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Brings Light to Rural Uganda

By David Leber, Eagle Scout, Troop 965, Kampala, Uganda

As the sun rose over equatorial Africa, a picturesque landscape of rolling green hills dotted with banana and paw-paw (papaya) trees came into view. The April morning was cool and balmy, and I was leading an expedition of Scouts from Troop 965 to install solar electrical systems deep in the heart of East Africa. As we drove farther into rural Uganda I could understand why Winston Churchill called this country the "Pearl of Africa." The air was charged with excitement and anticipation as we neared our destination, Kayamate, six hours from the capital city of Kampala. I had long awaited completing my Eagle Scout project and now the day had arrived.

Our caravan of trucks loaded with solar panels and equipment traveled the dirt roads leading to Muriisa Secondary School, where I would install the first solar system. When we arrived, the warm smiles of the students welcomed us. While we did not understand the indigenous language and the students spoke only limited English, their shining faces conveyed all they wanted to express. It was evident to me that hospitality and gratitude transcend cultural boundaries. In their eyes I saw hope and joy, which stood in stark contrast to their abject poverty.

Muriisa School had no electricity, forcing the students to study by candlelight after dark. The toilet was a pit latrine, and they gathered their water daily from a nearby borehole. The school included a few sparsely furnished classrooms, a communal study room with a neatly swept dirt floor, and overcrowded dormitories. The dilapidated walls were constructed of cheap concrete and were already decaying. The windows were mere openings in the wall covered by wooden shutters. I could not help comparing this rural school to Rift Valley Academy, the American boarding school I attend in Kenya. The facilities of Rift Valley Academy would be unimaginable to these students, and I believe they would reciprocate my feelings of culture shock if they were to visit.

By midmorning I was on the roof bolting down the solar panels while the rest of the team was installing the wiring, control center, battery, fixtures, and switches. The students watched us with anticipation as our work progressed. When we finished the installation, I called all of the students to gather in the study room. They watched wide-eyed with excitement as I explained the system to them. I then turned the lights on and the hall erupted with exuberant applause. It was most satisfying to know that I had helped to enhance the lives of these students.

As an expression of gratitude, our hosts served the team a traditional African lunch. The large serving pots rested on the bare concrete floor. Women dressed in colorful fabric ladled into our bowls some unidentifiable stewed meat, sukumawiki (Ugandan greens), and matoke, which is a type of banana that is served mashed and tastes more like potato than banana. At times like this I say the missionary's prayer before eating, which is, "Please, God, don't let this kill me!" I then proceeded to eat nearly everything in my bowl. It was not the best cuisine I had ever eaten. However, out of respect for our hosts and their culture I thankfully accepted their generous offering. In a culture where many go days without a good meal, this was a veritable feast. The administration even purchased sodas for us, which is a great expense for people living in dire poverty. I was overwhelmed with the generosity of these wonderful people.

After eating lunch we said our lengthy good-byes and began the short drive to the pastor's house, where we were going to install another system. However, in Africa nothing is as simple as it seems. It had rained heavily before we came, producing the horrible mud that is notorious in Africa. As we drove up a hill, the wheels on our two-wheel-drive vehicle started spinning. It moved no farther. We got out to push and put grass under the wheels. After much toil, the truck finally lurched out of the mud with a groan. We were on our way. Patience is a virtue unequaled in this part of the world. As an American, my first inclination is to become frustrated and impatient with difficulty, but Africa has taught me that this is not the way to deal with obstacles.

We finally reached the pastor's house, installed the solar system, and began the journey home. Although I was exhausted from the day's work, I had a great sense of fulfillment knowing that I had made a difference in the lives of the people of Kayamate.

There is a Swahili proverb that says, "Maji ya kifuu ni bahari ya chungu," meaning, "The milk in a coconut is an ocean to an ant." A light bulb is an insignificant thing to me because I have never had to live without one, but to the people of rural Uganda, it represents so much more than mere physical illumination; it facilitates their education and lights their futures. A good education breaks them free from the oppressive web of poverty. Having seen life through their eyes, I realize that I take much for granted and do not fully appreciate the abundance I have as an American. I now have a new appreciation for the luxuries I have, such as electric lights, flushing toilets, computers, and a host of others.

My Eagle Scout project made an impact on the students of Muriisa School, but the students themselves had a profound impact on me. I now have a greater understanding of why David Livingstone requested that, when he died, his heart be buried in Africa. I felt like I left a piece of my heart with the people of Kayamate. My experience installing solar systems in rural Uganda will never cease to be alive and active in my life. It taught me that while no single individual can solve everyone's problems, I can change the world one village at a time.