I wonder how many of us have seen the YouTube video The Rural Women Solar Engineers of Africa. I find it inspiring in all sorts of ways, as a demonstration of how ordinary people can make a huge difference in their local communities and of how smart thinking can explode conventional ideas about how to run projects aimed at alleviating poverty. As an anthropologist interested in theory and method and possible applications of ethnographic research, I also like the way it challenges a lot of conventional assumptions that we are likely to make.
Consider the following scenarios.
1. Engineers employed by a development agency arrive in a rural village and install a solar power system supplied by a donor country or NGO. Everyone is delighted, but then the engineers leave. Nobody in the village knows how to maintain the system or obtain the necessary parts or has the foresight to save enough to buy them if they knew. Predictable outcome: The system wears out, breaks down, and, unless the development agency has engineers and spare parts on permanent call to make repairs, the village is left in the dark again.
2. The development agency not only installs the system, it provides training for young villagers, turning them into certified solar power system maintenance engineers. Predictable outcome: The young engineers migrate to cities in search of jobs that offer a brighter future than staying in the village. The system wears out, breaks down, and, unless the development agency has engineers and spare parts on permanent call to make repairs, the village is left in the dark again.
3. Someone has a crazy idea: Train grandmothers to install and maintain the system and make the villagers pay for the system—not much, about what they would spend on kerosene or firewood if they didn't have the system.
This last point is particularly challenging to me, an intellectual, who has invested a lot of his life in obtaining an advanced degree. This program demonstrates that people don't have to know a lot to do a lot of good. Having a stake in the doing and in the people you're helping and being there to keep things going, not disappearing to take on another project or find a new job, are much more important.
And what about the technology? The grandmothers' could never invent or produce it. Now, however, their children or grandchildren might learn enough to invent something even better; I think, for example, of another amazing, inspiring story, the one about the Malawian teenager who transformed his village by building elect....
For this project, however, it suffices that while Arthur C. Clarke was right, "Any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic to those who don't understand it," the technology can work, as magic sometimes does, without people understanding why.