(Apologies for the title, but that song is stuck in my head. And now it’s stuck in yours! Mazel Tov! This post is part of a month-long blog relay for ONE called “Light for Light.” Please read to the end–or skip to the end if you don’t like me that much–to find out how you can easily add your voice and bring a hell of a lot of good to Africa.)
When I visited Malawi, Africa this past May with ONE and Heifer International, I knew it’d be different than my home in Austin, Texas. Or at least I hoped it’d be. I really didn’t want to fly 17 hours just to see African women strolling around in Lululemon tights while drinking chai lattes and gossiping about the moron in charge of the PTO. “Ugh, it’s like Tiwonde hasn’t ever organized a charity rodeo before. She is so not on fleek, amirite, girl? Botox party!”
That didn’t happen, thank god, but I did notice a few commonalities to Texas after arriving in Lilongwe. Namely, the warm hospitality of the people and the rolling green fields similar to those of the Hill Country that surrounds my neighborhood. And, of course, I immediately saw that Malawi kids are no different from American kids when there’s a blonde fool holding a camera in front of them yelling, “SMILE! DO IT! Oops, had my thumb on the lens. Okay, SMILE! DO IT! Oops.” These boys, man. These boys.
But that’s where the broad similarities ended for me. As we traveled through the country and made site visits, I saw first-hand Malawi’s poverty, it’s lack of infrastructure and resources, and it’s dearth of opportunities for women. I cannot overstate the latter. Ever feel like you’re the only one in your house who does any work? In Malawi, that’s not even up for debate as the girls and women toil from sunup to sundown to raise children, cook, tend to crops, and gather fuel for the night.
Which brings me to a glaring difference between my home in Austin and the homes in Malawi: fuel. Or, more specifically, fuel for light. Because only 9% of Malawi has electricity.
That’s not a typo. Only nine percent of an entire country can still see their children’s faces when the sun goes down. In all of sub-Saharan Africa, 589 million people do not have access to electricity. This energy poverty affects medical centers, nutrition, schools, safety, and health. Precious vaccines can’t be refrigerated. Incubators for newborns can’t run. And, per my traveling companion Ana Flores, “8 out of 10 people in sub-Saharan Africa heat their homes and cook food using open fires. Inhalation of the smoke and fumes produced from burning traditional fuels results in over four million deaths per year, mainly among women and children. More deaths than from malaria and HIV/AIDS combined.”
This wood-fueled oven in a village we visited was by far the most advanced cooking method I saw. Most villagers just used a glorified campfire that billowed non-stop white smoke. (Note: Any of you Austin hipsters who are salivating over this “artisanal cooking dome” for your pizza joint need to stop reading and go smash your forehead with a rock right now.)
The first night of our stay in Malawi, we left our modern, comfortable lodge and rode in a shuttle bus to a nearby restaurant. As we bounced along the road, I saw people everywhere—sitting outside their houses, riding bikes, walking, and waving. Always waving. Malawians love to wave. Seriously, their official country flag should just be a giant hand shape that happily greets everyone whenever it’s breezy. Hi! Hi! Hi! Nice to see you! It’s Malawi! Hi!
On the way back from our dinner that night, this is what I saw: Nothing. The sky was pitch black, the sun was gone, and no house lights, car lights or street lights cast even a dim glow. I assumed all of the Malawians who were out earlier had gone back to the safety of their homes, but then I looked out the window again and saw shapes still walking along the road. “Those are people,” I remember thinking, stunned because it was just so damn dark and scary out there. Have you ever gone on a cavern tour and had the guide turn off her flashlight for a minute? It’s terrifying, right? The cave blindness? But you don’t really panic because you know the light is just a quick switch away.
That switch doesn’t exist in most of Malawi.
Earlier I brought up the differences between Malawi and my part of Austin. Here’s the biggest one: not only do we have more than enough electricity here, we have too much. Rapid growth, urban sprawl and development have caused many in our area to moan about “light pollution,” where unnecessary artificial light floods peaceful natural skies “making stargazing a thing of memory.” There are actual coalitions working on this issue, and our HOAs even remind us to turn off house lights at night to make it darker for everyone. The privilege of “not being able to stargaze,” of having too much brightness, cannot be ignored, even while I understand it’s all relative to where you live and what you know about the world.
The good news is that we can all do something to help Malawi and Africa. We can all help them bring light to the darkness. We can all help Africa raise their children with power and safety. ONE’s bill, the Electrify Africa Act, was reintroduced in the House this past month by Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee – Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY). The bill would help provide electricity to 50 million Africans for the first time, at no cost to US taxpayers. Yep, my favorite word in the English language: FREE.
All you need to do is sign this petition. That’s it. You don’t even have to click away to another page, which is good because I’ve gotten kind of used to you being here. Hey, have you seen my glasses? I’m not sure where I put them. SIGN, PLEASE:
As mentioned above, this post is part of a blog relay to help get the word out. Many other smart, talented writers have their own take on this issue, and here are some of them you should click on: Karen Walrond Laurie White Heather Barmore Jeannine Harvey of ONE Tracey Clark Elizabeth Atalay Rebecca Woolf Jane Maynard Heather Armstrong and Ana Flores
And if you want to get in on the campaign yourself, you should share your own favorite light-filled image on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, and tag it #ElectrifyAfrica and #LightforLight. Bonus points for adding the link to the petition: http://bit.ly/1GStA0E.
Do me proud, people. Help bring the light to where it’s needed the most.