Friday, June 30, 2017

Learning in Rwanda

Rwanda offers our students an extremely rich and diversified learning experience.  None have been in Africa before, let alone Rwanda.  They learn that these Rwandans who look so different, whose language, Kinywanda, is so different from Chinese, who eat a lot of beans, bananas, maize, cassava, and sorghum, are no different from themselves as human beings.  

They learn about Belgian colonialism, one consequence of which is the older generation speak French, while the younger are learning English to connect better with the world.  They learn, of course, about the Genocide and Reconciliation.  They learn how 800,000 people can be killed in the frenzy of 100 days, at the rate of 8,000 a day.  They also learn that it is possible to recover and rebuild from the ruins of such devastation and deep animosity.  

They learn why Rwanda is so clean.  Rwanda is extremely clean physically in the sense of the absence of garbage anywhere, in the city as well as the villages in the mountain.  The Rwanda government is also well known to be clean in the sense of being very low in corruption. 

They learn about extreme poverty, when people live in mud houses in the 21th century, without electricity nor running water.  They learning about extreme isolation, where people cannot afford to travel to the city, where there are no newspapers and no television, where most people do not even own a radio.  They work inside someone’s house for 2 hours at a time, going through all the rooms, and interview the owners.  They get to know intimately what the household owners eat and do for a living, where and how do they sleep, how they dress, who is going to school, who is sick, and what their aspirations are.  

They work along side students from University of Rwanda and youth volunteers from the village for 2 weeks. They learn a little of the language Kinyawanda and their music.   Some learn a bit about Christianity because many of the youths are fervent believers.  They get to know about the job prospects of university graduates as well as the young people from the villages.  

They learn about working together with fellow students from Hong Kong and Rwanda to install electrical wiring.  They learn how to organise themselves to install 24 kilogram solar panels on 15 feet high roofs.  They learn how to arrange to have 2 people on the ground pass the solar panels to the 2 people on the ladders, who, in turn, pass the solar panels to the 2 on the roof.  They learn how electricity works.  They learn how to use hand and power tools.  They learn about the digital gap and appropriate technology.  

They learn to step up and take responsibility.  They learn to be honest about the mistakes they make, and to correct their own mistakes.  They learn to lead by example, by having the courage to take up challenges, by serving others.  They learn the joy of working hard to achieve something meaningful for other people.  They learn the joy of being part of something bigger than themselves.  They learn about themselves.  

People often ask why we bring our students to Rwanda.  These are the reasons.  

Madame M of Gicaca

Each of the 100+ households where we installed wiring for electricity has a story to tell.  For example, there was this one headed by a couple with 5 children.    They were one of the poorest people in the country, with few belongings.  They used to have goats, a radio, and a battery-powered flash light. 

Then the mother got sick.  She didn’t mentioned the cost for the treatment at the hospital. I heard that for the poorest, government insurance cover the medical expenses.   But she emphasised that the hospital was far away.  Transport by motorbike to the hospital costed 3,000 Rwandan franc (rwf), which is equivalent to about 3.5 US dollars; and another 3,000 rwf coming back.  Because of her illness they had to sell the goats and the radio.  Now they use candles when they can afford them.  They eat their dinner at 7 PM and go to bed at 8 PM.  There is just not much that you can do in the dark.  

We realised last year that radios were in demand.  Hence we bought a bunch of small inexpensive radios from China to give one household each.  With the radio, they can listen to news, job advertisements and more. While our team interviewed the mother, her daughter was hovering nearby listening to Christian music non-stop on the new radio. They must have been starved of entertainment since the old radio was sold.  

The mother is now more hopeful.  She it taking medicine for her illness.  With the car battery-powered LED lights, they can have friends to visit at night, and stay up until 9 PM.  Life is slightly easier and more tolerable.  

The material costs for the battery, wiring, LED lights, radio, phone chargers, etc., come up to around 50 USD.  Even when we add in the cost of the solar panels, amortised over the 20+ households that each charging station serves, the cost per household is approximately only 60 USD.  But what a difference it makes for the lady’s household!

Both of my students who interviewed her were Christians. They prayed for her at the end of the interview.  Their problems are not all over.  But they are more hopeful.  When we left, she was smiling broadly.  

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Teaching fishing in Rwanda

In 2016, our team set up 4 nano solar-electrical power charging stations, and wired up ~60 houses for electricity.  This year we plan to set up another 4 charging stations, and wire up ~100 houses.  Yet there are still another 100 households in the same village that we cannot help.  Some have asked why they are not chosen.  We feel bad but there is just so much we can do.  And this is just one village in the Gicaca cell in Gikomero sector in Gasabo district in the city of Kigali.  There are millions of people living in Rwanda in similar situations without electricity.  How many can we help?  It is frustrating.   

A student suggested that we train some of the Rwandan students to do it, and help them set up social enterprises, so that they can help themselves, and create jobs at the same time.  That is an excellent idea.  In fact, it is something that we have been trying to do.  This year, we have 7 students from University of Rwanda and another 7 young people from Gicaca associated with AEE working with the Solar power team.  

We train them to do soldering, install the wiring in the houses, setup the solar panels on the roof of the charging stations, and install the more complex circuits to charge 5 batteries at the same time.  

Last year, after we left, the local youths managed to wire up 40 houses under the guidance of AEE.  One lady managed to move the complete wiring system from the house we installed it in to a new house that she bought.  So we know that we can teach these skills.  That is also why we brought in the students from University of Rwanda this year.  We are hoping that, with a higher level of education and better English in general, they may be able to make even better use of the skills we teach them.  Both the Gicaca youths and the U Rwanda students are learning fast, and in many situations, are performing even better than my own students.  So we are hopeful that we are making some progress in transferring the skills to make it a truly local enterprise.  

However, there are still many challenges that have to be overcome, before this can come a local enterprise.  

Firstly there is the cost of the solar panels and the controllers.  The solar panels are relatively inexpensive in Hong Kong and China, where they are manufactured.   It probably costs USD 300 to buy them in Hong Kong., to set up one charging station.  But they are much more expensive here in Rwanda, probably because of the transportation costs and the profits of the middlemen.  

Then there is the more intangible skills of setting up and managing a business.  The local young people generally have a secondary school level of education, and do not have the business skills required.  The University of Rwanda students are better educated but they live in the city.  It is not easy for them to travel to mountainous areas such as Gicaca.  

AEE has experience in helping people to start small businesses, but generally related to farming, not in technical fields.  And they are stretched very thin in supporting the thousands of self-help groups, education, reconciliation, and other missions.  

Then there is the matter of finance.  The local youths, the University of Rwanda students, and even AEE are all struggling under severe financial pressure.  Where is the finance coming from for the start up of these small business?  

We have not lost hope despite the frustration and challenges.  Far from it.  Some students commented that we should focus on the ones that we can help, and not to agonise over those we cannot yet help.  That is certainly wise.  We cannot solve the complete problem in one go.   But if we are determined and keep working on it, we will be making bigger and bigger impact.  I am glad to have these young people as my students.  

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Man’s House in Gicaca

Rwanda is one of the poorest countries in the world.  GDP per capita is around USD 670.  In comparison, Hong Kong’s is USD 36,000 and USA’s is USD 52,000.  Kigali is a modest city by world standards.  The villagers in Gicaca are even poorer.  

It is not just that in most households there is no electricity nor running water.  Very often there is almost nothing.  

When we wire up a house for electricity, we need to determine where to place the battery, the LED lights, etc.  We want to avoid placing the battery in the bed room, for safety reasons, and we would like to place the LED lights in the rooms which are most used at night.  

One student has remarked that it is often difficult to determine the function of the rooms.  All are pretty much the same - there is little or no furniture.  In fact, there is hardly anything.

Clothes hang on strings.  Water cans lie on the muddy floor.  Many has no beds. Some have matts or mattresses on the floor.  Some do not even have that. 

I measured a man’s house by foot.  He lives with one of his sons.  The house has 3 rooms, with a total area of ~140 square feet, roughly 70 square feet per person.  I was told it is roughly the size of a prison cell.  

The house was constructed by setting up a frame with tree branches.  The frame is tied together with strings made with straw.  Mud is then patted onto the frame.  Some walls are finished by laying on a finer layer of mud. 

The man’s kitchen consists of 2 stones set in the ground outside the house.  

The man is taking medicine for malaria.  Malaria is giving him pain in many places in his body. 

Such is life for many in Gicaca cell in Gikomero sector in the city of Kigali in the Republic of Rwanda. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Service Gicaca 2017

We return to Gicaca cell in Gikomero sector in the mountains outside Kigali.  Kigali is a modest city by world standards, with few high rises, no subway but developing quickly.  In contrast, perhaps only 40 kilometres away high in the mountains, Gicaca offers a very basic subsistence.  No electricity.  No running water.  You grow most of what you eat.  

Armed with the experience from past years, AEE set a very ambitious target for 2017: 200+ houses and 6 solar charging stations.  They want to provide electricity for every household in the village selected, instead of only those who are members of AEE.  The Gikomero government officer greeted us in a very simple, 5 minute ceremony, and we are off to work. We told AEE that realistically we can only hope to setup ~100 houses and 3 to 4 stations. In the mean time, a team led by a nursing instructor will help the villagers with their diets, hygiene, exercises and other health issues.  

Faced with such a challenge, we recruited 14 students from University of Rwanda and 7 youths from the villages.  This local contingent strengthen significantly the 38 staff and students from PolyU. 

As soon as the U of Rwanda students arrive on Monday, 7 of them started working with our students in training and preparing to work on the solar panels and electrical systems.  They are mainly studying Statistics and Engineering, very smart, and are able to pick up very quickly.  

The other 7 are from health related disciplines such as nursing.  They impressed our nursing team very much with their knowledge of the health system in Rwanda and their poise.  The economy in Rwanda is growing fast, but the population is growing faster.  Jobs are not easy to find, even for university graduates.  Yet these young people are hopeful.  Many have a strong faith in God.  

There is so much work to do, our students are meeting and preparing until late at night.  They are working continuous for 2 weeks, putting in much more than the minimum 40 hours required.  

There is a strong spirit of wanting to do something for the local community, to get to know the Rwanda students, and in general get to know the country.  Some students are asking questions such as: why did we choose Rwanda?  What do we expect from  coming to Rwanda? What to say to people when they talk about their families being killed in the Genocide? 

We are very proud of these hard-working and thoughtful students.  

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

New Life Bible Church, Kigali

Two days after returning from Cambodia, I (together with other colleagues) took another team to Rwanda for another service-learning project, arriving on Saturday afternoon.  Sunday is a rest day.  Some of us went to church, and some students went with us.  New Life is an English speaking church, and apparently sponsored by Americans.  Other than a few whites, practically everyone is African.  I was also told that many among the congregation are foreigners, perhaps from other African countries.  Rwanda was ruled by the Belgians for many decades and French was dominant.  In recent years English has become more common, particularly in business and education.  Hence the English speaking congregation tend to have more foreigners and the better-off and better-educated Rwandans.  

The singing was very rhythmic and powerful, lasting more than half an hour. I could see our students enjoying it and many participating enthusiastically. 

After the singing, the pastor called the children forward to prayed for them before sending off, presumably to Sunday School.  There were lots and lots of them, perhaps close to a hundred.  It was quite amazing.  

The people there were very friendly.  Many greeted us and shook our hands.  Unfortunately, we could not stay too long to make friends.  We had to get back, have our lunch, and then start the culture program, visiting the Genocide Memorial in Kigali and the terrifying Genocide church site at Nyamata, where 10,000 people were killed.  I understand faith played a very significant role in the reconciliation after the Genocide.  AEE itself has a reconciliations team whose work is based on faith in God.  God has forgiven our own sins, because of it we can forgive others.  

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wiring houses for electricity

When a car battery is charged up, the villagers can take the battery home to use.  

We have wired up 83 houses, and provided each house with several LED lights, mobile phone chargers, and a small radio.  

Some of the houses are constructed of wood.  Some consist of a simple wooden frame covered with corrugated metal sheets, or even simpler methods of construction.  When the heavy rain comes, which is often in Cambodia, the houses do not provide a lot of protection against the elements.  

Some have few possessions.  A few clothes hanging from strings, a mattress, a mosquito net, a sack of rice, …

At a house, the mother was feeding her toddler son with a fruit from the Palmyra Palm (糖棕).  

The translucent flesh tastes like the flesh from a young coconut and slightly sweet.  Quite a good snack.  The toddler seems to want the mother to feed the cat with the fruit, but the mother refuses, with a smile.  

At another house, some students taking a service-learning subject taught by a nursing instructor were teaching the inhabitants some stretching exercises.  

Such is village life in Kampong Speu.  Some of the Cambodian students from other provinces such as Takou and Kampong Cham commented that village life here seems more impoverished.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Teachable Moment in Service-Learning

At one point while setting up a charging station, a student found a controller smoking.  He didn't know what to do and was obviously distressed.  We were afraid that the controller might have been damaged. I told him to disconnect the battery, to cut of power to the controller.  I waited a bit for the controller to cool down.  There did not seem to be serious physical damage.  I suspected that he might have accidentally reversed the polarity of the cables attached to the battery, causing a high current to flow through the controller.  So I told him to connect the cables again to see whether the controller can still function, making sure that the polarities are correct.  It worked!  The controller seemed OK.  He was so relieved.  I proceeded to explain to him what has happened, what he could do when such things happen, and why.  

This is what we call a teachable moment.  This is why service-learning can be so effective as a pedagogy.  You are faced with a real world problem where your actions have real impact.  The student is motivated to do a job that is obviously meaningful.  If it is done well, your client is deeply appreciative.  If you fail, it can also be hugely disappointing for everyone.  He is completely focused and eager to do it right.  When he makes a mistake, he is under pressure to learn how to fix it.  When he does fix it, he is so totally relieved and satisfied.  I am sure this moment will stick in his mind for the rest of his life.  This is also one of the most rewarding moments for a teacher. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Nano Solar Power Stations in Kampong Speu

This year we explored a new site, a village approximately 70 kilometres west of Phnom Penh in Kampong Speu province.  It was suggested by our partner NGO, Young People Do, who have already been doing quite a bit of work in the area.  Later on, some of the students from Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) told us that this is one of the poorer provinces in a poor country.  Perhaps that is why we are working here.  

The students have been working there when I arrived with some officials from RUPP, including a vice rector and some deans of schools.  There were very happy with what they see, a charging station nearing completion.  At each station, 12 solar panels together can generate 240 watts, sufficient to charge 6 car batteries at the same time.  The villagers take their batteries to the station to be charged.  Then they can take the batteries home to run LED lights, radios, charge mobile phones and other small appliances.  

The students have to construct the frame for the charging station.  To secure the frame, they have to dig holes in the ground, and when available, pour concrete, and pack gravel to secure the posts.  

Then they have to install the solar panels and controllers, attach the cables, and test the system.  

Each station serves ~10 families within short walking distance.  We are building 8 such stations to serve 80+ families in one week.   Some of the RUPP teachers explained to us that, after working with us for a year, they feel they have learning enough about the technology to start doing it on their own, when we have left.  At the same time, they want us to continue to support them and to work with them.  We are so glad that we have successfully pass on the knowledge and skills that we have developed.  We can come here for 2 weeks each time.  But they are here year long and can make a much bigger impact than we do.  We feel privileged to be able to participate in the development of this country.  We are also glad that we have chosen a technology that is within reach of the local community, that they feel they can master themselves.