BRINGING ELECTRICITY TO
BANDUNDU PROVINCE, ZAIRE (1989)
(A STORY OF SOLAR POWER)
COMMUNICATIONS ELECTRONICS OFFICER
It was 0600 (6:00 AM for those of you on 12 hour time) and we were just leaving behind the streets of Kinshasa. This city of about 5 million people is the capital of Zaire. Our destination was the village of Kingunda in the province of Bandundu. I had gotten up at 0400 to pack and load the two vehicles for the 550 kilometer trip. Maybe I should start this story earlier, about a year earlier.
I had been in Kinshasa, Zaire about 6 months at that time. I work for the U.S. Department of State as a Communications Electronics Officer. My job is to install and maintain communications systems at U.S. Embassies in 11 African countries. I reside in Kinshasa with my wife and 4 sons.
We go to church at Saint Luc Parish, and attend the mass for Anglo phones (we speak English instead of French). There are many fine people at Saint Luc Parish, including a Filipina Sister by the name of Avelina Almendras. Sister belongs to the order of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary and has been serving people in several bleak parts of the world for many years. Before coming to Zaire, she was assigned to a mission in Madras India. Her job here is as an administrator and legal representative of the Franciscan Sisters.
Now if we had people like Sister Avelina working for the U.S. foreign affairs agencies, we could accomplish many more things and have money left over to improve things back home. Sister thinks in terms of end results and how to best use the resources at hand, not as the typical bureaucrat who thinks in terms of his/her advancement based on the number of people and the amount of budget he/she controls.
We invited Sister over for Thanksgiving dinner 1988 (remember we flashed back about one year). My wife Remee, is also a filipina and filipinas love to cook. The bigger the feast and the more people the better. I consider Remee the worlds best cook and all of our invitational dinners are well attended (this has nothing to do with the story but bear with me, I'm trying to score some points here).
Have you ever noticed how more projects are conceived, deals made, careers launched or crushed at a dinner or lunch than at staff meetings? Viewing my electronics background and my history of interest in alternative energy as a resource to be tapped, Sister innocently asked what could be done to improve the conditions at one of her mission clinics in Bandundu province. You see, there are no electric power lines anywhere near Kingunda. They have a kerosene powered refrigerator and run a generator for 2 hours at night but the fuel is very expensive and the cost and uncertainty of transport is a very big problem. I took the bait and ran with it like a crazed marlin. I assured Sister that I could design a solar power system that could run a refrigerator and provide light in the clinic. Others at the dinner that are on the church council suggested that Saint Luc Parish could help with funding of the project.
Within a few weeks the system was designed and pricing information obtained. The package would be formally presented to the church council at the next meeting. The proposal would be for the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary to pay for the refrigerator and batteries, the English speaking community of Saint Luc would pay for the solar panels and controller, I would pay for the lights, wiring and other hardware.
I was unable to attend the council meeting because I was away, working in Equatorial Guinea. Upon my return I learned that the A.I.D.(Agency for International Development) director was at the meeting. He assured everyone that the project would be taken on by A.I.D. because the clinic was in the area of its responsibility. Sister would only have to write letters to the right people and A.I.D. would do the work. The Franciscan Sisters and the parishioners of Saint Luc could save their money for other worthwhile causes.
Like all respectable bureaucracies, A.I.D. projects are not straightforward. You see, A.I.D. doesn't really do work, not what us common folk consider work anyway. They dispense contracts. A.I.D. contracts with a Zairian organization called SANRU, an acronym for Sante Rural, French for Rural Health.
SANRU doesn't do the work either, they contract with a company called FNMA for the purchase and installation of solar powered refrigerator systems at health clinics. FNMA doesn't really make the systems either, they import them from Europe. At that time none of the systems had really been installed yet.
Sister wrote what she thought were all the necessary letters and answered all the questions, but almost a year later no system had been purchased or installed at the Kingunda clinic. Sister once again asked my help. The council at Saint Luc again agreed to the previous plan. I ordered the solar panels from a company in Colorado, the lights and other hardware from a company in Chicago. It all arrived within a few weeks. Sister purchased the refrigerator and batteries locally from a Belgian friar. I assembled the system and tested it for several weeks. In all fairness to SANRU, they did provide the two trucks and drivers after being coaxed by AID.
So began the project that put me on the road to Kingunda. One uses the term road loosely in Zaire. In the city of Kinshasa they are very bad, on the way to other major cities they are unspeakable and to the villages they are not very well beaten paths. After driving about 100 kilometers we crossed the Kwongo river, not to be confused with the Congo river which the Kwongo flows into. The Kwongo is as big as the Mississippi, the Congo is much bigger.
From that point, the potholes in the asphalt were as wide as the road and of random lengths and separation. I was thinking, if not carefully traversed, these potholes could easily swallow up a vehicle. Further along there was evidence that many vehicles met an untimely end in these holes. Like oxen skulls laying beside a bad water hole in a Hollywood western movie, so did lay these skeletons of vehicles picked clean by human buzzards. One hundred more kilometers of this and we left the road. I hoped that we were near our destination but the journey had just begun.
We were traveling across the Savanna, which is something like the great high plains in the United States. These grasslands went rolling on for ever and so did we. Two things were strikingly different in these plains: the soil is a fine gray sand, not rich black earth and there were no animals to be seen. There were no antelope or the African equivalent, no quail or rabbit, not even a hoard of grasshoppers. There was a constant choking cloud of gray dust kicked up by both vehicles that covered everything in the trucks, including us. The dust permeated every crack and crevice, even the spout of the water can.
Eventually we left the savanna and entered a very dense jungle. The trail was very narrow and we plunged through many mud holes. Then the lead vehicle plunged into, not through a mud hole. The Landcruisers had done a good job getting us to this point, but this time the underbelly of the truck was embedded in the mud while all four wheels helplessly slung slime in all directions. I tried to convince the driver of our vehicle not to try to push the lead vehicle out with the second vehicle, but my advice was ignored. Soon the second truck was also stuck.
Our little caravan consisted of Sister Avelina, myself and the driver in our truck, in the lead truck with the refrigerator were a driver and his assistant. Now these fellows were supposed to be competent African guides, but even in South Dakota we don't head down Interstate 90 without a tow rope and shovel in the trunk. Here we were, trying to dig out two fully loaded Landcruisers with rotting jungle sticks. I showed them how to jack up the vehicle and make a track of branches under the tires. That and clawing at the clay mud in which the axles were stuck, finally freed the follow vehicle backward out of the hole.
As we were working on getting the lead truck out, a young woman happened by. This maidenly but very sturdy girl had a tall wicker basket on her back with at least 40 pounds of cassava root and fruits in it. In one hand she carried a machete and the other a good strong spade. She looked at us as though to say,"If you would only walk like me you wouldn't have this problem." Through our driver acting as interpreter, I proposed to rent her spade for 500 Zs (about $1.25 or 3 good pineapples) for 15 minutes. She handed me the spade, but refused to take the money. Now this was no city girl, she was a good ol' country girl from the heartland of Africa, just like you would find in the heartland of America, only with a darker tan and a natural perm.
Soon we freed the lead vehicle in the direction it came from and used the spade to dig a new path around the mud hole. The young woman did accept a ride to her village which was about 10 kilometers away. On the way to her village we left the jungle and entered onto more savanna. As we approached, children ran out to greet us and marvel at how their older sister was able to get a ride back to the village in a Landcruiser. I marveled at how this girl walks from her village to the jungle every day to go shopping, but instead of a check book or charge card she uses a machete and spade. When I asked why the village wasn't in the jungle instead of on the savanna, so they wouldn't have to walk so far to gather food, her reply roughly translated to "The jungle is a good place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there." Actually I think it had something to do with the tsetse flies.
I asked her permission to take her photograph and she proudly posed. Sister suggested that if I ever come this way again that I should give her a copy of the picture as it may be the only one she would ever have. This may not seem significant, but let me put it into context. It is illegal to take pictures in Zaire, as it is in most of the countries in this part of Africa. When possible the average Zairois ignores most laws, but this one they take to heart. There are few things that would faster get an angry Zairois mob after you, than to take their picture. The police arrested a nun for taking a picture of her friends standing in front of their Volkswagen bus. No the bus was not standing in front of a secret military installation. After hours of interrogation, they confiscated her camera and let her go. This sort of thing happens all the time. I brought a small cheap camera with me on the trip so if it happened to me,I wouldn't be out much. As we were going through the larger villages before we left the main road, I snapped some pictures through the vehicle window. This was immediately followed by the usual shouting, pointing and shaking of fists, but fortunately they had no means to catch our swift Landcruiser.
There are those who have watched too many Tarzan movies that will tell you the reason for all of this animosity towards photographers is due to superstition. They say the natives are afraid their spirit will be stolen by the camera. If this were true, then the natives in the remote villages would allegedly be less civilized and more prone to this camera shyness, but just the opposite is true. Actually I find that most country folk have more common sense than urban dwellers anyway.
I have another theory to explain this urban hysteria. I developed this theory while we continued to bounce along the endless miles in this stretch of the savanna. You see, after the early waves of photographers from National Geographic swept the continent and took all those wonderful pictures, a Hollywood agent for the actors and models guild realized there was a large group of unrepresented persons who had their likeness published in magazines and were not being compensated. He traveled throughout Africa, sticking to the main roads, advising the photogenic types not to allow their picture taken without first having a contract insuring royalty payments. He would represent them, for a fee of course, and they were supposed to pay annual dues. Unfortunately he stumbled into a village of cannibals, was invited for dinner and was never able to follow up with his clients. To this day, the descendants of his clients not knowing the whole story, simply won't allow their picture taken. The remote villages not having come under his influence, do not have this taboo. I am sure that further research could straighten this whole thing out.
It was sundown as we rolled along through the savanna, we could see thunder showers on the horizon. I thought how nice it would be to have a cool shower to clean the air and keep the dust down. Then as night fell, we and the shower crossed paths. The nice shower turned into rain, the same rain that swells the Congo and makes it one of the worlds largest rivers. The sandy trail turned to porridge. We were stuck several times, but were able to escape and make a new trail around the impasse. Around midnight the lead vehicle dropped into what could easily be mistaken for an elephant trap. There are no elephants left in the area so it's purpose must be to catch trucks.
Again I tried to convince the driver not to try to push the stuck vehicle out with our truck. Within moments both vehicles were stuck. The body of the lead vehicle was half way submerged and our truck's front bumper was locked to it, while it's rear wheels were up in the air. I stepped out into the pool to see what could be done. The water was coming from the sky as if we had parked under Zongo falls. I was trying to keep the four letter words to a minimum for sister's sake, but the driver could clearly tell that I was upset.
After the rains subsided, the drivers and the assistant set off on foot to a village they thought was not to far away. Sister and I stayed with the trucks to watch over the equipment and supplies. An hour later they returned with a crew of workers. It was determined that first the water must be drained from the hole. This was no easy feat because the hole was the lowest elevation around. They dug a deep drainage ditch adjacent to the hole and left a dike in-between. Then using their hands as paddles pumped the water over the dike into the ditch. This all sounds more efficient than it really was.
When enough water was removed, they dug out the earth that the axles and underbelly were embedded in. By 3:00 A.M. the trucks were out of the hole. The crew piled into and onto the trucks and we were off to their village. They were all singing and swaying as the trucks lurched about the trail. When we arrived at their village we paid them for their services and a little extra for working night shift. They let us keep one of their shovels to be returned on our way back through, this proved later to be a good idea. We drove a little farther and then stopped to sleep for two hours.
Just before sun up we continued on. The trail turned into blond beach sand and was so deeply rutted that the axles of the trucks were plowing a deep furrow in the center hump. This was alright as long as we kept up our momentum, but soon the lead truck was broken down. The problem was with the clutch, it had a hydraulic actuator that is much like the brake cylinder, and the reservoir had run dry of fluid. We siphoned some of the fluid from the brake system of our truck to replenish the clutch cylinder of the other. It seemed more important at the time to keep going than to be able to stop.
Again we entered a jungle region, and occasionally as we plunged through a mud hole, a wild boar would spring up and go squealing off into the bush. This area was much more populated than the savanna, but the visibility was poor do to the dense growth. The locals would gingerly step from the trail into the bush as we approached, but not being accustomed to more than one vehicle driving by for a long while, would step back onto the trail and be surprised by our second vehicle. We had to be very careful.
We finally arrived at our destination 30 hours after our journey began. Kingunda is a primitive paradise in a mountain jungle area. There are coconut trees, banana, pineapple and other tropical plants. The mission was first built in 1922 and the residents have worked hard to maintain it.
After having a fine lunch with the Sisters and Father William, I went to work to install the system. Since this was the first time I had seen the place, first some planning was in order. Sisters Luz Divina, Carmen and Constantina showed me around the clinic and dispensary. There are several buildings and I explained that the system was not big enough to be able to provide lights for all of them. We finally decided on a location that would serve the emergency room, the maternity delivery room, and nursery.
Later, as onlooking eyes filled with wonder watched, I assembled the three solar panels to the framework, it was time to hoist the finished arrary onto the roof. We were on the front side of the clinic and the ladder was not very good. We got the array to the top of the ladder but I could not get my helpers to go up on the roof. After much debating it was determined that it was not a good idea to put the panels on this side, because when the children would throw stones up at the coconuts to knock them from the trees, they may accidentally hit one of the solar panels. So I modified the plan to install them on the other side of the roof. I still could not convince my helpers to go up on the roof. So up the rickety ladder I wriggled.
The roof was steep and made of slippery corrugated metal, but I was able to slither up to the peak. A crowd began to gather. Upon seeing this rotund American atop the peak, one of the helpers determined that the roof would have no problem in supporting himself. He bravely brought my tool tray up to me. I noticed that he had cut his feet on the edges of the metal roofing and I asked him why he didn't wear his shoes. He said," I have no shoes and I have no money to buy any." Hesitating for a moment, I called down to Sister Avelina and asked her to bring my extra tennis shoes from my suit case, and to give them to this young man. Soon there were several people on the roof to help, even Father William. They knew I had no more shoes, but they wanted to help anyway. When Father was coming up the ladder, one of the rungs broke away. This ladder was already missing every other rung when we started.
The next day we finished installing the system just before sundown. The following day on the 14th of December as the sun came up, the system began working. By noon the large battery bank was fully charged and the refrigerator was cooling very well.
That afternoon with Sister Avelina and Sister Luz Divina, I toured the other areas of the mission and the village. Actually there are two villages, one is inhabited by Angolan refugees. Kingunda is only 15 miles from the Angola boarder and these people have come to escape the fighting and misery. The children, despite all they have gone through and with bellies bloated from malnutrition, were friendly and smiled as they saw us coming. Soon I had a group of children following me and they wanted their picture taken. Sister took pictures of me holding the little ones, while their brothers and sisters laughed and giggled nearby. These Angolan refugees are now able to raise manioc, maize, fruits and vegetables and get medical care at the mission.
Sister then showed me the piggery and rabbit hutch at the mission, they are well kept and of practical design. Next I was shown the school. I observed it to be very good by Zairian standards and better than most of the schools in the capital city of Kinshasa. Later, Geoiginn a young Zairoise novice, Sister Avelina and I walked down the long steep trail to the river. Along the river bank were ponds that were constructed to raise fish that would help to supplement the protein in the peoples diet. We also happened on to the older children's favorite swimming hole and Sister promptly scolded them for playing hooky from school.
On the way back we came across a huge trail of ants crossing our path. These were African driver ants and have no permanent homes. They remain endlessly on the march in columns of over a million ants, eating anything in their path. Several times in the past their march has taken them through the chicken coupe at the mission. Afterward several chickens were dead and picked clean to the bone. I once read that a tethered horse was reduced to a skeleton in three hours by these insects. I stood to the side and watched them closely. They were fascinating, so many marching with a single collective purpose. As they died they dropped in place and became the pavement for those that followed. At each meter distance in the column there was a much larger ant. There were many interesting things to see along the trail, but we had to continue on to get back before dark.
That night I slept well, and awoke early in the morning to pack for the long journey home to Kinshasa. I visited the clinic one last time to inspect the operating condition of the solar powered system. Sister Carmen was there and was very pleased to tell me that at 1:00 am that morning a baby was born in the delivery room and she was able to use the new lights. Every one at the mission was very grateful for the contribution of the Saint Luc parish and of the work I had done.
A boy by the name of Matumoua who was crippled by polio, returned with us so that he might be fitted with braces at the handicapped clinic in Kinshasa. The people of the village insisted on giving us many foods for our journey. They piled cassava, pineapples, two live chickens (they keep better that way), tomatoes and other assorted goodies into our trucks. As we drove away, I knew that I would long remember this place and was tempted not to leave its primitive beauty. Actually the thought of the arduous trip contributed to my hesitation.
BANDUNDU PROVINCE, ZAIRE
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