I went to Wondo to see the light. I don’t mean in a religious way, although I did find it at a church. I’m talking about a street light. Thanks to a small Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) project, the remote mountainside community Wondo in Haiti’s Artibonite region has recently installed its first working light.
The children and youth of Wondo are learning how to maintain and profit from the simple solar-powered electrical system that powers the light attached to the top of a pole. This simple project is already making a big difference in the community, where the light beside the church has become a place for people of all ages to gather after dark.
MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht
“The light shines all night. It shines on everyone who comes. It protects everyone,” Willem Alcius told me. “And sometimes, people who are just passing by, they’ll come and spend some time by the light.”
Alcius is a club monitor (leader) of Movman Timoun Lavi Mie (MoTiLaM; Children’s Movement for a Better Life), a network of MCC-supported kids’ environmental clubs located in Haiti’s Artibonite region. Organized by MCC’s partner, Konbit Peyizan, the clubs are a platform for teaching young people about environmental protection, nutrition and conflict resolution.
When I asked Alcius if the light is making a difference in his community, he didn’t hesitate.
“A hundred percent,” he replied. “A hundred percent.”
According to the World Bank, Haiti has the third-worst rate of “power transmission and distribution losses.” That means that even though more than half of urban households are connected to an electrical grid, it may not be providing any current.
As a result of a complex and ongoing economic and political crisis in Haiti, even relatively wealthy neighborhoods in the capital, Port-au-Prince, currently receive only a few hours of state-provided electricity a day. The majority of the city receives none at all. Most towns and rural areas have never been attached to an electrical grid.
It can be hard to imagine just how dark it can be at night in an unlit village if you’ve never experienced it. On a moonless night with no streetlights, no porch lights and no headlights, the darkness is thick, impenetrable. Activities that require light, like chores and homework, need to be finished before sunset—between 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., depending on the time of year.
How Wondo MoTiLaM uses solar power
One late afternoon in April, I got on the back of a motorcycle with Alcius to head up the mountainside to Wondo. A good motorcycle driver and a strong stomach will get you halfway up the steep and rocky mountainside road to Wondo in half an hour; the rest of the way is only passable on foot.
The well-organized, well-attended Wondo MoTiLaM club, which meets at the church, hosts the solar panel project. Staff from Konbit Peyizanon trained club members on the technical and microbusiness aspects of the project, including business planning, money management and basic accounting.
MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht
Club members not only maintain the equipment installed on the church roof, they generate money for the club from the pay-per-use phone-charging station. Charging a cell phone costs 10 Haitian gourdes (about US 12 cents); a radio costs 50 gourdes (about US 60 cents).
Some club members have big dreams of using the money to set up a similar solar project in nearby communities, where their friends and family still lack access to electricity.
A place for everyone
I sat outside with Alcius and Joseph Caranol, who helped manage the technical aspects of the solar set-up, as well as several MoTiLaM club members, waiting for the sun to go down so I could see the light in action.
“Students are definitely studying more,” said Caranol. “Now that we have this light, there is a better chance that students who didn’t pass their exams in the past will pass now.”
Of course, it’s too early to say whether or not that will be the case there’s a couple months of school still to go ‒ but as Alcius flipped the switch and the light turned on, sure enough, a studious cluster of children formed underneath it. They leaned against the wall or piled two or three to a chair, poring over their school books.
MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht
It’s not just young people benefitting from the light. Before the system was installed, adults had to walk two hours down the mountain to the town of Desarmes to find a phone charging service. In remote areas, cell phones are a vital connection to family, friends, emergency contacts and potential employers. Now, for a low cost, people can charge their phones in their own community.
The lighted space also is becoming a social hub for Wondo’s residents, who feel safe and comfortable spending time under the light with their neighbors, talking politics or discussing the Bible.
And for the young people in the MoTiLaM kids’ club, the light isn’t just useful—it’s a source of pride.
“They’re so proud to have this in their own community,” said Alcius. “In the evening when it starts to get dark and they see the light shining, it’s a big deal to them. They feel like the community is starting to develop.”
MCC photo/Annalee Geisbrecht
By the time we left Wondo, it was completely dark. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, much less the little mountain stream we had to cross on the way back to where we left our ride.
As the motorcycle started picking its way back down the steep slope, Alcius tapped me on the shoulder and pointed. Across the ravine, I could see the solar light from the church—the only light for miles around, brilliant in the darkness, shining for everyone to see.