I have walked out of Kaphuka into the surrounding fields to get a feel of how things were before the village got electricity. It is night time and the blue jagged peaks that cradle the village have disappeared in the gloom. I flick the switch off on the storm lamp that is lighting my way and am enveloped by the darkness. It is not the kind of darkness one often meets in the developed world, where the ambient luminescence from a town or city is usually present somewhere on the horizon. This darkness has a different, impenetrable quality, as if it has a weight and substance. The unplaceable sounds of people moving and dogs howling punctuate the stillness. When I flick the switch back on and make out the shadows of the thatched mud huts nearby, I find myself exhaling with relief.
Until two years ago Kaphuka was a typical isolated rural sub-saharan village. People rose with the sun, spent the daylight hours working, and slept when darkness came. There was no artificial light and so there was little time for the children of the village to read or do homework. If someone became sick after nightfall, as they often do in a region that is rife with malaria, trying to get to a hospital in the darkness down potholed dirt roads was almost impossible. There were no phones, no television and no music.
Mrs Kawambe and Mrs. Namare are unlikely revolutionaries, but they have fundamentally changed Kaphuka. The next day I meet them in their workshop, a small red mud hut in the centre of the village. Both are elderly grandmothers; one tall, thin, kind eyed, the other short, round and smiling. As we talk they stand with their shoulders touching as if they share the same personal space. They have been through a lot together.
In 2008, having never been further than Lilongwe, the nearest city, they left their families behind for six months to attend the Barefoot College in Rajhastan,India. The college was set up by Bunker Roy, a high caste Indian, in 1972. Royhad the benefit of the best and most expensive education in India and was destined for a position in the diplomatic service. On a whim, after finishing his final exams, he went to stay in a rural Indian village for a few months. While there he came to the realisation that his education was worthless outside the environment of a small elite and gave him no practical skills that could benefit people who really needed help.
So, putting his diplomatic career on hold, he founded the BarefootCollege, a place where women from the poorest backgrounds, with no formal education, and often illiterate, come to learn how to become architects, engineers, medical workers and other types of professionals. Roy refuses to accept men into the college as he says ‘they are too ambitious and untrainable. They take what they have learnt and use it to leave their villages and go to the city’. Instead, most of the students in the college are grandmothers, who, because of their position within their communities are assured to return to their villages after completing their training.
Mrs. Kawamba tells me that an Irish charity – Cara Malawi – supported them when they left Kaphuka for six months to go to India. There were students from over ten different countries on the solar engineering course they attended I ask how they were taught given that they had no common language. She hands me a thick training manual that she brought back from India that explains the complicated task of constructing and fixing a solar panel using a universally understandable colour-coded system of learning. Likewise, Mrs Namare tells me she could communicate with the other students from places as diverse as Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka through mime and expression. “We were all grandmothers” she says, holding her hands out, as if this is explanation enough.
After six months, the two were fully trained solar engineers, able to dissemble and reassemble a solar panel, or build one from scratch, given the right materials. They returned to Kaphuka expecting to start work but there was a three month delay in the necessary parts arriving. Mrs. Namare says some people, especially the men in the village, began to doubt them. ‘They thought we had learnt nothing in India, that it was a joke’.
Finally a truck arrived carrying the equipment. The two women disappeared into the hut they had reserved to act as their workshop. Within 24 hours they had constructed a solar panel on the thatched roof that was connected to a bulb in their workshop. They strung another wire outside and hung a bulb in the eaves of the thatch. That night they switched on the lights and waited. Mrs. Kawamba describes what happened. ‘we looked outside and all the children of the village had come with their books and sat on the step out there and did their homework. People then began to believe us and everyone wanted a solar panel’.
The villagers now all pay a small amount into a fund that allows the two women to work full time in their workshop, fixing solar panels and solar powered storm lamps and building new ones. Over a hundred huts now have their own panels. We speak loudly in order hear each other over a pulsating dub reggae beat coming from outside. We finish talking and I wander outside to find the source of the music. I meet a young man who is running a barbershop and mobile phone charging service next door. It is a simple hut, with one side open to the elements. A mess of different mobile phone chargers lie beside an electric shaver and a radio plugged into a source connected to a solar panel overhead. Before Mrs Kawamba and Namare came back fromIndiathe nearest electrical point was over a 20 km walk away down a rough uneven road. To charge a phone would mean a two day journey with the expense of staying the night. Now, for a small fee, you can charge your phone while getting a haircut.
The effect of the spread of mobile phones in Africa has been huge. Throughout the developed world’s financial crisis, the grim predictions about the economic consequences for Africa have failed to come to pass. Africa is booming while the rest of the world languishes. Kaphuka, like most of Africa, is in essence a community of nascent small businessmen, their business being agriculture. What businesses require to grow is capital, credit and a market. Innovative banking techniques originating in Kenya that allow users to gain credit, send money and conduct other transactions by mobile phone have spread all over Africa, stimulating economies and contributing to a growth in GDP in 2010 in most sub-saharan countries that far outstrips that in the developed world. A dusty mobile phone charger and phone in a barber’s hut is the source for banking, comparing grain prices, trading and weather updates for a previously isolated community like Kaphuka.
That evening we walk through the village. Children sit in the glow of solar powered stormlamps, their fingers tracing the lines of their school books, their lips reading the words silently, while inside, lightbulbs illuminate the figures of their mothers as they prepare food. Somewhere a radio burbles quietly, giving news from the rest of the world.
Sam Mc Manus
Tuesday, 31 July 2012 15:37