A New Sort of Empowerment

Yes, school has re-started with a new year, thank you for asking. I will take time to write on that, but first I feel compelled to write about a project that we just completed last week. You see, my son Jake just spent the last two weeks with us here in Perú, and for various reasons, we decided that a solar panel project would be a pretty awesome thing to implement in a remote community that has never had any electricity at all. Thank you Dr. Nurmikko and Brown University for allowing Jake to take time off and complete this project!

A Grand Reunion

From what I read, building the solar panels that Jake chose should take around 3 hours. Well, I guess that’s if you are in a developed country. Total course of the project build was actually more than one week. “Why?” You may ask. Well, we just can’t run down to Home Depot and get supplies. Jake brought the actual solar panel grids with him from the States, as well as the aluminum frame, inverter, light fixtures and LED bulbs, solder, sealing plastic, and a few other odds and ends. That left us with the task of finding polycarbonate (only sold in 5 meter sheets – try getting that on top of a combi for a 2 hour drive home! – We eventually went with glass instead), batteries, a new inverter (the one he brought shorted out), wire, new bulbs, wood for framing (no such thing as a standard planed 2X4 – or a straight planed anything), a heat gun (really? who the heck uses that in Perú?), wire nuts (totally non-existent in this country – hmmm… use electrical tape, or as my landlord does – plastic bags tied around your live connections), fuses and fuse holders (since the new inverter didn’t think about including  this ‘fancy’ feature), silicon and a gun, as well as a soldering iron.

Looking for Glass in Cusco

Oh my. You can start to see the issues already. 3 separate trips to Cusco (2 hours each way in a van) and a 1/2 day trip to Urubamba for wood and fuses (which we eventually found in the outskirts of town in a garage that fixes moto-taxis. ) I have seriously planned kids’ scavenger hunts that don’t even come close to this adventure!

How to apply silicon when you don't have a gun. (Use an umbrella!)

Jake did an awesome job, though, in building the panels – hand soldering all those leads and what-not. I think we both did a pretty awesome job in problem solving to get the darn things built with the resources we had.

Day 1 of soldering

Back-Breaking Work

Not to bore you with all of the intricacies of building the darn things, let’s get to the cool part. On Saturday, Jake, Ana and I went to the remote community of Qelqanqa. Now, as the crow flies, Qelqanqa is about 13 miles from our home in Ollantaytambo. The trip, by van, actually took about 2-1/2 hours each way. We had many mountains and valleys to navigate up and down on dirt “roads” which were not more than cow paths in many places. Since we are still in rainy season, mud was a huge issue in several parts of the trip. There were 4 separate instances in which we had to get out and push the van, hoping that it would not slide off the mountain. I was told that if we had tried the trip a couple of weeks earlier, we would not have made it. The roads were too bad.

All Smiles at the Get-Go

The trip, though, was incredibly beautiful. We were going to a community that has been relatively untouched by outside civilization in a gross way.

Fortunately, the local government does send equipment to try and fix parts of the road at times. Here you can see some rocks being pushed around the mud. We also came across a small encampment of locals who were selling (cold) soup, menú, and of course, chicha.

Stop for Lunch on the Way

We finally reached Qelqanqa, and were greeted by people from the community. Needless to say, they were thrilled that we had arrived when we said we would (give or take a few hours – hey c’mon, this is Perú) and eager to pitch in to help with the installation.

All Generations were Involved

You can see that there are no McMansions in this neighborhood.

Typical House. No cable TV here!

Jake and I delegated tasks – he was set on doing the interior installation of equipment, while I focused on working with the group outside, getting the panels properly set and secured.

Which Way is North?

Curious Onlookers

Community Pitches In

This Kid will Grow up with Power

Once the installation was complete, we held a ceremonial community meeting in the community building, which was now blanketed in light from our panels. My heart was touched deeply as member after member addressed the audience, and us, and gave their heartfelt expressions of gratitude. What really touched me was their outpouring of indebtedness, as they pledged any of their resources – and help – to me and my children personally. They spoke about how the power that we brought would help their children to have better lives. These people have almost nothing, yet they were extending whatever they had to us. That is really an awesome concept.

Glorious Day for All

Then we had an awesome lunch that was prepared especially for us, and the president of the community.

Whole Fish for Lunch! (Where do I hide the heads?)

Now that I’ve been living in this country for seven months, I’ve struggled with many questions – moral, ethical, philosophical. The question often comes up about interfering with a culture that has been in existence for centuries. Who are we, as outsiders, to impose our value system on them? Where is the line drawn? The experience of doing this project really helped me define an answer for that. I really do not think that any outside entity should come into a culture and change things so that they will have a ‘better life’ according to their standards and way of thinking.  BUT…. when a community identifies a need and ASKS for help, and they are motivated to change an aspect of their lives, I think that we are totally justified in helping them. Just look at those smiles!

And Then There was Light!

So, the next time you flick on a lightswitch in your house, turn on your televsion, or open your refrigerator – take just a second to think about how fortunate you are.  And how there are still about 1.5 Billion people in this world that have NO access to electricity at all. Amazing, huh?

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8 responses to “A New Sort of Empowerment

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