I just got back from a backpacking trip in the Colorado Rocky Mountain National Park this week. Wow, what an experience! Not only was it metaphorically breathtaking in beauty and literally breathtaking in low-oxygen altitude, but it was a test of teamwork and patience to hike in with 4 adults and 5 children (one 10 yr old, two 8 yr olds, and 4 four year olds). Whew! You'd better believe I have some blogs coming up about appreciation for clean water, sanitation, health service access, mosquitos, materialism, and teamwork. But let's start here with a topic that has a timely advocacy action as well: Electricity.
I admit that the first time I heard about the ONE Campaign's push for the Electrify Africa Act, it didn't grab me the way child survival initiatives do. After all, I spend most of my time trying to convince my own children to use less electricity in our daily lives. Yet over the course of the last year I've come to realize that access to electricity is actually quite fundamental to basic health care and education...things I believe in and actively advocate for.
As for education, my daughters - free of water-carrying or animal-tending chores that many impoverished girls must attend to - still find themselves finishing homework past sundown or reading in their beds. Lack of safe electric light is a limiting factor for any child needing to do schoolwork after the African sun sets on the savannah and darkness creeps across the landscape.
So, I came to know the need in my head, but the practical experience of lack of plug-ins on a backpacking trip helped cement the lessons in my heart as I watched all of our children cope with a severely restricted number of watts last week. Here are a few of the big and small ways that electricity - or lack thereof - impacted our trip and my thoughts about the need for electricity in Africa.
- Cookstoves. Wood-burning open fires are a major cause of pneumonia and lung disease for people in extreme poverty. I still remember how the delicious smoky smell that greeted me in Uganda brought me pleasure for 15 minutes before I realized that it permeated the air wherever we went as people burned wood for heat and cooking to the detriment of their lungs and forests. On our Colorado trip, we used little high-tech propane one-burner stoves because wood cooking fires are forbidden in the Rockies during high-fire season, but an electric stove in Africa can solve health, ecological, and safety issues all at once.
- Water sanitation. We mechanically filtered our water using a gravity filter system after we scooped it out of a nearby stream, but we also had a UV sterilization "pen" that we dipped into our water bottles to kill off germs and bacteria. This was a new addition to our camping gear this year and it beats the yukky tasting iodine pills we used to drop in. On this trip, the luxury of a little electricity provided us with the basic necessity of clean water that did not make us sick.
- Communication. We did bring cell phones, but kept them off most of the time to conserve battery life. Even though cell service was spotty at our altitude, it was critical to us to be able to call out as we navigated the woods ushering around our mountain-lion bait...er, I mean, children. Just months ago, one of the 4-yr-olds on this trip had been injured on a day hike and suffered a skull fracture up on the mountain from falling rock and needed an ambulance called to meet them at the trail head. We need that communication. So do people in poverty.
- Flashlights. My kids love to play "Flashlight Tag" and "Wax Museum" in the dark any time they can get their hands on a flashlight. Each child was given their own flashlight at the beginning of the trip. They were flabbergasted to be chided for these same activities. "We might need them for an emergency!" was the refrain they heard often and barely comprehended since they are used to unlimited light at any time of their lives.
- Reading. My girls love, love, love to read. At home, it's a bedtime activity. On the mountain, it became a morning activity. I watched them read and read in the tent until they could no longer discern the letters on the page. Then, it was time to put the books down because they were not allowed to use up their precious batteries on frivolous things like words and imagination. Fine for a weekend, but tragic for a whole life.
These are the thoughts inspiring me to write about electricity first among poverty issues upon my return. This past week, the ONE Campaign launched the "#PowerProject," an online campaign to inspire people to write to their senators in support of the Energize Africa Act to help 50 million people in Africa access electricity for the first time – lighting up hospitals, schools and businesses. ONE’s goal is to get 50,000 letters and they've started a little competition to inspire us with a trip to Washington D.C. to lobby on this issue as the prize!