Making a Difference in Rwanda

Yesterday was a very rewarding day.

Taye Manzi and Michel Mesozera (WCS) picked me up at 6am for the 3 hour drive off-road to Bweyeye, one of two sites of our pilot in Rwanda. When I visited last October, I told the people in the villages I would return when they successfully completed the pilot. I was making good on my promise.

The road to Bweyeye, and I use the term “road” kindly, is rough – two hands holding on with your feet braced  rough.  You arrive sore and you haven’t done anything yet except try to stay in your seat.

We drove to the school as schools are typically the  community meeting places. We were met by the head teacher, and soon were surrounded by hundreds of school children.  It was a big mistake when I pulled out my iPad to start taking photos. As soon as I snapped a picture of the kids in front of me and immediately showed it to them, it created a near stampede of kids wanting their pictures on the magic board. Trying to establish order out of chaos, I’m asking them to be patient in English and they’re yelling in Kinyarwanda for me to take THEIR picture now!

The head teacher thankfully got control, sent everyone back to class, and took us to meet the families who participated in our pilot – 50 families who had been patiently waiting in a meeting room for our arrival.

When I walked into the room, they burst into applause. Embarrassed, I applauded them right back.  Once we got done appreciating each other, we began our discussion. I led with open ended questions. “What difference did this lantern make in your life?”. After a moment or two, a sheepish young man looks around the room and  raised his hand.  He was then called upon, stood by his desk, and began talking – in Kinyarwandan.  Once translated, it was if he was reciting our mission statement. “My children can read at night.  We are not sick so often from breathing smoke. My son’s asthma is better. My wife can see to cook at night. We have had fewer accidents in our village of children mistaking kerosene jugs for water jugs and drinking the kerosene. We have had fewer burns from tipped over kerosene lanterns.”. I didn’t have the heart remind him of the positive impact to the environment because the issue wasn’t on his radar. I sat there just beaming as he ran down this litany of benefits while his fellow villagers murmured their agreement.  Once he’d broken the ice, several others got up to describe how their lives had changed because of BrightLight’s  solar lanterns. They’d saved money, which they now used to buy more farm animals . They’d saved time, which they now used for cultivation. Basically they were glad that they could do things after dark. They didn’t have to stop all activity when night fell.

After being honored by having  a Sprite with the head of school, we were off for the 5 hour drive to Bweyeye, another village of about 3,000 residents, similarly spread out over a vast  hilltop.

Even though we were an hour late in arriving, our entrance was touching and a little embarrassing.

All 800 students lined the road to the school applauding and cheering as we drove up to the school. Once we stopped, I heard singing.  We walked into the school’s meeting room, where all participating pilot families were on their feet dancing and clapping as they sang “We appreciate you” over and over.  Talk about getting a lump in your throat.

Once things settled down, we had an hour discussion, and I heard this refrain repeated. The lantern changed my life. My neighbors want to buy one. Can I buy another one? My children’s grades have improved.  Our health is better. I use it to also charge my radio to hear the news.

They presented me with a letter, written in both Kinyarwanda and English,  to give to my colleagues, offering us God’s blessings for helping them. It was poignant, and makes our work all worthwhile.

Being the guest of honor, and sitting alone at a table facing the crowd, I was offered my choice of a Sprite or Coke as well as some locally grown passion fruit to celebrate this momentous occasion.

And like I did in Rangiro, I thanked these families profusely for helping GBL be a better, smarter organization because of how they helped us in the pilots. I told them their suggestions and feedback would end up helping people all over the world. We ended by applauding each other again.   We ARE changing lives, one family at a time.