When I think of East Africa I will think fondly of a woman in a green blazer. After 22 hours in the flight from San Francisco, I landed in Nairobi right in the middle of an airline strike. I expected a two-hour layover before jumping on my final flight to Kigali, Rwanda. Instead, I ended up sleeping on a cold cement floor surrounded by other stranded commuters without access to a functional bathroom, telephone, food, or water for 17 hours. Yet I had it easy – I met several other people who had been stranded for three days. Needless to say, the mob of angry, desperate people grew by the hour. The moment I had given up hope, two key things happened: I met another group with my plight and a Rwanda Air employee. This wonderful woman, in a green blazer, was the only employee trying to help people get on flights on other airlines. She somehow managed to get our group on a flight to Kigali within one hour of meeting her. I don’t remember taking off or landing in Kigali – I was asleep the second I latched my seatbelt.
Garambe, the nephew of my host, Dr. Jean de Dieux of the Ruli Hospital, greeted me at the airport. Dr Wendy Leonard of The Ihangane Project, Catapult’s client who had the smarts to avoid Nairobi, arrived shortly after. After a night’s rest in a Kigali parish, we departed for Ruli, a small community 40km west of Kigali. Despite the relatively short distance between all the health clinics surrounding Ruli, the underdeveloped dirt roads make for long and bumpy journeys. They remind me of rural reservation roads, making me slightly nostalgic for home. Outside my window immense numbers of banana trees cover the hillside, a lazy river curves through the valley, and small rusty brick homes housing large families pop up as far as the eye can see.
Ruli’s the kind of town where there are no paved roads and everyone knows everyone else’s business. Infrequent visits from outside means only four rooms are available for travelers at the parish. Everyone is up with the 6am sun and the daily tasks of water and wood collection begin. Kids, whose families can afford the fees, attend school in dusty blue uniforms and puffy neon green sandals. Women cultivate and harvest the hills. Men make bricks, do construction, or operate stores. And many more have no employment and spend the day walking the streets and socializing. At 5pm the dirt throughway is a flutter of activity – a mass of children run home from school, bicycles and wheelbarrows roll past with jerry cans full of water, bananas, or sugar cane. By 7pm the sun is down and the streets are quiet. The complete blackness is a good reminder of the complete lack of electricity. The air is saturated with the smell of cooking fire. And by 9pm, most have turned in for the night.
Wendy and I start every day at the Ruli Hospital in morning rounds. I shadow Wendy visiting patients in the HIV treatment ward, where the staff is well trained, attentive, and caring, but lack the tools and medication to treat some of the sickest patients. Cement floors, brick walls, flickering fluorescent lighting, crowded rooms, metal beds with chipped paint and squeaky springs, and a sweaty stew lingers in the air drawing flies to patients too weak to move.
On Wednesday, working through the hospital staff, we develop questionnaires designed to educate us on how community members spend their time, treat dirty water (or not), and grow food. The hospital staff conducts the interviews in the local language. We’ll take this knowledge to help guide design and technology decision-making further down the line.
The following day we travelled an hour west to the Nyange Health Clinic, which serves 20,000 people and has 18 patient rooms. Four solar panels power 24 CFL bulbs to keep the clinic operating at night. When there is enough power left over, they operate a laptop or desktop computer. The clinic has more electronics and lab equipment they would like to operate and we spend the day assessing the energy loads in order to expand the solar system.
Friday we drove two hours north to the Minazi Health Post, which presently has no electricity, to install a WE CARE Solar prototype. It’s a plug-and-play “solar suitcase” designed to provide immediate, small-scale power for a structure such as a small health clinic. Minazi’s health post was built entirely by community initiative when the Ruli Hospital proved too far to reach. The post is now supported by the Ruli Hospital system and thanks to WE CARE Solar, has enough electricity to power lights, cell phones, and charge batteries. Even this seemingly small effort will make a tremendous difference in their treatment of patients and communication efforts with the rest of the health clinic network.
With the remainder of my time in Rwanda, Wendy and I will travel back to Kigali to visit solar vendors, meet with several other NGOs focused on health/nutrition/solar in Rwanda, re-visit and assess the WE CARE Solar prototype at the Minazni Health Post, and continue a water assessment study in Ruli in the hopes of providing formula for infants of HIV mothers.
In early September I travel on to Kenya to visit Tevis Howard of Komaza. My only hesitation is that I have to fly back through Nairobi. I still suffer flashbacks of the horrible state and smell of the non-functional bathrooms serving hundreds of people. I’m assured that what I experienced is not the norm – but I’m still keeping my eyes peeled for the woman in the green blazer. Just in case.