungavillage.org

I found this dispensary through Peter Gordon, the President of Kolunga village foundation – kolungavillage.org. The journey involves something like a 10hr overnight bus ride, then a ferry ride to the island. then a motorcycle ride to the hotel. I can just pray that me and my solar panels don’t topple over our two wheeled speed machine!

Solar Energy is changing the face of health

 

 

Location of Ivuriro Rya Mucubira relative to Kigali, the Capital

Ivuriro Rya Mucubira clinic is located in Nyanza District Sector, about a 1.5 hours drive from Kigali, Rwanda.  My contact at the clinic (that I had received from Gloria Upchurch), was the clinic doctor who only spoke Kinyarwandan (their local language) and French. I speak enough French to get me the necessities, hence a major language barrier during initial contact. Nonetheless, through translation from Franswa, my great driver, I was able to establish that the clinic was having trouble using their computer network with their solar system especially during the rains.  We set a meeting time for me to visit and offer as much help as I could. I have learnt that a great part of doing project work is visiting other projects. It helps with exchange of ideas and just encourages ones spirit. For this reason, the day before I set out to the clinic, I made a trip to the Nelson Mandela village, an education center in Gashora, Buygesera district of Rwanda, about a 40 min drive from Kigali. I met with three young volunteers with the German organization Green Helmets –   http://www.gruenhelme.de/59.php. They have an extensive solar system and generate enough power to sell to the national grid. They are a post-secondary education center training students on technical skills. On this particular day, the students were working on small solar pathway lights to showcase at a technology expo that would be taking place in Kigali the following week. Following the tour and exchange of ideas, I invited Tobi, one of the volunteers to accompany me to the clinic.

It was quite the bumpy ride up the winding road that led to the clinic. The sun was going down fast and we were all getting a little nervous.  The darkness was very deceiving and it was hard to tell whether there was human settlement or not. Occasionally the car lights would illuminate figures hurriedly walking to their destinations. We hit a small bump when the car got stuck in a muddy section of the road. I was amazed at how quickly a group of young boys suddenly showed up out of nowhere to help push the car.  Franswa’s little Sedan car took quite the beating. Interestingly the doctor had assured him that the road was very passable and we didn’t have to worry; a clear case of difference in perceptions. Nonetheless, up and down the valleys we exchanged jokes on encountering mountain gorillas to lighten the mood and an hour and a half later we finally arrived at the clinic. The place was very well lit, thanks to a solar project sponsored by Family Health International – http://www.fhi.org/en/index.htm. There wasn’t much activity going on so we got right into alienating the problem.

 

Tobi, a volunteer with Green Helmet, bravely scaling the ladder.

 

Tobi and I are both engineers hence trained to be systematic in our approach. We set out to inspect the storage room, the connections and the panels. I personally drew the line at climbing the somewhat three steady steps of the ladder, in the dark, to inspect the roof. Tobi, bless his heart, was a man on a mission. This off course led to my making fun of his safety training for the rest of trip. Nonetheless, once we got to the computer room, the surface problems were evident. They had a bunch of equipment with wires tangled everywhere and had burnt out a number of them from plugging in 220V equipment into a 110V source.

 

One of the burnt out sockets

 

After some hunting for new wires and parts, we took apart the whole system, reconfigured the wiring and thanks to masking tape, sealed off any sockets that could be potential cause for such simple mistakes made by a lack of basic understanding of electricity. It was all about dummy proofing! The hard part was trying to explain to them why rain was not the cause of their troubles (as far as we could tell anyway). It was clear that there was a big gap in either the transfer of knowledge from when the project was installed, case in point, since the installation of the solar panels, they had cleaned them once using a brush and soap. Tobi and I exchanged looks of disbelief. They were really lacking in technical human capacity evident in things like the exposed wiring which is a major fire hazard. Such minor tweaks are needed throughout the place, Tobi and I felt somewhat helpless that we couldn’t do more. Together with the doctor, we exchanged ideas on how these issues could be addressed.

All in all, the doctor told us that the solar light had made such a tremendous difference in their operations. They felt more confident in their work. In addition, they were grateful to efforts from other organizations like the Imbuto Foundation –http://www.imbutofoundation.org/, that provided mosquito nets around the village and greatly reduced the incidents of malaria. They were extremely grateful to Tobi and I for all our help although I left feeling like I had gained more than I had left at Ivuriro Rya Mucubira.

 

From LtoR Tobi, Pierre and I in front of the clinic