The Installation Begins! (Abbie Weeks)

We are finally ready to begin mounting the solar panels. We chose the south-east sloping side of the roof to mount the system. We also got to meet Albert today. Albert was a Nyaka primary school student who now is studying at a vocational school to be an electrician. As he is interested in solar energy,  we are excited to welcome him to work with us. We began by explaining our particular solar configuration and the science behind it. Before we began scurrying up the ladder to the roof, we drew out the system  on the chalkboard and made sure we had all necessary components.

The science storage room already has a “three way box” which allows the building’s electricity to either be off, connected to solar energy, or connected to the hydroelectric energy. We made sure all power was off in the building before beginning the installation.

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Jeff explains the different settings on the “three way box “to Albert and Victor, local electricians, and to Albert, a former Nyaka student.

 

Today felt utterly momentous. All year we have fundraised and planned and worried with a kind of anxious excitement and wonder. Now we are here in Nyaka. We have begun to do what we came here to do. If all goes well, by the time we leave, solar power will turn the lights on!

Send us luck!

Abbie Weeks

 

 

Where to put the Panels… (Abbie Weeks)

After a quick breakfast of tea and a hard boiled egg, we walked the two kilometers of gravel road up to the Nyaka Vocational and Secondary School.

It is much more tropical and humid than I expected. We are trying to pick up the local language, Luchiga, which is only spoken within a 150km radius in Southwestern Uganda.

The students at the Secondary School did not have class today and many were busy studying. A group of girls quickly spotted Lauren and I and showed us around the classrooms. The rooms are very simple: a concrete floor, one chalkboard at the head of the class, 20 or so wooden desks, and one clock near the door.

I was impressed by the students’ meticulous notes and it was interesting to see how similar the curriculum, particularly for biology, was to my own studies.

Almost the first question I was asked, perhaps only after my name and where I was from, was if I had a boyfriend. From my conversation with the girls I learned that dating  in Uganda is very different. In secondary school, no boyfriends/girlfriends are allowed in accordance with an emphasis on academics. We also discussed snow, our families, sports, school subjects, and music. While some of our stories overlapped (apparently Justin Bieber is popular in Uganda), parts of their lives were alien to me. They asked if many people died in my village and I stumbled with my words. These teenagers are friendly and motivated yet many have lost family and dear friends to HIV/AIDS, lung cancer from cooking fires, and gastro-intestinal diseases from poor sanitation and water quality.

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We surveyed the roof and area around the computer and biology lab building. As we are equatorial we want to angle the solar panels as parallel to the ground as possible (at a zero degree angle). We anticipated constructing a ground-mounted system, but Nyaka staff worried that on term breaks, the panels may be stolen.

Tomorrow morning Lauren and I will run down here before the sun fully rises to determine where on the roof the panels will receive the maximum duration of sunlight.

Thank you for reading!

Abbie Weeks

Drive to Nyaka (Abbie Weeks)

We rose early this morning to strap the panels to the roof of our van. Nyaka recommended working with BicTours, run by Samuel Mugisha, one of the most cheerful and helpful persons I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.

Our driver was Michael and he weathered the full 12 hour drive with us. We passed the equator, two zebras (which apparently weren’t real since I was the only one who didn’t see them), red crested cranes, and hundreds of ente (cows).

 

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All of us at the Equator! Amy Weeks, Amy Boyce, Jeff Boyce, Abigail Weeks, Lauren McMillen (from left to right)

We arrived at the Nyaka Vocational and Secondary School at dusk. The students were still near the school building and at least 10 young men helped us unload the van. It was amazing to see a sea of hands easily carry the boxes we had been dragging across three continents. Now that we are finally here and the solar panels are safe, my stress is gone. Now the installation of the solar array can begin!

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Unloading the solar panels at the Nyaka Vocational and Secondary School

We are staying at the guest house on the primary school campus. There we ate dinner around 7:30, which is a typical Ugandan dinner time. Also staying at the guest house is Madeline Moore. Maddy has been here with Nyaka since last July as a Health Program Associate and Global Health Corps Fellow. She also was a Community Health Development Volunteer in the Peace Corps for two years in Zambia. I cannot wait to hear more of her stories. She was a fantastic resource for all of our questions. She told us that 2/3s of the students attending the Nyaka schools are orphans (one or both parents are deceased). In order to attend a Nyaka school, students and families go through an interview process and home visit. Nyaka staff select children from the families with the  most demonstrated need for whom an education will impact the lives’ of the entire family.

 

Tomorrow the real work begins.  I will sleep well tonight.

Best,

Abbie Weeks

Day One in Kampala (Abbie Weeks)

Today we drove on the left hand side of the road amongst swerving boda-bodas (taxi motorcycles) past lake Victoria and through markets to arrive in Kampala, the capital of Uganda and home to 1.2 million people.

Our first stop was the Nyaka Headquarters where we met with Jennifer Nantale, an extremely inspiring woman who, before joining Nyaka’s staff, worked with refugees and internally displaced persons in South Sudan, Uganda and Rwanda. She was the camp manager of the Gihembe Camp in Rwanada with over 19,000 refugees as a member of the American Refugee Committee within the United Nations Refugee Agency.  She is extremely adept at her work and an excellent leader for Nyaka. She reaffirmed my faith in Nyaka as an organization willing and capable of ending systematic poverty through their “holistic approach to community development, education, and healthcare.” At Nyaka headquarters we also met Kaweesa Robert, the Finance and Administration assistant. He joined us on our visit to the solar store to purchase batteries.  

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Abigail Weeks, Jennifer Nantale, and Lauren McMillen outside the Nyaka Office in Kampala

Photovoltaic System components can be purchased in Uganda. However, besides the gross inefficiency and limited wattage available for panels, the market is rife with counterfeit panels. The solar panels we brought are 300 watts and fall under 25 year warranty. We found nothing comparable in Uganda. We purchased four lead acid batteries from Yingli Solar. The density and pure weight of an authentic lead acid battery is hard to fabricate. The four, 12 volt batteries we purchased were under 2 year warranty and we were confident in their authenticity.

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Purity’s Storefront

At the solar store we met Purity, the store manager. Purity is a wonderfully knowledgable woman. In addition to discussing the advantages of different battery voltages for our photovoltaic (PV) system We spoke with her about politics, both in the U.S and Uganda. I was surprised by her in-depth knowledge and opinions on US politics. She seemed more informed than some US voters on our political affairs. Wherever we went the US presidential race and candidates followed. Of course our discussion exposed my ignorance of Ugandan politics past the reign of Idi Amin. Uganda hosts elections yet the last presidential result is still in dispute and the opposition to the incumbent is now imprisoned. So often we take our democracy for granted. As flawed and slow as it may be today, change is always possible through fraudless elections.

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Jeff, Robert, and Purity discuss battery cables

At times I forgot how impoverished Uganda is. In the city, the bustle of traffic and storefronts disguised the truth: In Uganda the average life expectancy  is 58.5, 7.5% of adults (aged 15-49) are living with HIV/AIDS, and the per capita income is under US $170. The depth and scope of inequality and poverty in our world is overwhelming. I felt wildly insufficient and incapable of solving such systematic issues. But on reflection, change starts with single step. Nyaka has already run a marathon in that regard. They have built a health clinic, community library, and three schools.  I hope that our solar panels will provide the additional  energy resources for teachers and students to succeed. 

After a late lunch of Matooke (a steamed and mashed banana dish) and g-nut sauce, we retired to the Entebbe Backpackers Hostel for one more night. Tomorrow we will sleep at Nyaka!

Abbie Weeks

At the airport… (Abbie Weeks)

No journey is completed in isolation. To think that one person can change the world without help is sheer folly.  This morning demonstrated that.   We arrived at the airport with 3 boxes containing 6 330-watt solar panels , 2 boxes of racking materials (used to mount the solar panels) and 5 duffel bags containing inverters, charge controllers, tools , wires and the kitchen sink.  Total weight….800 pounds of checked baggage. Over weight, over sized and the folks at United Airlines took care of everything!  Special thanks to Holly, Patty and Jerry Martinez who is the ramp supervisor.   He made sure the solar panels would fit through the doors of the plane and said that he would personally load them. Like I said, journeys like this don’t happen in isolation!

Next stop? TSA. These folks have been getting a lot of bad press of late, but the crew at DIA went above and beyond today.  The boxes that the panels are in are too big too be scanned and had to examined by hand. These folks opened the boxes and made sure they were safe. They were so excited about our trip and really helped make what could have been a challenge a great interaction!

On the plane and off to Washington D.C. for a short layover and then on to Brussels!   I have some anxiety about the solar panels making the connection with us, but we have built in some extra hours in Belgium so they can catch up to us if we miss them. I will keep you posted!

Leaving Belgium (Abbie Weeks) 

We are all at the gate about to leave for Uganda!

Simply maneuvering the panels and equipment across time zones and oceans has already been a learning experience. We would not have been able to bring our solar panels and packs to this point, overcoming various obstacles and challenges, without the help of a few wonderfully giving human beings.

Leaving Denver International Airport, our oversized and severely overweight boxes were tagged and shipped with the help of Holly A and Patty C at United Additional Services Counter along with Jerry Martinez, the ramp supervisor.  

Upon arrival in Belgium two days ago, the solar panels were left up against a wall near lost luggage. Unfortunately, the panels are bulky and heavy or else we would have easily taken them outside and found a locker. Instead, we scrambled unsuccessfully to find a luggage cart. We were told there was nowhere to put the panels even if we could move them somewhere else. After an hour or so of confusion, a security guard, now hero, at customs, Dirk, selflessly provided skilled help. Dirk is an extremely kind and dedicated man. He quite literally sprinted around the airport finding a luggage cart, translating between French and English, checking flights, and manually lifting panels around.  We thank him from the bottom of our hearts. Eventually Dirk found where we could store the solar panels at the Brussels airport. This, especially in light of terrorist attacks there a few months before, was no easy feat.

After a 48 hour layover in Brussels, we came with a resolute attitude back to the airport. We easily collected the panels but then were met with the same dilemma of being unable to move them. Using a two-leveled luggage rack we maneuvered the panels to an elevator, unloaded them, reloaded them, put them on another elevator, and reloaded. Then they wouldn’t fit through the door into the first security checkpoint we so rolled one across on a makeshift rack of 2 small carts on top of another box which was extremely unbalanced. I am sure that at one point Mr. Boyce had a panel supported upon his back alone.

We again were incredibly lucky to meet wonderful people at check-in willing to help. Miriam at Brussels Airlines checked our baggage and tickets and was one of the sweetest people I have ever met. She quickly called her supervisor to ensure that our baggage would be checked to Entebbe even though they were outside of European size regulations. Cedric, a Brussels Air supervisor, could not have been more accommodating. “The U.S., they send me goats and solar panels. Goat I sent back. [sic]” Luckily, he didn’t send back the solar panels! As I write our six solar panels and PV supplies are (hopefully) being loaded onto our plane. We have an 8 hour flight and a host trip of experiences ahead of us. I am infinitely grateful to the people whom we have encountered for working to make this journey possible.

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Miriam, Abbie, Cedric, and Lauren ready to send off the panels to the plane to Uganda

More adventures to come,

Abbie Weeks