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Uganda & Rwanda Challenge: Day 5

Oct 25, 2014

22 October 2014, Wednesday | Service Day at Kivune Primary School in Janja Province, Rwanda.

Yesterday we were in awe of the kids scrambling up and down the steep paths carved out of the mountainside. Today it is our turn. At 11 am, we all find ourselves out of breath, slipping and sliding on a muddy path in a remote part of Rwanda. We have been at it since 10:30 am, and still have another half hour to go. And we are not sure if that is a real half hour or an estimated one.

Our day started with us in our cars and ready to go at 8 am for what was to be a one hour drive to the school. Two hours later, we pull into a courtyard, where we are greeted by a dance troupe to welcome us to Janja.

it is a wonderful and much appreciated welcome, but now it is 10:30 am and we are all wondering “where is the school?” We had expected to be working by now. However, we are told the road is washed out and are asked if we are willing to hike 4 kms to the school.

Well, of course we are! And that is how we happen to find ourselves perched precariously on the side of a hill with no school in site.

At 11:30 am we are ecstatic to break out into a clearing with the school in site. The kids are all running around and greeting us. Gregoire representing Firelight on the ground and Francois with Dassy Electric have climbed the path with us. They introduce us to the school director and some staff. We then walk over to another building where we see one of Dassy’s technicians hammering together some sticks into a twelve foot ladder. Although we have seen all sorts of things on the back of motorcycles, including full size beds, it seems carrying a twelve foot ladder all that way would be absurd. Thus, making a ladder on site makes all the sense in the world. Or would it be more absurd to actually climb up a twelve footer ladder that was just hammered together a few minutes ago? Not at all…we were thankful for that ladder and used it all day long!

To get things started, we get the management types out of the way, and have our technical guys talk to their technical guys, Fidel, Antoine, Vincent and Maurice. They have brought and laid out the solar equipment, mounts and cabling we will need. Vivian coordinates the unpacking of the supplies she acquired in the states, including two heavy-duty drills, spare batteries, chargers (to be used in town) and lots of anchoring equipment. Half of the anchoring equipment was donated at the last minute last Friday by Sean and Dave of Service Warehouse when they found out what it was for.

The combined Dassy / Northland technicians figure out what needs to be done, put a plan together, and put the rest of us to work: digging a hole for the grounding rod, hammering panels onto the roof, setting up the control panel, wiring the buildings, installing junction boxes, light switches and light sockets. It seems simple, but we only just got there at 11:30 when we expected to have been deep into it by 9:30. We have a full day ahead of us.

While some preparations are underway, Charles leads some of the kids a round of the hoke poke. After that, Sebastian pulls out one of the dozen football (soccer) balls we brought (with pump and needles) and starts to kick it around with the kids. We are guessing they have never had a fully pumped ball before because they seem shocked at how high and far the ball goes when they kick it. When Sherwin sees them joyously kick around the football (soccer ball), he pulls out the American football he brought. He, Guy, Joseph and Sebastian start to show them how to throw the weirdly shaped ball around, and they love it. While the Americans continue to train the kids, Sebastian organizes a football (soccer) game.

Meanwhile, the preparations are winding down, and the real work begins. There is no way we will finish today.

It is decided that the four Dassy technicians will each lead a team. After a very short time, they realize our guys are not just a bunch of bozos and know what they are doing. The feeling is mutual and we are impressed by their experience and workmanship.

We break out into even more teams. The work progresses quickly, but I know we don’t want to be scrambling down the path in the dark. We are willing to drive in the dark, but the path is too dangerous for us foreigners once the sun sets and the mountainous shadows take over. We will need to cut it off at 5:30 pm and let the local techs finish off the work during the remainder of the week. Around 2:30 pm, the work is progressing nicely, but a torrential thunderstorm is upon us and a few of us know the narrow path back to the cars has turned into a rushing, muddy stream. We will need to go the long way around on the washed out road. We decide we will have to cut off the work at 5:00 pm.

It is amazing work! The extremely remote setting, the energy of the kids and the meaning of the project are inspiring. As we make more progress, we seem to get even more energized and do more. Everyone is pitching in. As time ticks by, folks are working even harder and faster.

Around 4:20 pm, the guys think they have it. They flip the circuit breaker. Nothing. They play with switches on the panel. Nothing. They start to talk about spending the night in the classrooms till they figure this out. A bunch of different guys have a go at the switches to no avail. And then, around 4:45 pm, Cesar notices the on/off button on the inverter, pushes it and asks Rob to flip the breaker. The lights come on in the main building. A huge roar from the crowd!

In addition to the main building with offices and classrooms, there are two more classroom buildings. By 5 pm we have wired up one of the other buildings. The Dassy technicians will need to come back to finish the third building as well as run the main power line from the main building. They will easily finish up in the next day or two.

Several hundred friends, family and colleagues have donated generously over the past 6 months to make this happen. This is the highlight of the trip, I think of all the people who have talked about this project, donated time and money, and helped coordinate it. I am deeply thankful to all of them. If they could only be here to see what they have helped accomplish. The kids and teachers cannot believe their good fortune. Little do they know how much they have given us by being a part of this project.

As we start hiking back to the cars at 5:30 pm, there is an incredible feeling of having accomplished something special. Although it is quickly getting dark, the conversations are relaxed. I hear from Francois and Gregoire say they never expected to have the lights on today and are completely amazed by our willingness to jump in and get to work. While talking to the Dassy techs, they tell me how much fun they had working with our team. I heard later from our guys that they were making plans to bed down in the classrooms for the night as they were not going to leave until they got the system up and running. They were having so much fun and felt so good about the project, they had to make sure the system was working properly.

By 7:00 pm we arrive back at our cars and are ready for the 2 hour drive back to the hotel. However, the local government representative, chief of police and parish priest want to thank us. We are brought to a café in Janja and treated to kebabs and beer. With lots of cheers and speeches, we have a small celebration.