In 2012, We Care Solar started the Women’s Solar Ambassador Program to train more than a dozen ambitious women to become our international solar installation trainers. They studied online materials for six weeks, then came to Berkeley for hands-on training in solar electricity, maternal health care, and teaching pedagogy. Over the last 3 years, many of these talented individuals have led more than a dozen “train the trainer workshops” in ten countries. One Solar Ambassador, Laura Walters, reflects on her experience in Uganda.
On the first day in southwest Uganda, as we were all piled into the fully packed vehicle to drive to the classroom through deep clouds of mist with people everywhere; I felt strangely at home. This was a train-the-trainers program where we had two days in the classroom, then about 5 days of actual installations with smaller groups to reinforce concepts. Merritt Gates was the lead trainer, along with Hal Aronson, Shannon Fulton, and myself. The training focused on: how the WCS suitcases work, hands-on installation techniques and using tools, troubleshooting, and how to best teach healthcare workers about the Solar Suitcases. We had about 35 Ugandan students comprised of health care inspectors, cold chain technicians (who service propane vaccine fridges), and Kabale University engineering students.
Working with WCS, I had heard the stories about health care workers holding a cell phone in their mouth to perform a delivery at night. But it is impossible to understand the full impact of that reality, until you see it happen. Standing in a dark clinic with no utility power, a midwife bent over a metal delivery bed with her phone in her mouth to show me her routine practice. You can feel the difficulty of her work, as you both stare at the dim circle of light on the delivery room table. Your mind can’t help but put yourself in her position- its 1 am and pitch dark. A mother arrives at the clinic, after walking miles while in labor, and you are only aided by a dim cell phone flashlight to help her give birth to her baby. This thought sends chills down my back. I have heard my friends’ birth stories in the U.S. and I cannot imagine going through that experience in darkness.
The look in the midwife’s eyes when she first turned on the new We Care Solar light in her delivery room was priceless. The room filled with bright light. She plugged in her cell phone to charge, and told us that the Suitcase would save her from traveling about 10 kilometers on foot to a phone charging station in town. It would also save her money, since phone charging was a significant portion of her personal budget. This was just one person whose life would be greatly improved by the Solar Suitcase.
It was also deeply gratifying to watch our students teaching their communities about solar and improving their installation skills! By the last day of the accompanied installations, things totally clicked for them. They were efficient, they were implementing best practices on their own, they were coming up with creative ways to mount the lights so they would be most helpful for health care workers, and they were working together as an awesome team!!! Building local capacity to correctly install and maintain these small solar electric systems is the key component in this project that, I feel, will make it successful.
While these are two stories that stand out from the trip; truthfully I was in awe pretty much every day. Whether it be the generous and caring people we met, the students in our class, living with the reality of unreliable electricity (we lost power everyday at our hotel- it was off more often than it was on), the grateful expecting mothers at the clinics, the children who were amazed to see a blond white woman doing electrical work, the beautiful scenery and wildlife…everyday was an adventure and everyday was a thrill.