The Last Night

1.2 billion people on our planet still live without electricity. In Latin America alone, this number reaches 24 million people. This is the story of two brave women, who left everything familiar behind, and traveled halfway around the world to embark on a incredible journey to bring solar light to their communities.What is it like to live without electricity or light in 2015? What is it like to live under the feeble flicker of a candle, an oil lamp, or a burning ocote branch? How can solar electricity change their way of life?

- by Varial Cédric Houin
translated from French by Barbara Ulrich

This story is an extract from “Doña Luz: Solar Mama Stories from Latin America”, a new book about human courage and determination, and fifteen indigenous women on a journey to solar energy.

 

 

Pablo invites me to speak to the villagers. We walk towards the community center, a tin-roofed cement building built on a small hill above the road in the middle of palm trees.

Fog rises from the valley. I feel like I’m in the clouds, I can no longer see the main road below. It’s not raining, yet the air is laden with humidity.

I perceive a small gathering of fifteen women, some leaning against the wall, some seated on a bench sheltered by the roof, and a group of men looking preoccupied. I am invited to greet each villager one by one.

This customary individual greeting leaves more time for the latecomers whom I greet as they arrive. No longer waiting for more villagers, Pablo apologizes for the turnout — nevertheless, there are around 40 people who have come — and speaks in a loud, clear voice. He introduces me as a photographer. He turns towards me, stops speaking and looks at me. I look at him in return.

“Ah, it’s already my turn to speak,” I say, laughing.

“Yes, your turn, you talk about everything!”

“Ha-ha, OK, very well.”


 

I believe the key point of my presentation is realizing, as I am speaking, that, although Barefoot College is bringing light to these villages, it is a struggle they support first and foremost. A struggle for recognition. For their right to have access to technology at the same cost as others have. 

Indeed, it would be too costly for the government to electrify the village of San Marcos because too little income would be generated. The cost of electrifying San Marcos would be close to a hundred million dollars. There is not one company interested in such an investment.

The reason? No profit to be made. So, in my presentation, I emphasize the will of Barefoot College to participate in their daily struggle for autonomous survival with this project here in San Marcos and, we all hope, in more than a hundred non-electrified communities nearby.


The conversation with the villagers goes on for an hour or more under the low-lying clouds. The villagers come to greet me, one by one, thanking me for being there to support them. In their warm gaze, I sense a glimmer of hope, in their handshake, a blessing.

I feel that such gratitude arrives all too soon for me… After all, I haven’t done anything yet. It is these two women who will do all the work. In reality though, they are thanking the Barefoot organization.

We’re sitting in the kitchen, near the cement fireplace where generous rounds of tortillas bake and a big metal water jug heats, both enveloped in the rising smoke. The fire burns intensely.

 

 

On the cement slab, a piece of ocote, a wood widespread throughout Latin America, that burns steadily, which is also used for kindling and indoor lighting; it burns slowly, producing a lively, crackling flame.

Maria and Rosa are sitting facing me, their hands on their thighs, their gaze intense and focused. The rest of the family is also there, encircling us in the kitchen. The grandparents are seated beside each other to my right; the children kneel to my left. Francisco is standing in the shadow, leaning against the wall next to the bedroom door.

“How were you chosen?”

The two sisters look at each other, deciding who will speak first. Rosa takes the lead, breathes deeply and begins.

“The community elected me. ‘You, you’re going, they decided.’ I refused right away! I have three daughters, a son, and no husband! He took off with another woman. I can’t abandon them; who will take care of them? Who will cook their three meals every day? I have to go and get the milpa every day! Then, the community reassured me unanimously. ‘If you want to go, we will help you,’ they said. So I ended up by accepting. And I was the first to say yes.”

I smile at her. I am so proud of her. What energy and strength Rosa exudes! We exchange glances; I’m sure she can read my thoughts.

“As for me, the Mayor asked me also,” says Maria as she joins the conversation.

“I, too, have a 12-year old son, but my father will also take care of him. So I accepted right away. Since I don’t have my own house, I live with my elderly parents. To help them out, I asked my son to tend my small field of milpa so that I will have something to eat when I return.”

“How did you react when your departure was confirmed?”

“It’s only been 15 days since we learned that we are leaving for sure,” exclaims Rosa, “only 15 days!”

 

 

I observe the grandparents beside me, their faces solemn, their expression full of unspoken worry. I’m sitting on a tiny stool, much too small for me, in the middle of this dark room lit only by a single ocote branch. Surrounded by this family, so close and so humble, I measure the scale of such a journey, such an adventure and all the rising anxieties of those who will stay.

“And I am really excited! I’m only a bit worried about leaving my four children, but I’m going with a light heart. I can’t wait to go, to travel, to discover India, to learn how they live. I’m so happy to take advantage of this experience that I can’t wait to share it with everyone when I come back. It’s a golden opportunity!”

“What do you imagine?” I ask her.

“It seems that the trip will be very long.”

“Since we’re sisters,” says Rosa, looking at her sister, “I know we will help each other out. I’m only afraid that I won’t understand the people we will meet during the trip and that I won’t be able to know if they are honest.”

“I’m sure that everything will go well for you,” I answer. “You will be accompanied to the airport before your departure and welcomed at the airport on your arrival. Meanwhile, you will discover the world of airports!” 

One of the youngest boys, imitating a plane in flight, runs around his grandfather.


“What will change once electricity is installed?”

“At night, we still have to use candles now,” explains Rosa. “In the evening, we can’t see anything, not in our houses, not in the village. So, thanks to the new light, our whole life is going to be illuminated.”

“Yes and we will help all the families to have a better life. It is not only for my family and me; the whole community will benefit,” adds Maria.

 

“Why don’t you have electricity here since the last village has electricity?”

“Because, here, there is no road, so no road, no electricity. And even some villages with a road still don’t have light. So, just imagine, for us, it is even worse. We have already asked the mayor of the region who refused. Only your organization has agreed to help us. The government, it only shows up to get our votes during an election. Then, when they win, their word is lost and all the promises they made just fade away.”

“Is it a sacrifice for you to leave?”

“Yes, especially for my sister who has four children! Leaving my son also tugs at me because he doesn’t know how to earn a living yet. But I’m ready. We have to do this!”

“We women still don’t know what women’s rights are! We are treated as if we were inferior beings, and it is still like this just about everywhere. At last, this organization will give us the chance to discover women’s rights.”

 

 

“How are you preparing for the trip?”

“We’re ready. My parents are both 85-years old so they can no longer do the hardest work, but they will help my children do it. The children will even cook for themselves so they can be more self-sufficient.”

“Yes, and I am going to take care of the younger ones with the help of my grandparents and my brother, who is on the village committee, calmly adds the oldest brother, José. “We are so proud of our mother! Of course, we will miss her, but we know she will be coming back.”

“I don’t have money to pay for their studies. The oldest two only finished their 6th grade, but since I don’t have enough money for them to continue their studies, they’re here and they work,” says Maria.

“How old are your children?”

“Rosa Hijos Anita Ramirez Mejia is 15, Nicolas Ramirez Mejia is 13, Elsa Marila Ramirez Mejia is 11, and Elvia Brenda Ramirez Mejia is 8.”

“Are you aware of the work that awaits you when you return?”

“Yes, we have already discussed it a little bit with the community, which has assured us they will support us. For the moment, we can’t foresee the long term; we’ll see how it turns out when we return,” she replies. 

 

 

“Do you have any other questions?”

“Yes, when we are on the plane and we are hungry or have to go to the bathroom… What do we do?” asks one of the sisters. 

“And me, if I’m thirsty?” asks the other.

Francisco and I keep looking at each other during this exchange to confirm the answers. Both of us feel we are reaching the end of this conversation. I thank Rosa and Maria for their time spent with us and I also thank the entire family for their presence and their kind welcome. 

It is already 8 pm. In an hour, everyone will be asleep. We eat supper — frijoles, tortillas — and together we continue a casual conversation about Barefoot and the trip.


Their departure is scheduled in ten days time. I leave tomorrow. For them, they will draw their last reassurances from my words and my stories of life in India. I warn them about the food that they will have to become used to, because it is very different from frijoles and tortillas even if the Indian Nan bread can be compared to a big tortilla.

Their discussions are simple, down to earth, their fears naïve. The unknown that awaits them is the other end of the world.

 


DOÑA LUZ - Solar Mama Stories from Latin America

Maria and Rosa are just two of fifteen women who have truly transcended their illiteracy and their impoverishment to become solar engineers. We affectionately call them “Solar Mamas”. In a remote and fragile world, these women are the new heroines of sustainable development. The book, “Doña Luz: Solar Mama Stories”, chronicles their remarkable experiences as they lived them. From taking a plane for the first time, to hearing new languages, learning english, living in India for six months, returning to electrify their entire villages, becoming role models and local heroes, starting businesses inspired by their journeys, and finding respect at home and within their communities, led mostly by men.

" For three months I travelled to eight different communities in Guatemala, Belize, Salvador, Ecuador, and Mexico, collecting the stories of fifteen mothers and grandmothers, who had been chosen by the nonprofit Barefoot College to train as solar engineers during six months in India. These women, who had never before travelled beyond their remote communities, left their husbands, children, their entire existence, to embark on a incredible journey to bring light to their communities... and a new life.I created this book as an intimate diary to link you with unique examples of empowerment, dignity and courage. I have gathered hundreds of moments frozen in time, transcriptions and personal entries to bring the reader and the viewer into a remote world, one that we never imagined still existed. With this work, I wish to bring a new kind of light, one that illuminates the disheartened parts of our being with stories of hope through a book that reminds us just how endless human potential can be. "