Solar power for a turtle sanctuary

Along a stretch of pristine golden sand in Nayarit, Mexico lies Playa las Tortugas visited frequently by Ridley turtles which return to their place of hatching to lay eggs. Each year, an estimated 250,000 hatchlings emerge from nests called arribadas along this beach to crawl into the ocean. Shepherding them is a turtle sanctuary directed by a dedicated veterinarian who combs the beach in search of nests, and each time one is found, he and his staff and volunteers transfer the eggs to the sanctuary to protect them for a month-and-a-half incubation before releasing the two-inch hatchlings into the ocean. In the short crawl to the water, females imprint on the sand to return years later to lay eggs for another generation, only now the odds are increasingly against them due to climate change and other hazards.

After discovering this sanctuary in 2019, I promised to provide one of its remote outposts with solar power because it lacked electricity. In 2021, I completed the project. Fueling my desire to help was a visit I made to a beach on Mafia Island in Tanzania in 2017 where I watched staff from a turtle-rescue organization release hatchlings to the Indian Ocean, but before they could do so, they first had to remove layers of plastic debris washed ashore; only then could the baby turtles find their way to the sea. In Nayarit, Mexico, staff and volunteers at the Playa las Tortugas sanctuary honor the eons-long ritual of female turtles laying eggs to give way for future generations of these beautiful creatures.

Solar power and medicine: A recurring theme

The village of Kandale lies about 700 kilometers southeast of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  I traveled there in October of 2018 under the auspices of a foundation called REVE Kandale, a group dedicated to improving the life of residents of Kandale through two main initiatives: promoting environmental awareness through tree planting, and building schools and upgrading school infrastructure.

Our caravan of four SUVs and pick-up trucks departed Kinshasa at mid-morning loaded with supplies ranging from sewing machines to solar panels.  After an arduous two-day journey along roads that began as paved but changed to dirt and sand, we arrived at Kandale.  A restful night provided energy to begin the project I traveled to the Congo to undertake: installing solar power and lighting at a maternity clinic and at a newly built educational center in a village that lacked electricity altogether.

With help from a neighbor who’d traveled from the U.S. to assist me, we began at the maternity center.  One of the reasons I decided to go to the Congo was because I’d heard that a woman undergoing a Caesarian-section at the maternity clinic in Kandale had died after a candle used for lighting one night had fallen into her open abdomen and led to sepsis.

Shortly after beginning our work at the maternity center, I was summoned by the village’s sole physician who’d hurried from the hospital next door to ask for my help.  A sixteen-year-old girl who’d just arrived from neighboring Angola had come to the hospital seeking care for a broken arm that had become infected and swollen, and because the doctor feared the infection would spread, he planned to amputate the girl’s arm that afternoon.

I hurried to the hospital to evaluate the girl.  Although my career as a physician had been spent working as an infectious disease epidemiologist, my clinical training returned as if by instinct.  Although pus oozed from several wounds on the girl’s swollen, deformed, and weakened forearm, I advised the young doctor to refrain from amputating the arm because the girl showed no signs of an extending infection.  At the least, I argued, she deserved weeks of antibiotic treatment, wound care, and a sling to keep her arm above her head for hours each day so the swelling would decrease.  Ideally, corrective surgery could be done after that to align the fractured bones, but I feared she lacked the resources required to travel to a larger hospital where such surgery could be done.

After evaluating the girl, I saw other patients in the four-room hospital where severely ill figures lay on cement or dirt floors — a child with cerebral malaria, two women with epilepsy, a man with a bleeding ulcer, and a woman profoundly dehydrated from an intestinal infection.  Later, after returning to the maternity center to resume my solar work, I found myself gazing across the field toward the hospital where I could see through an open window the doctor operating on a man who’d presented with intestinal obstruction.  The next day, I heard the man had died just hours after the operation.

In 2013 while undertaking my first international solar installation at a hospital in remote Bangladesh, I accompanied the physician on rounds of patients who also lay on dirt floors.  Having completed subsequent installations in Zambia, Tanzania, and Uganda in the years that followed, my experiences in the Congo underscored a recurring theme — that where there is suffering from poverty, solar offers hope.  Not cure, not reversal of impoverishment, not immediate resolution of life’s challenges — but glimmers of what might be, what can be if we harness the power of the sun to brighten individual lives.

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The sun’s song: Music to the ears

Atop a hill in eastern Uganda above the hot plains through which the Nile River flows, a small red and white cement church with a corrugated tin roof looks over banana and coffee plantations as far as the eye can see.  After a fourteen-hour flight to reach the international airport in Entebbe and an eight-hour drive to reach the town of Buyobo where the church sits, I unpack three suitcases filled with solar power supplies which we transport from the village center to the church-on-the-hill.

Electricity in the village is sparse and undependable, and at the church nonexistent as the costs of running cables up the hill are too great to incur.  For this reason, services, meetings, and gatherings are held during the day before nightfall descends to leave the church in darkness.

I decided to travel from the U.S. to Uganda to provide the church with lights and electricity powered by the sun because of some dear friends I have at a church I attend in Bethesda, Maryland who hail from the town of Buyobo and worshipped in the red and white church-on-the-hill when they were younger.  The wisdom, generosity, and empathy of this family convinced me that by providing the church in Uganda with solar power, the spiritual lives of others there might deepen.

On the second day of my work inside the church, electrical wires crisscross the sanctuary ceiling to newly installed fixtures with light bulbs waiting to glow.  Despite a breeze, it’s hot inside, especially fifteen feet up in the air along the top rungs of a ladder resting against wooden beams.  Except for the buzz of drills, taps of hammers, and stretching of cables from unwinding spools, the church is quiet save for the laughter of children who play barefoot near the altar as they gleaming eyes follow the progress of light they’ve yet to see come from the ceiling of their church.

And then I hear a drum beat, at first tentative if not melancholy.  I look down from the ladder and find six children ranging from four to six congregated about a set of drums placed between wooden benches pushed aside to make room for the solar work I’m doing.  Until then, a steady stream of children have wandered in and out to stare at me, a foreigner who turned up abruptly in their village to bring light to a church.

Two of the children sit on a bench with drums tucked between their legs and begin tapping them.  Before long, the sanctuary bursts forth in rhythmic beats as the remaining children dance with half-eaten potatoes waving in the air.  From my perch in the sky, I look down upon their dancing and laughter and realize that with the sun comes music and joy.

And I am grateful for the opportunity to watch children dance and sing in anticipation of the sun bringing light to another part of their lives.

 

Solar power can dramatically improve children’s academic performance

In 2017, I traveled to rural Tanzania to install solar panels at a primary school forty minutes by car outside of the city of Mbeye, not far from the border with Malawi. The school was in a small village beside a river from which water was collected for drinking, bathing, and washing purposes, but it had no electricity whatsoever. A few teachers resided in a small dormitory beside the school.

After two days of working with the students, teachers, and family members I traveled with to the site, including a cousin who works for a wonderful non-governmental group called Africa Bridge and who invited me to Tanzania, we installed solar panels on a school building and the dormitory and lit up both structures.

Several months later, my cousin visited the school to see how the solar system was doing and learned that six teachers who used to live 45 minutes away from the school during the week moved to the school to live because of the newly installed lights and solar power. The result was that, with the teachers spending much more time at the school than before, the students there went from being in the bottom 10 of 144 schools in the district to the top 10 schools in terms of test results.

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School room with lights powered by solar panels

Children — The drivers of renewable energy in developing nations

During my trips to developing nations to install solar panels at no charge to schools and other groups, I quickly learned how passionate children are about converting the sun’s rays into electricity.  Their eyes light up and faces beam to see fans spin, lights go on, and laptops purr. No longer are they dependent on unreliable electric grids, assuming grids even run to their villages, which they often don’t in remote sections of such nations.

I also learned early on to allow children to help me perform tasks safely as I install these systems. It amazes me how talented many are with tools when given the chance to work with them. In Bangladesh, for example, a six-year-old boy took a hammer to-hand and pounded a crimping device I’d brought with me to fasten ring terminals to large-bore cables needed to connect batteries in parallel. In Zambia, children by the dozens lined up to have an opportunity to turn screwdrivers, work with pliers, or fasten bolts.

By introducing these children to renewable energy at an early age, I’m convinced we can create generations of believers in clean energy. We simply have to show them the power of the sun. In the meantime, their zeal for renewable energy inspires me, so much so I include children prominently in some of my novels. In The Leopard’s Lines, for example,  four youngsters in a remote village in the heart of Africa become not only the protagonist’s best friends, but his teachers. That’s fitting as children are often sources of profound wisdom.

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Disease risks

PineappleKailakuriAlthough I grew up in developing nations and thought I knew the risks associated with travel to such countries, I let my guard down in Bangladesh when I traveled there in 2013 with my 21-year-old son to install solar panels on a hospital in a remote region of the country. When we arrived at the hospital after an eight-hour drive from the capital, Dhaka, we were greeted by our host, a wise and worldly physician named Edric Baker who founded the hospital decades earlier. As a precaution, he counseled us not to eat anything except food prepared by the hospital cooks. Nonetheless, three days later, to celebrate completion of the solar array installation, my son and I decided to eat a locally grown pineapple that a hospital employee gave us as a gift. We made sure to wash the pineapple with clean water from a well before slicing it with our pocket knife.

In the middle of the night, about eight hours after eating the deliciously sweet fruit, my son and I both came down with abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea which we were sure resulted from eating the pineapple. As the photo shows, ample opportunities exist for pineapples to contact dirt, manure, and other pathogen-laden surfaces and equipment, making it plausible the pineapple made us sick even though we’d washed it (inadequately). To complicate matters, while my son and I took turns in a latrine throughout the night, a snake came into the cramped space to join us. By flashlight, we took care to avoid stepping on it, but the next morning when my son arose from a sleep-deprived night, the snake was at the foot of his bed. When we notified a gardener about the visitor, he took one look at it and, alas, disposed of it with a machete.

Acquiring a foodborne diarrheal disease was ironic given that our next mission in Bangladesh was to spend five weeks in the capital at the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR-B) researching cholera. Dehydrated albeit recovering while we motored from the remote hospital to the capital, my son rode the distance with an intravenous line in one arm flowing with saline. We both recovered relatively quickly, suggesting to me the cause of our illness was a self-limiting toxin-mediated infection such as that produced by E. coli acquired from, yes, our friend, the pineapple.

Partnership

In traveling to other nations to install solar arrays at no cost to recipients, I strive to partner with residents there. Partnership is, for me, the backbone of fostering sustainable, nurturing alternative energy in remote areas where municipal electric grids either don’t exist or, if they do, often fail.

In preparing for and undertaking each trip, I uphold the following goals: Purchase local supplies to support regional economies; work side-by-side with recipients to ensure they understand electric circuitry; and remain steadfast to support each project should breakdowns occur after installations.

An amazing outcome has resulted from this three-pronged approach: partnership and friendship. In Bangladesh and Zambia, I share a mutual dream with friends and partners who reside there: generating electricity from the sun. Separated though we may be by thousands of miles, we tackle challenges together as they arise. In remote Zambia, for example, a month after we installed a 750-watt solar array on a dormitory at a divinity school with no electricity in a village 18 hours by car from the capital of Lusaka, a torrential rainstorm flooded a shed (photo) which housed our rechargeable batteries, meters, and an inverter used to convert direct current generated by the solar panels to alternating current. Without a functioning inverter, eighteen students who resided in the dorm no longer had light with which to read at night or power to recharge laptops and cell phones.

Through the kindness of a traveler, we shipped a new inverter from the U.S. to Zambia where a reverend who seconds as an outstanding electrician replaced the broken inverter with the new one, and the lights turned on again.

Partnership — a switch best left on. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Solar power donations

I’ve always been fascinated by the ability to convert sunlight to electricity. As a child, while going to (or returning from, I can’t recall which) a foreign destination with my diplomat-father, I recall playing with a small solar-powered motor boat on a lake in Paris, France. I was hooked to see it glide across the water.
Years later, as an adult, I converted an ancient BMW 318i into an all-electric car that I continue to use in my 11-mile commute to work each day. I recharge its batteries, in part, from solar panels on my home roof.
Then, I got to thinking: Because I enjoy working with solar power, why not donate solar supplies to nations short on electricity. According to the World Bank, worldwide, about 15% of inhabitants have no access to electricity whatsoever, which means over a billion people live in the dark, so to speak.
I made my first solar donation in 2013 when I traveled to Bangladesh to install solar panels at a remote hospital called Kailakuri Health Care Project. I followed it up with two more journeys, both to Zambia (2015 and 2016) to install solar panels at a divinity school and two primary schools in very remote sections of the country.
These trips infuse my novel writing. My first journey to Zambia, for example, inspired me to write The Leopard’s Lines, a thriller about protecting African wildlife from poachers.