Returning to Bweyeye

June 10, 2014

After a 4 /1 hour drive from Kigali, you turn the main road onto an impossibly rough, dirt, dusty, rutted road for the final two hour teeth jarring drive to the village of Bweyeye, perched atop a hill within spitting distance of Burundi and the Congo. Valens was driving and Ferdinand was interpreting for me.

After driving south from the capital of Kigali, the drive to Bweyeye is through the Nyungwe forest. Nyungwe is Jurrasic-like, with towering eucalyptus trees that scent the air. Black and white faced colobus monkeys watch curiously as we pass by. Waterfalls interrupt the lush green mountainsides, dotted with impossibly large ferns and banana leaves. Seriously, you expect a dinosaur around the next bend.

I first visited the village of Bweyeye in 2011 when we began our pilot for GBF. The hundred families in the village were given a solar lantern to test for 3 months. At that time, we took the model they had in exchange for another model that they would test for 3 months. At the end of the pilot, each family got a new lantern of their choice.

I visited again six months after our pilot and was embarrassingly greeted with shouts, hugs and a special song created for my visit.

Now it was two years later. I wanted to see how the lanterns were still operating and talk to the families about their experience having light in their homes for the first time.

Surprisingly, most of the lamps were still working. The ones which were not seemed to be the result of negligence or accidents, like inadvertently dropping them in water or dropping the panel in a rock. The villagers were still very appreciative to GBF do changing their village.  They talked of the joy of being able to visit with family and friends after sundown. They talked about how their children were doing better in school. And they also asked for more lights – for free. I explained our program and that sometimes a small sacrifice was necessary for things they want and need.

After we left Bweyeye, we took off for Kibuye, near the UNHCR Kiziba camp. The drive took 6 1/2 hours over the worst roads I’ve ever driven on – and that’s saying something! After we got out of the Nyungwe forest, we found the road along Lake Kivu. All of a sudden, the road just stopped and turned into a dirt path. This continued, up over mountains and down into valleys, for the next four hours.

We finally got to a hotel and crashed.

The next morning we met with the bright, energetic UNHCR staff and took off for the camp, which is situated about an hour out of town, hidden away in a valley – sort of out of sight, out of mind.  It’s where the Rwandan government has donated the land. There are four other camps like this in Rwanda.

Our lamps were distributed (in exchange for sweat equity you’ll recall – an ambitious tree planting program, volunteering in schools and on safety patrols, etc.) about two months.  While still too soon to be of statistical significance, the changes were amazing. I visited the health clinic and heard the doctors talk about the reduced number of visits due to respiratory problems. I visited the school and met with some of the most polite, articulate, bright students you are likely to find anywhere, and heard from the head teacher how test scores were beginning to improve.

Perhaps the most emotional moment for me was when I saw Farahah, the 18 year old woman who inspired me because of her commitment to create a better life for her little brother. They were orphans. She was shy to see me, but I thanked her for being such an inspiration and for playing a role in producing our video (that is being shown tonight in Kigali to a gathering of government and NGO and business folks.).

This was undoubtedly the most uplifting experience I’ve had since we created GBF. Talk about making a difference. It was just so evident.

Today Sam Dargen and I met with the Minister of Education and got great support and advice on how to proceed with a student light program in the country. We plan to attend the quarterly district education meetings around the country at the invitation of the Minister and talk about the advantages of solar to all the head teachers who attend these meetings. A huge step forward.