Seeking solar rays and illumination in Uganda
Story and photographs by Beth Parks, associate professor of physics and astronomy
It’s June, and I’ve been in Uganda for 11 months. My husband, Tom, and I began 12-month Fulbright fellowships last fall at Mbarara University of Science and Technology. It didn’t take long to become accustomed to many of the new aspects of everyday life. I’m almost used to cars driving on the left, and I no longer blink when I see a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) carrying four passengers, or even with an assembled bed frame strapped across its seat. I share my house with ants, geckos, and moths — they can’t be kept out, because buildings are open to the breezes.
Visitors to Uganda always remark on the character of its people. Everyone here seems friendly, welcoming, and happy. Walking along the dirt road in the early evening, I pass children making their way home after a long day at school and guards carrying their ancient-looking rifles to or from the shops that hire them. Everyone calls out in deeply rhythmic voices, “Good evening, how are you?” It’s a formulaic exchange, but the goodwill beneath the words is genuine.
Young children pause from playing in front of their homes and wave to me: “Hello, mzungu!” Mzungu is Swahili for “white person.” It’s my new name. A boda driver slows as he passes and offers me a ride, “Mzungu, we go?” When I go to the market, vendors catch my attention: “Mzungu, buy some tomatoes?” In Uganda, mzungu is generally not meant as a slur. I think the best translation is “stranger,” as in, “Hello, stranger!” But, still, I’m called “mzungu” because I’m white, and not just because I’m not recognized. I’m somewhat used to being a minority — in physics, I’ve frequently been “the woman” — but I’d never before been “the white person.” It’s a new experience for me to be labeled by the color of my skin, and it gives me more empathy for those in the United States who live that experience every day. I know I’m not suddenly an expert on what it’s like to be a minority in the United States, but, still, it’s an education.
In the mornings, when I come into the lab at Mbarara University, the first thing I do is clean off the dust. In just a day or two, a layer of brown grit accumulates everywhere. It’s one of the things you get used to when living in Uganda. Floors need mopping every day. Belongings must be stored in closed cabinets. Students pause to wipe off their chairs with a handkerchief before sitting down to class.Where does the dust come from? Everywhere. There’s no trash collection; piles of burning food waste and plastic bottles smolder in front of homes. Plumes of black smoke emerge from tailpipes, and more than 70 percent of households cook over open wood fires. The roads of packed soil produce clouds of dust from passing cars, trucks, or boda bodas.
This dust isn’t just a nuisance; it’s also a health hazard. The dust that we can see isn’t the problem. It’s the particles that are invisible — so small that they reach the lungs and the bloodstream. In developed countries, particulate levels are monitored by the government. When they are high, air-quality alerts are issued, and if they remain high, activity restrictions reduce the levels.
In Uganda, the government doesn’t have the resources to monitor particulates. The only two published measurements were performed for a total of 17 days between 2012 and 2014 in the cities of Kampala and Jinja. The results of those studies are no surprise. The measured particulate levels were roughly five times higher than the standards set by the World Health Organization. But we don’t know if they are always this high, or if those clusters of days happened to be outliers. We also don’t know which sources are the biggest problems. This lack of data makes it hard to allocate limited resources. Is it more important to pave roads, regulate vehicle exhaust, or build landfills to prevent trash burning?
Thanks to a grant from Colgate’s Lampert Institute for Civic and Global Affairs, I was able to purchase air-quality monitors. We have started a regular program to monitor levels in the cities of Mbarara and Kampala as well as in a rural trading center, Rubindi. I’ve also submitted a grant application to the Belgian government to expand the measurement project and to train a group of Ugandan physicists to continue the research.
My other research project is also related to daily life in Uganda: lack of electricity. In the United States, the average household electricity use is 12 kWh/day per capita. In Uganda it is 0.04 kWh/day, less than the amount used by the red glowing light on your cable box. Only 20 percent of Ugandan residents have any access to electricity. The rest cook with wood or charcoal, light with candles, and pay a local business to charge their cell phones. If they’re lucky, they may have a battery-powered radio.
If a household has just 0.5 kWh/day, it makes a huge difference. Electric lights replace candles, removing the hazards due to indoor air pollution and fire, as well as the expense of candle purchases. Radios can plug into the wall instead of using batteries, reducing the cost of the electricity by a factor of 1,000!
Solar power seems like an ideal solution in Uganda: sunshine is plentiful and there’s no need for transmission lines. A solar cell just a few feet across can provide electricity for a household, but this is still too expensive for most Ugandans. If the solar cell rotates to follow the sun as it moves across the sky, then the cell can be 30 percent smaller and still provide the same energy, making the system more affordable. Usually, solar tracking involves sophisticated sensors and motors, making it impractically expensive. So, I’m collaborating with a U.S. nonprofit, SunSaluter, which makes a gravity-based solar tracker. The idea is simple: the solar cell is mounted on a pivot, with a bag of water on one side and a bag of rocks on the other. As water drips out slowly through a valve, the balance shifts, and the solar cell rotates to track the sun.
The trick is that you can’t just bring in a solution from the United States and expect it to work here. Uganda is a poor country, so solar cells are usually welded onto roofs to prevent theft. With a tilting stand, it needs to be easy to bring the solar cell indoors overnight. Also, the stand must be inexpensive — even SunSaluter’s $25 stand is too much. I’m working on developing and testing new mounting systems, thanks to a grant from Colgate’s Faculty Research Council. My master’s student worked with a local welder to build one for $6, and we’re also improving the design to make it track the sun more closely. These modifications have made the tracking system cheaper than a standard system, and next year I hope to work with a PhD student to test it in rural homes.
Uganda has frequent power outages, like other developing countries. But we often don’t notice them because life here is planned to use little electricity: buildings have no climate control, and windows provide light during the day. If I’m at work, I might hear the beeping of the battery backup as it kicks on. Having power is a benefit of being in the physics department. My colleague Michael recently submitted his PhD thesis on electric power in Uganda, and he used his expertise to ensure that we have one power strip that’s powered by a battery. When I first arrived in August 2015, the power was out for hours every day due to construction, so a steady stream of colleagues from other departments passed through our office, charging their computers on the power strip, using the printer, and sometimes stopping to chat. As my new colleagues started to share their stories, I felt like I was being admitted into their inner world.
The idea is simple: the solar cell is mounted on a pivot, with a bag of water on one side and a bag of rocks on the other. As water drips out slowly through a valve, the balance shifts, and the solar cell rotates to track the sun.
Sometime in those first few weeks, Michael’s younger brother, Hamza, came to the office. He had just arrived at the university to begin medical school. He and Michael reminisced about their childhood in northern Uganda. There was no money for candles, so the children would gather castor oil seeds to string on a spoke salvaged from a broken bicycle. In the evenings, they’d light the seeds, which provided a smoky red fire that gave just enough light for studying.
Life for their family of 13 children was always a struggle, especially after their father died. By the time Hamza was entering 8th grade, there wasn’t enough money to pay his school fees. Nevertheless, at the start of the school year, he set out for the 150 km walk to his boarding school. Over the next few weeks, Hamza tried to keep up with his schoolwork, but he had no books, no bed to sleep in, and his only food was smuggled out of the dining room by his friends. He gave up and left for home, walking hungry and crying along the dirt road. But then, a miracle happened. A man who stopped to comfort him turned out to be a friend of his father’s, and he offered Hamza a space in his home, 10 km from the school. Hamza made it through school on a combination of kindness, scholarships, and hard work, earning tuition by joining the student crew that made bricks during breaks.
I felt like I was being admitted into their inner world.
Michael recalled growing up during the war years, when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was terrorizing the north of Uganda. After school ended each day, the family would have a quick meal of whatever food they could collect, and then they’d scatter out into the bush to sleep. That way, if the rebel soldiers came, they couldn’t kill the whole family at once.
These stories have taught me how much may lie below the calm and happy exterior of Ugandans. It stretches my imagination to try to understand a childhood spent fearing slaughter by the LRA. I try to remember that some of my students and colleagues here have stories like these, and it helps me be more understanding.
My days are filled with preparing lectures, grading papers, supervising research, shopping, and cooking. Most of my interactions are on a professional level, but occasionally another story comes along.
One day, a first-year student came to me for help with a scholarship application that asked a probing question: “If you are already studying at university, explain why your current source of funding cannot continue.” It turns out that his parents had been selling land to pay his tuition, but if they sold more, they wouldn’t have enough left to feed themselves.
Then there’s Edward, who bicycles to our home every week to sell spinach from his farm. One time, after some pleasantries, I asked the question, “How was your week?” It wasn’t good, he explained. Some neighboring cows had been trampling his spinach. And his sister, whose baby has cancer, ran away from the hospital with the baby, and no one had been able to find them. He didn’t say it, but I could see he feared for the worst, as did I.
Undergraduate tuition is under $600 per year. And Edward’s whole crop of spinach is probably worth under $50 — each bundle sells for 30 cents. These problems are easily within my means to fix. And yet … I don’t. There’s a practical reason. If I pay one student’s tuition, or help one poor farmer, then soon I’ll have a line of people waiting outside my door every morning. The joy of helping one person would be overwhelmed by the pain of turning away so many others. What dent can a single person make in the sorrows of a country? To assuage my conscience, I help type the scholarship application, and I give Edward the remaining herb seeds that I brought back from South Africa — if they grow, he can make more money selling bundles of basil, sage, and thyme. But still, I can’t answer a fundamental question: What do I owe the rest of the world, when I have so much, and so many have so little?
Uganda rattles me in other ways, too. In a country with a life expectancy of 59 and an infant mortality rate of nearly 4 percent, death is never far away. On average, half of all families lose a child before age 5. On my walk to work every day, I pass two shops that sell coffins, and I struggle not to cry when I see the child-sized ones on display.
My PhD student, Silver Onyango, enjoys knowing that I have a daughter with the same name as his wife, Rachel. If he’s calling me from his wife’s phone, he’ll joke and say, “Hello, this is Silver, calling from your daughter’s phone.”
When I met him, he and his wife were eagerly anticipating the birth of their first child. So I was delighted when he called to tell me I was a “grandmother.” He promised to teach me how to pronounce his son’s name. I started thinking about what I could give them as a baby gift.
Then two days later, I received another call. “Hello, this is Silver. I’m sorry to tell you that the baby has died.”
I didn’t know what to say. I said I was very sorry. I told him to take as long as he needed, to take care of his wife, to take care of himself. I didn’t ask what caused the baby’s death. I didn’t think it was my business to ask; it wouldn’t make the loss any easier. But I can’t help but think that, had that baby been born in the United States, he might now be starting to crawl, and Silver might not have suddenly grown so much older.
It’s hard to imagine how people pick up and move on, but they do. A month later, Silver was back collecting data. And Rachel has decided to enroll for a master’s degree in physics. She finds it difficult to go back to her work teaching high school physics; staying in the same environment brings up painful memories. Instead of giving up, she’s moving forward.
But moving forward is hard. My students in Mbarara ask me for advice: how did I manage to earn a PhD and become a professor? Students at Colgate who ask the same question are easy to advise: work hard in your physics classes and apply for summer research positions, then you have a good chance of admission to PhD programs with free tuition and a living stipend. In Uganda, it’s not so easy. Perhaps 20 Ugandan students per year can get a scholarship for a physics PhD, including those students who win competitions to study abroad in Europe or the United States. The odds aren’t good.
My students in Uganda who earn a bachelor’s degree will probably get jobs — Mbarara University has the second-best physics program in the country, and the students all graduate with a high school teaching license. Uganda has a median age of 15 (the youngest in the world) and a population predicted to double in 20 years, so teaching is a growing profession.
But for other university graduates, in a country almost without industries, even an education is no guarantee of a job. Youth unemployment is more than 60 percent, and approximately one-third of youth with university degrees don’t have jobs. Even a job wiping the dust off supermarket shelves is a prize.
The students who are so grateful for the opportunity to learn that they thank me for correcting their papers…
Given the shortage of employment opportunities, I hire people whenever I can. Francis delivers our drinking water, walking a mile from the store to our house with a 45-pound bottle of water. We pay him enough that he could easily take a boda boda, but he doesn’t want to waste the 30-cent fare. Edward followed me home to explain his business delivering vegetables, so I arranged to buy spinach from him weekly, even though I could usually do better in the market. When we moved to a new house, four separate women knocked on our door asking for the privilege of being our maid.
How can it be that, in a country with so many resources, there are so many people eager to work, and nothing for them to do? Last May, at Colgate’s liberal arts core faculty retreat, I used my book allowance to select books on African history, poverty, and development. With no time to read them before I left, I brought them with me. Huddled under the mosquito net, reading by flashlight because the power is out, I have a different perspective from the author when reading Why Globalization Works. There are so many interlocking problems: corruption, poverty, and disease. High birthrates force subdivision of family farms, and in another generation, many will be so small that they can’t feed the family. There are few industries to offer an alternative to farming. Sometimes I’m terrified to think about Uganda’s future.
But other times, I’m hopeful. Ten years ago, there were no paved roads in Mbarara; now there’s a highway that stretches from Kampala almost to Bwindi. I see roofs capped by solar panels, and I see new construction everywhere. The country is young, determined, and optimistic. And there’s reason for optimism. If a man can go from studying in the bush to teaching Maxwell’s equations, then there’s no telling how far the next generation might go.
I have only weeks left in Uganda. I’m eager to return to my home and family, but there’s also so much more that I wish I could accomplish. I’m glad that I have master’s and PhD students to give me a reason to come back. I wonder what I’ll miss most about Uganda. The ripe avocados and the passion fruit juice? The children who wave and call out, “Hello, mzungu!” making me a celebrity everywhere I go? The students who are so grateful for the opportunity to learn that they thank me for correcting their papers? I hope that I’ll remember the lessons that I’ve learned here: appreciating a good meal and a hot shower; accepting setbacks and delays without complaint; greeting strangers with a warm smile and an open heart; and, most of all, maintaining hope that steady work will take us to a better future.
From the great goat roast to “geek humor,” Parks’s blog — replete with vibrant photos — follows her Ugandan adventures: twelvemonthsinmbarara.wordpress.com
The Fulbright scholar program: a fellowship program run by the U.S. Department of State that sends American academics abroad to teach and conduct research
Colgate’s Faculty Research Council: supports research and creative work in all fields
Colgate’s Lampert Institute for Civic and Global Affairs: provides a forum for study and debate in the areas of civic affairs and public policy. The institute’s Faculty Scholars program supports international research related to these topics.
Learn more about Colgate’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.
Opening image: Composite image of traffic in Kampala (Beth Parks) and solar panels (iStock)