Using Solar Lights to Study and Beat the Heat
Peace Corps Volunteer, Danielle Costanza, brings solar light to her off-grid village in Nicaragua
I've been living in the small village of El Hatillo in Leon, Nicaragua as a Peace Corps Volunteer for almost a year now. My neighbors are an endearing family of six. They are up hours before the crack of dawn to beat the sun and the oppressive daytime heat. Before One Million Lights' solar lights came to our village, there was no clean, affordable electricity in our community.
Most people take advantage of the precious, cool, pre-dawn hours. My neighbor and head of his household, Sabino Duron, is up by 4am to do his chores around the farm and uses a traditional flashlight with costly batteries. Rays from his flashlight stream over the cow corral and sparkle through the netting of my window. The light specks are followed by the distant but distinct sound of his wife, Leonarda, smacking corn mass against a wooden table. My host mom is working by candle light as well, padding her own mass into what looks like thin, hot, steaming pancakes. Soon the whole town will be eating their breakfast with fresh tortillas.
Like a reliable friend, the sun wakes me up every morning at 6am, but throughout the day I reevaluate our friendship. My neighbors, Vicente, 10, and Pascual, 13, are also awake at this hour. We rush to water our gardens to avoid the leaves being burnt by sunlight-magnified water droplets later in the day. Their sisters Veronica, 15, and Rosita Antonia, 5, are up by now as well. At this point Sabino Duron has already cut firewood, retrieved well water, and corralled his uncles´ cows to pasture in immense dust.
But the boys and the youngest must get ready for school, and after a breakfast of tortillas dipped in fresh yogurt, they join the preschool teacher walking by their house and everyone continues on together. I ask about Veronica, and why she´s no longer attending school.
“High school for all surrounding villages is in Telica”, explains Leonarda. “My child doesn’t have a bike and it’s a 30 minute walk from here to the bus stop alone. To take the bus there and back costs 10 chords daily, plus if she wants to buy herself a drink with ice to refresh herself, there´s another 5 chords daily. That’s 75 chords every week and we just can’t afford it.” (To put that into perspective, 75 chords is less than $4 USD). “And we aren’t even talking about a uniform, backpack, and notebooks. That would be another 400 chords” (or 20 dollars).
She is so sad and sincere as she explains. I feel horrible to probe her more, but I ask her: “How many others in our town are struggling with the same situation?”
“Oooo,” she says with her head to the sky, “maybe 20.”
“And do you think she would like to attend school?” I look over at the pretty face sitting quietly, and a knife dug into my heart.
“Of course she does,” answers Veronica through her mother’s voice. “In the winter, when the crops bring in money, maybe there will be enough to send her to classes every Sunday. They have special classes for children in our situation.”
“But it’s not the same?”
“It isn’t the same.”
I turn to Veronica and change the subject as to not force her to dwell on the sad circumstance any longer… although it will be something that will chew away at me until I come up with a solution. Hopefully, the solar lights will help with this. The family will be spending less on kerosene, candles, and batteries.
“And what do you do during the day my dear? I bet you are a big help to your mother!”
She smiles. “We cook and clean together. I sweep and make tortillas and feed the animals and buy rice at the venta.”
“Will you teach me to make tortillas better? Mine are ugly.”
She laughs. “I will teach you how to make soy patties as well, because you are always talking about how you love soy.”
I head up to the primary school later in the day. I see Vicente and Pascual mopping floors. They aren’t in trouble; it’s their rotation day to keep up the school grounds from being defeated by dust clouds. They smile and pose for pictures. I sneak in the classrooms to say hello. Metal chair legs slide across the tile floors as 3 classrooms full of students rise to their feet to greet me.
“¡Buenas Días, Todos!”
“¡Buenas Días, Daniela!”
“Keep studying! You are all going to grow up to be amazing intelligent people!” Some smile shyly and others beam and look proud.
In the evenings, before the family and random neighbors huddle around a small, black and white battery operated TV screen to view their favorite soap opera, Vicente, Pascual, and Rosita spend at least an hour with their nose in their books and pencils to paper.
“It is their evening routine to study and do homework” says Leonarda. The words are spoken as if they are written in concrete, signed and sealed. “Afterwards, we serve dinner at 4:30pm so that I don’t have to cook in the dark”. She pauses. “I guess I could start cooking a bit later now if I wanted to, because now we are fancy and have electricity”. She laughs and points to her new solar-powered flashlight.
I turn to see why the children are laughing, as Sabino Duron walks up to me, dressed in his silly straw farming hat holding an oil lap and sporting a smile. “This is life before” he says, “and this is life now” (he blows out the light, waves away the smoke, and turns on the high-powered flash light). “It makes a big difference to our daily… well, to our nightly routine.”
As we all know here in Nicaragua, it’s the earliest and latest hours of the summer days that are preferred for working. Ironically enough, now we can further use the sun to our advantage and harness its energy to be used in a more productive manner.
Donate a light today to help send more lights to villages like this one that Danielle is empowering in Nicaragua.