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Archive for September, 2008

Walking over the barren hills, grasses to our shins, past the cows lazily grazing, we approach the next stone house with a straw roof. A scroungey dog approaches, snarls its white teeth, and we pick up dried cow dung and hurl the chunks past him and he goes running, until he realizes what he’s fetching and comes back at us growling. At last a small woman with a straw hat and green shawl comes out of her house with a wooden stick and chases the mangy beast off. She turns to us and we exchange greetings. She is surprisingly unsurprised by our presence: 2 gringos (me and a Spanish volunteer, Aleix), a Peruvian engineer, Jose (more commonly known as Chino), and the Tecnico from the village, Gilmer.

I explain what we are doing here; we’ve come to see what she thinks about the electricity that is generated by the small wind turbine whirling behind the house. Are there cuts in electricity? What does she use the energy for? What does she think of the tariff? Does she know what happens to that money? Did she participate in the organization of the project? Any suggestions for us? We have been having these guided conversations all day, house by house, getting better at asking in a casual way to elicit honest replies that we will later compile for the evaluation of the project. She is very happy with the electricity. The light is better and she doesn’t use any candles any more—which were expensive and would blow out all the time. At night she cooks, weaves, and “hilar”, meaning to spin wool…which I first heard as “bailar”…to dance…which delighted me. The kids study until 10pm at night. This is something that all of us in the energy development field like to believe, and it was a great confirmation that almost every house we went to volunteered that the kids actually do study more at night with the new light. Her husband uses the electricity to charge his cell phone. I asked if she ever used the phone “Me? No! How could I do that when I don’t even know how to manage that thing!” she said with a timid giggle. She thinks the monthly tariff of 10soles (about $3) is fine and knew that it was for buying new batteries in the future. She didn’t participate in any of the meetings, but her husband did (a common answer). When asked why not, she said that she needed to stay home to care for the “animalitos”, her cows. We asked if we were to do a similar project in another community, what should we change? What could we do better? She said, “Yes, it would be great if you do another project in another village. We really like the light and they would too”. Somehow questions about the hypothetical situation were not clear, the concept didn’t come across, but were generally answered with a hearty recommendation that we help other communities get electricity.

Jose and Gilmer checked out the control box and battery in the house. The house is actually two one room houses. One was a kitchen with soot covered walls and thatched roofs with large caldrons on stones on the floor and the beloved guinea pigs hopping around. The other building is a single room with a plastic curtain to divide the sleeping area from the rest. On the uneven dirt floor there is a wooden bed covered in woven blankets, a few big sacks of potatoes and rice, a table piled with clothes, farm tools, a battery-powered radio and a flashlight. Old give-away calendars from companies, political parties or government programs often cover the crumbling adobe walls with pictures of food, pretty people or scenic places. Outside of the house, chickens and ducks peck the ground next to a stunning black and white “Chinalinda” bird with a broken wing, having fallen from the sky with a young girl hit it with a rock. A pig scratches its back on a big rock—unaware of the parts of pig carcass that hang from the roof to dry in the sun.

At the end of my string of questions, I asked if she had any questions for us. Afterall, it’s only fair. She said, “No, how could I have a question for you?”. Her shyness and excessive respect made me uncomfortable. Jose followed up joking with her that she could ask me anything: Where am I from? Am I married? With children? Do I have a Peruvian boyfriend? We all just laughed and thanked her for the visit. As we left, she gave us a stick to fend off the dog as we walked on, over the hills to the next house.

Cross-cultural Education

Alumbre has a new teacher, as it does almost every year. This one, Jose Luis seems like a good one, motivated and smart. He is from a nearby city and lives in one of the rooms in the crumbling old school building. I wonder if he is behind the new pink and baby blue paint job that spiffed up the school. On the weekends, he guards the new construction of a brand new high school being built across the road by Yanachocha mining company, in its ongoing efforts to smooth over tensions between the mega mine and the surrounding villages. And perhaps pave the way for controversial mining explorations in Alumbre…

We ask Jose Luis about the electricity in the existing school. The power is generated by the larger 500watt turbine that spins behind the building, next to the putrid latrines. He loves the four computers and puts them to good use giving students research assignments using Encarta encyclopedia and writing assignments on Word (which he saves on a disk and prints out in the city). My favorite is that he asked the students to look up “Socialism” and “Neoliberalism” and give a reasoned argument on their opinion. In a community where the grown women are afraid of cell phones and mostly illiterate, this intellectual stretching is a dramatic shift. He shows them DVDs (wind-powered of course) on The Origins of Man and wildlife of Africa. The literature teacher showed videos of Oedipus and The Iliad. He opened up Encarta for me and showed me all the historical video clips it contained. We watched a few minutes on the Spanish Civil War, on Kennedy’s assassination and on the formation of the Galapagos Islands. After school he gives free classes to anyone interested in learning about computers. A group of students and about 5 adults get together to try their hand at the new machines. Another community leader later told me, “We felt forgotten, here at this altitude and now, imagine, way out here in Alumbre kids are growing up with computers, just like the cities.” What will the next generation be like? On the one hand you could argue that this information is not “culturally relevant” but on the other hand, I believe education develops some perspective and critical thinking skills useful in all walks of life. Now, some teenagers leave Alumbre to go to school in Cajamarca if their families can afford it. One young woman we met dropped out of school in Alumbre last year because “you don’t learn anything here”. She wants to go to Cajamarca to keep studying, but for now, she tends to the cows all day. I wonder if the new teachers and new computers will change that.

The teacher also of course likes the light and electricity in his room. It makes living out in Alumbre easier for teachers like him that come from the city. He uses the electricity to charge his cell phone too, easing the isolation.

On Track

Preliminary results from the evaluation were very positive: Everyone we met with was quite pleased with the project, expressing things such as “Todo me ha gustado. Me ha gustado aprender. Algo por adelante. Ahora es mejor, puedes hacer mas ahora, ninos estudian” (roughtly “I’ve liked everything. I’ve liked to learn. It’s a step forward. Its better now, you can do more now, kids study.”) and “Me gusta bastante. Estoy contenta porque facilita cualquier cosa que querio hacer” (I like it a lot. I’m happy because it facilitates anything I want to do). Most families use the electricity to study at night, cook, weave and charge cell phones. About half also had radio cassette players and one even had a DVD player. One family runs their own radio station with the wind power. So far everyone has been paying the monthly tariff and they feel like it’s a fair price and, in general, less then they used to spend on candles. The sound of the wirling turbines do not bother them, and there has been no safety accidents. Most of the men said that they had participated in the organization of the project, and only some of the women.

Next month 14 more wind turbines will be installed on the remaining houses. These systems will be technically improved with a different “tail” that turns it out of the direction of very strong winds. This mid-project evaluation shows that we’re on the right track, people are involved, satisfied with the results and anxious to help out with the installations of the remaining systems.

Listening to the wind

The next day we took down the anemometer, plugged in a laptop in the thatched roof house, and downloaded the data on the wind in Alumbre. This data will help us understand wind patterns and validate a software that estimates wind patterns based on topographical maps and points of wind measurement. Then, we put it back up on the top of a 10meter pole. It was tricker that you’d imagine to get the anemometer at the top of the pole straight using curvey wooden poles and 6 guy wires. So, as we collected feedback from each of the families, we also collected feedback from the wind itself about how it was all going.

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