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My First Trip to Africa

I’ve been working at We Care Solar for over two years — and was a donor before that — so it might be surprising that I just returned from my first trip to see our Solar Suitcase in action. I had my reasons — family obligations, the physical and financial cost of the travel — but this spring I finally overcame my hesitance.  Wow.

l to r: Christina, me, Feza, Dorah and Rex on our way to Jaguzi Island

Before I went to Uganda, I knew the facts of our work: it’s our largest country. Of 2400 Solar Suitcases deployed around the world, 450 have been installed in Uganda, in partnership with AMREF, Pathfinder, UNICEF, etc. We are developing plans with the Ministry of Health to Light Every Birth in health centers across the country.  We just brought on a Kampala-based Program Officer, Feza Kabasweka Greene, and I would be meeting her in person for the first time.

The only way to travel on Jaguzi Island. Modest, our Pathfinder colleague, was very careful with this novice.

Now I have seen what last-mile healthcare looks like and met community members who are grateful for our programs. I visited Jaguzi island on Lake Victoria where the health center is the only light for miles, a beacon of hope for a woman in labor.   A health center where our Suitcase works 24/7 while a government-installed solar system has been broken for years.  Where the next nearest health facility is a boat ride away. A midwife who explains that when mothers used to push, they would extinguish the candle they’d had to bring for their birth so she would call to the surrounding houses to bring any other source of light. Now that is no longer a problem.

Health Center on Jaguzi Island

I am numbers-oriented. As the Chief Operating Officer, I need to make sure that our limited resources go where they have the most impact. And certainly we are asked to measure the impact of our work by many donors. Ideally, we want to place our Solar Suitcases in the health centers with the most deliveries. It is not so simple. We saw a health center that didn’t meet our standards for placement – too few (9) births per months (we aim for 20), in a facility without all the supplies we would want to see for a safe delivery.

Yet the healthcare worker was dedicated and meticulous, and so grateful for the gift of light. The numbers said our Suitcase shouldn’t have been placed there. My heart said otherwise.

Part of our job is simple, tangible and obvious: bringing light and electricity to places where women give birth. The unseen part is much more complicated: working with partners to make sure that our limited resources do the most good. I knew the stats about last-mile healthcare, but the reality still stunned me.

I didn’t come home with all the answers on how we can work more effectively within an overburdened, under-resourced health system.  In fact, I probably came home with more questions than answers.  But I did come home with the satisfaction of knowing that our work is making a difference in thousands and thousands of lives.  And the resolve to do even more, with your help.



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