A few years ago while photographing Speckled Mousebirds of my hotel in Addis Ababa, I fell and sprained my ankle. No doubt aided by the altitude, it was swollen and sore, but I didn’t think it required medical attention. I investigated renting crutches, but no option existed. The hotel had one wheelchair from the 80s, which I could use while on its premises. But I had come to speak at a conference, so I was on the move.
For the next three days, I was wheeled to a taxi at the front door. On arrival at the conference, I was scooped up and carried several flights of stairs and around the conference as required, including up to the podium when I spoke. I wanted to go gift shopping for handmade scarves that Ethiopia is famous for, again, I was warmly carried from shop to shop.
None of my carriers expected a tip and said the same thing. I was a guest in their country; it was their duty to help me. I gave each one something, but only two accepted it after I insisted. Open-hearted generosity has been my experience throughout the continent.
Some of my most unique experiences were in the West African nation of Niger.
While travelling in an air-conditioned Land Cruiser across the Sahara Desert to distribute wind-up radios to remote villages, our UN convoy spotted a large camel caravan being led by a white camel. We stopped the caravan and offered the leader a solar and wind-up radio. He commented that “Allah had sent me to help them and it was a good omen for their journey.” As a gesture of hospitality, the Taureg chief invited me to join them. I didn’t go far as it would have been foolhardy to ride a poorly tempered camel for any distance, but it sure was fun!
On another trip, I asked the Sultan of Aïr (our partner, along with the army and the UNDP in a guns-for-radios project), if I could meet his wives. I had no idea that when I called on them in the sultan’s ancient mud brick palace complex in Agadez, that I was the first outsider they had ever met. Each from different Tuareg clans, had married the sultan at 14 and collectively they were raising 24 children. They never left the palace, except for a family funeral. We might call it a harem; the wives said they lived in a “zaoura”.
During the following week, a film crew and I were returning by road one sunny afternoon from the Cure Salée or “Festival of the Nomads” in the town of Ingal. The sky grew ominously dark. Luckily, we were only a couple of miles from our accommodation. No sooner had we cloistered ourselves in our guest house, than every window became pitch black. It was a locust swarm. The next morning dead locusts carpeted the ground. En route back to the capital, Niamey, the same irrigated green fields that we had passed the week before were now decimated.
The most heart-breaking memories lie in Rwanda.
In early 1999 I was invited to Rwanda to meet with children orphaned by the genocide who had received our radios from the British government. Nothing prepared me for what I experienced. The 1994 genocide had orphaned one million children and at that time there were 101,000 households headed by a child under 18; 70% were led by girls. Child-headed households were the poorest of the poor. Their only clothes were the ones on their back; they were malnourished and often in poor health. Most didn’t even have soap. The younger ones might be in school, while the older ones farmed or kept goats to survive.
I spoke with dozens of children, some as young as nine, who were heading households, but who now owned a wind-up radio. They told me they wound them up and listened all night long. They didn’t trust the adults around them, but they trusted the voices on the radio. Although radio was used to fuel the genocide, (under the government’s watchful eye), now dramas about health, hygiene, peace and reconciliation and much more occupied the airwaves. As children described what the radios meant to them, they were speaking to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The radios gave them a sense of safety and security above all else.
Where Rwanda was then and where it is now, is nothing short of a miracle. Many of those children who grew up in child families, now have jobs, houses with electricity and children of their own. Over the years, we placed more than 15,000 power-independent radios into child-headed families, which were often listened to by entire communities. In the dozens of initiatives that I’ve been involved in, this one, which we called Project Muraho (hello in Kinyarwanda) in my opinion, had the greatest impact.
Some of my happiest memories have been in Kenya.
In 2010 we were working with an organisation that helped rural women understand their legal rights and encouraged them to register to vote. We had solar and wind-up radios to distribute, as well as solar and wind-up lights, a novel concept then.
Fifty Maasai women in traditional dress gathered in a conference facility of a basic hotel in the dusty provincial town of Narok for a two-day workshop. These were local women leaders who had never spent the night in a hotel or flipped on a light switch. Two women spoke English and were the only two that were literate. One, Agnes, became my interpreter, and over time, one of my dearest friends.
I was the first white person they had ever met. They’d seen plenty of white people, but they had never interacted with one. It took a while to break the ice, but Agnes helped me to build trust – in a way that only women can.
Disarmingly open about themselves, their fears, concerns and hopes, all were co-wives. Some had only one other wife, one had five and most were in-between. Overall, they thought this was a good thing for families. Each woman had between four and six children; many had grandchildren and some even great-grandchildren. Families live collectively in manyattas (compounds). Older women didn’t know their exact ages as they had never received birth certificates. As they had never left the area, they never had required formal identification. They loved cows, the lifeblood of Maasai culture, and hated animals like lions and leopards that would harm their herds.
They understood their changing environments. They didn’t know the term climate change, but they described it – fewer and weaker rains, longer dry seasons, taking cows further for pastureland, walking greater distances for firewood. Fewer trees. More wind. Constant dust. Their explanation was that it was God’s will.
Every aspect of Maasai culture is either male or female. Radios and the batteries to power them are male. Thus, it would have been highly unusual for women to have had a radio or even to have turned one on. Community stations broadcast in the Maa language and their worlds would be opened up. They decided to call the radios “the women radio” so their husbands wouldn’t take them along on their spears when they left to graze their cows in faraway pastures.
I also talked about my life. They repeatedly said they would pray for me to have children. The Western concept of women choosing not to have children was lost on them. “If I was away so much, then did my husband have a concubine?” they asked. One woman said that if I lived in her village they would gossip about me. We laughed a lot during those two days.
And when the workshop ended, many of the women removed a piece of their own colourful beaded jewellery and gave it to me. This is the loveliest honour you can imagine
Disarmed by Africans everywhere
Hundreds of unexpected encounters and sweet memories have touched me forever. Like tall 18-year-old Tanzanian, Tumaini, who sat on tiny chairs in a grade 1 radio school class to learn to read and write. An orphan, he sold chips by the side of the road and felt humiliated that he couldn’t read money. Or Blessing, who rode a bicycle in the hot sun every Friday in Western Zambia taking the Lifeplayer between women’s listener groups so mothers could listen to nutrition programmes. And a family who had lost their worldly possessions in Mozambique’s catastrophic floods that invited me to share their one meal of the day. The mother was worried that I might be hungry. Time and again, I’ve been disarmed by the generosity, warmth, candour and marvellous senses of humour of people I’ve met working all over the continent.
Unreservedly unqualified when I started Lifeline Energy (which was known as Freeplay Foundation at the time), what I knew about development, radio and manufacturing would fit snugly into a little paragraph. But I learned from my first meeting in 1999 with women subsistence farmers in Mozambique that had no idea about the radio programmes that had been created to benefit them. They didn’t have radios, or money for batteries. That first encounter gave my career, life and worldview new direction and focus.
I have seen everywhere across Africa the perils and the sheer injustice of energy poverty due to the lack of affordable and renewable energy sources. How women disproportionately suffer lung diseases due to indoor smoke inhalation from cooking with kerosene or from wood smoke; how dangerous it is to walk long distances in harsh terrain to collect firewood; how children harm their eyes while studying to the weak flames of kerosene lanterns. And how something as simple as cheap disposable batteries prevent learning, even hearing the time of day, or the weather report because families were too poor to buy them. Luckily, access to renewable energy sources is now a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) and new affordable products along with pay-as-you-do payment options are making genuine inroads for the poorest.
It’s not about selling radios
It would be easy to think that what I do is about selling radios or MP3 players. For me it’s never been that. It’s been about providing a sustainable access point to learning, to new information, to knowledge that helps people make better choices and decisions. I’ve seen time and again where people feel humiliated, believe that they’re stupid, that they don’t know anything, or they’re not important because they cannot read or didn’t finish school.
Over the years I’ve also seen how donors want the impact of their grants to fit into boxes. Did listening to the radio cause visits to clinics rise, did HIV rates decline, did grades improve, did crop yields increase? And yes, these are important indicators to measure.
However, for me the psycho-social benefits of radio (and MP3) are just as, if not more important: feeling safe at night listening to voices you trust; learning about an association to join of vulnerable girls like yourself so you wouldn’t feel alone any longer; believing that the radio teacher in Zambia, Mrs Musando, loves you when no one else does; listening to talk radio shows and learning a different perspective about a group you felt hatred for, or just simply feeling informed from listening to local news in your language. These are harder to measure and aren’t something you can tick off in a box.
As we find ourselves in the Fourth Industrial Revolution where technology will increasingly dominate our everyday lives, we have become even more visually oriented with our phones, tablets and computers. But there is something so powerful that lights up our brains and imaginations as we listen. And this is what radio speaks to. Radio is no less important today in Africa than it was when I started 20 years ago.
I guess the sprained ankle was worth it after all – not only for the new friends I made and the hospitality I received, but also for all the lovely photos that I have of those cheeky Mousebirds.
Author | Kristine Pearson
Chief Executive of Lifeline Energy
Christine Pearson is the founding Chief Executive of Lifeline Energy since 1999. She was previously an executive with a large South African banking group. Kristine is a fellow of the World Economic Forum’s Schwab Foundation; served on the Women’s Leadership Board of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; was named a Hero of the Environment by Time magazine and was the 2005 recipient of the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award.