We began our journey in South Africa with a tour of its Mpumalanga province complete with game drives in Kruger National Park and an interaction with tamed elephants. In our first days there, we saw wild rhinos, ate dinner next to grazing hippos, and touched a three-ton bull elephant. These exciting experiences set the tone for the rest of our trip. A drive southwest landed us at Nicama Lodge, our housing for the next six weeks. Our wonderful host mother, Magda, made sure we wanted for nothing while we were there, and her excellent cooking along with cable and wi-fi quickly made us feel at home. Though wonderful, going back to Nicama sometimes proved difficult as our place of work was Adventures with Elephants. There our office was a veranda overlooking a watering hole where giraffe, baboons, and wild impala frequented, and our co-workers were seven loveable elephants and a sassy meerkat. Watching the ellies drink as the sun set across the watering hole and petting Bela, the playful newborn, were awe inspiring experiences. In our downtime, we were able to assist in research relating to the olfaction and measurement of these creatures. These moments alone were enough to justify our 15-hour flight for the purpose of our project.
Our project? Bring solar electricity to Vingerkraal, a community of 250+ families displaced from the bordering country of Namibia. With the near-complete autonomy we had on the project, we felt the blunt of every setback (there were many) and the full satisfaction of success when we finished. We got right to work. After analyzing various commercial solar units and building one from scratch we decided to collaborate with a local company called Sunlight4Life. After negotiating, they offered to supply us with small but rugged solar units with up to five lights and a USB charging port. In consulting missionaries working in the village, we determined that in addition to distributing these units, we would also need to teach the community members how they work. The pursuit of this goal made our project infinitely more rewarding than simply handing out solar panels. We devised two separate classes. In one, we would explain the basis of electricity. In the second, we would teach the community to solder together electrical connections, and we would walk them through the construction of their own solar units. We developed and tested this curriculum-- making a model that analogized flowing water and electric current and contacting Sunlight4Life to discuss getting our units in pieces that the community could conceivably solder together. After determining the best way to teach, we had to tackle the problem of ensuring that everyone got a unit. We had no census and no way to account for people so we went house to house taking names and numbers. This was especially difficult as there are no streets and no organization of homes. After budgeting we determined that every household in which people lived would receive a solar system. In all, we would have to build and explain solar units to 260 people even though we did not speak their native dialect. We couldn’t do it by ourselves, and luckily we didn't need to. During our census, we met a group of amazing young adults that lived in the community. Their drive, selflessness and leadership potential was apparent on first impression, but we were blown away by the way that they rose to the occasion. After seeing us teach the electricity class a few times and two tutorials on soldering, they were nearly self-sufficient. We devised an assembly line of check-in, explanation, and soldering for them to follow, and we sat back. With our guidance, they taught everyone how to make their own solar unit. With their help, we accomplished what we set out to do. The community now has clean electricity.
The difficulties we experienced were well worth it though they were substantial. Primarily there was the problem of getting materials. Due to several miscommunications and paperwork issues, our solar unit shipment arrived four days before we left South Africa. Luckily, we had been preparing for many weeks, and we were ready. Regardless, we had to work quickly to organize everything. We rallied our teachers and translators, and for the next four days, we operated at full capacity. Initially, they handled the teaching while we facilitated. Circumstances like our tools falling off our truck or separate research pursuits took our attention away from the project. While individually teaching every member of the community to solder, our people also distributed parts, rationed out dwindling materials, and controlled a steady flow of people clamoring to get what they came for. The way in which they took leadership over their own community was very satisfying. Equally satisfying was the knowledge that our project opened the door for growth in the community. All of this made for a somber goodbye. Our efforts sparked an interest in science, empowered the younger generation, and simply gave students the ability to do their homework at night. From our interactions with the wildlife to our wonderful accommodations to the unforgettable relationships we formed with Vingerkraal, this project has been a great experience. We are deeply grateful for the opportunity, and we would take it again.