Jane Reitsma (Changent/Teacher)

Jane ReitsmaHow many times have you heard about a group of students going overseas and they end up painting a wall of a classroom?

Or lugging suitcases full of clothes and toiletries to hand out to people?

Why did you paint that wall and what happens when the clothes get worn and the toiletries run out?

Have you ever wondered if you could make a truly good and lasting impact in a person's or a whole community's life?

I am going to tell you one story about how a group of elementary students had a huge and lasting impact on a rural community in Uganda. It will tell you everything about what I do and why I believe that youth can contribute to real and lasting change.

Can you imagine a life where everything goes dark by sunset at 6pm? No lights, no tv, no computer… Sure you may have a kitchen fire going or candles but the fumes are dangerous at times and it is too dim for reading or writing.

Definitely there are wonderful friends and family to talk to. And there may be a local event to attend. But it is next to impossible to do homework, do business, or read a book. Every day most learning and business comes to a halt at 6pm and will not start again till sunrise 12 hours later.

Now, do you have any idea the amazing impact a small amount of solar electricity can have on a community or family?

For around 7 years now I have worked with a rural community in Uganda, eastern Africa. Kitengesa is located outside of the town of Masaka (west of the capital city of Kampala). It is about 1.5 hours on foot from Masaka, less by bike (if you have one), and maybe 20 minutes by motorcycle taxi. Most people walk everywhere.

Kitengesa is actually very close to an urban centre compared to some communities in Uganda. Kitengesa has one main strip of small storefronts- if you need gas, a lady will hand pour it into your car.

Most people live in basic, simple brick homes and have a small piece of land to grow food on. There is no electricity and very few people have running water. If you have running water, it is intermittent at best. There are no phone lines, no cable lines, no electricity lines.

Kitengesa is very lucky to be home to a Ugandan professor, his American professor wife, and a dedicated secondary school principal. They opened the Kitengesa Community Library and it is from this library centre that life in Kitengesa started to change.

The library amassed a small collection of books and newspapers that all community members could read (once they paid a small fee to become as library patron). A few years later my former organization Youth Millennium Project (YMP) helped bring a solar electricity panel to the library. In fact one of the major funders YMP worked with on this solar electricity project was an elementary school in the suburbs of Vancouver- correction- a group of elementary students! That was one truly dedicated group of students that at a very young age got to have a huge impact in the lives of an entire community half way around the world.

Thanks to the solar panel, the library could stay open after dark. Once children and adults were finished their chores and had eaten dinner they could return to the library to do homework, mark homework, prepare classes, read the news, read books, or even use the space for gatherings to discuss community needs and business development.

As well, the library charged a small fee for community members to charge their mobile phones. The money collected supported the work of the library scholars (secondary students who worked at the library) who in turn used their earnings to pay for school fees and books. Anyone that reads about mobile phones in developing communities knows the amazing impact they alone provide.

They are used to connect with family and resources outside your community. They are used to call doctors or for transportation in case of a medical emergency. You can do banking via mobile phones and send money to other people. And you can receive important information and news via SMS. This is hugely beneficial to anyone doing business in a rural area. Mobile phones are many people’s main and only access to the outside world.

Often being able to charge your phone locally cuts the cost by up to 80% because you no longer have pay transportation costs to an urban area to simply get your phone charged!

Why am I particularly interested in solar electricity? It is one of many things I believe can make a difference- including good education, libraries, health support, access to healthy food, protecting the environment, and the development of social enterprises (good local business).

But the basis of everything Stratosphere does is routed in learning because I believe that good community development comes from access to knowledge. Without a doubt solar electricity used to power mobile phones, power a computer, light up a library, or simply provide light for homework or preparing classes, has an incredible impact on a rural person’s access to knowledge.

And look at the incredible sustainable impact the Canadian suburban elementary school had on a community half way around the world. That is definitely something to learn from and be proud of.

I truly believe that access to knowledge and information is the key to making the world a better place. Okay, I admit, I am a teacher and this is what I am supposed to believe. The other thing I believe is that youth are not given the credit they deserve.

Over and over adults ask youth to get involved in making the world a better place but they don't give youth the freedom and knowledge they need to make their own decisions about what good community development is. I help give youth the tools they need to make their OWN decisions. I teach students about good community development through a series of workshops. Then the students do an overseas experience volunteering, visiting amazing local organizations and enterprises, and some sightseeing. On return from the trip we talk about what they experienced and saw and get their opinions on what they think good community development is. These students go on to be life long, dedicated global citizens.

Related links:
Jane Reitsma on Changents