Lights out

Aug 15, 2003

Darkness isn’t really that special. There were nights on Paama that were so dark I often stumbled into the hibiscus bushes behind our house before I could feel my way to the outhouse. Those were no-moon nights, and Liro had no streetlights or flashing neon advertising to illuminate the village. I cherished the cycle of the moon, and enjoyed walking on full-moon nights when a torch (flashlight) was unnecessary because the night was so light.

There was one light, though – a solar-powered flourescent lamp on the ceiling of our house. Dad and Dot, on their first visit, brought the lamp and a 11-watt solar panel meant for a sailboat, and we purchased a car battery in Vila. The South Pacific sun charged that battery faithfully every day, and every night we had a few hours of light above our dining table, where we regularly hosted students for American kakae (food) and our host family Noel and Leah and Enna and Mereva for lots of laughter and laplap (the traditional food of Paama, made from grated manioc or banana, wrapped in fern leaves and baked beneath hot lava rocks).

Our solar panel was a hit, and the villagers asked me to help them get solar panels. “Sure,” I said, “but you’ll have to pay for them yourselves.” I found a solar kit from the States (a company that is now part of the giant conglomerate Kyocera). Families with an income – remember that most Paamese are subsistence farmers – from jobs as teachers or bankers or shopkeepers put in their orders. I offered two packages, for 60,000 and 90,000 vatu (about $400 and $600 at the time). The word spread to nearby Epi Island, and I gathered 30 orders. Then I started hearing from other islands – my little project was on the coconut wireless up and down the archipelago. I decided to limit the project to Paama and Epi. The shipment of solar panels didn’t arrive until after I left the country. There were problems with import taxes – the rules were changing all the time – and the training sessions were a bit confusing to the villagers, from what I heard.

But, last week, Bryan Roy, the Peace Corps Volunteer that served in Liro after us, came over for dinner. He brought picture albums, and one pictured showed a solar panel atop a village home. Bryan, meanwhile, is being recruited by NC State to the solar energy engineering program there. And the sun still shines on Paama.

Anton Zuiker

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