Background: This conversation took place on September 7, 2012 between Michael Bodakowski and Bishop Alden Hathaway as background for a workshop on the roles of faith-inspired actors in energy access initiatives. Bishop Hathaway spoke of his work in founding Solar Light for Africa, a Christian faith-inspired NGO whose stated mission is to transform lives and empower the people of Africa by providing light and energy through solar power. He reflects on the theological, spiritual, and practical significance of light and the process of bringing together American and Ugandan youth in energy access missions. Bishop Hathaway illustrates these points through several stories and parables that he has experienced through his work with Solar Light for Africa over the last 15 years. A point he makes forcefully is that energy needs have yet to capture the imagination of Americans, including in church communities.
How did you come to work on solar energy?
I am the retired Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh. As I was getting ready to retire, we had a number of African students in our seminary. They had been telling me to come and visit them in Africa, so just before I retired, that’s what I did. I went to Uganda to visit a man who later became bishop of one of the Anglican dioceses of western Uganda. He wanted to raise some money to build a little orphanage in his diocese and I went to see that building. It just happened that it was in the later part of the day. It was a lovely facility, but when the sun went down and it got dark, I realized that they had no access to electricity. They were dependent on kerosene candles. I was concerned about how they were going to provide services to about 65 orphans without access to electricity.
When I got back home, I spoke with my son who is an electrical engineer specializing in solar power. I asked him if he thought we could install a solar array at the orphanage. All he needed, he said, were the dimensions of the facility, and he gave me a figure of what it would cost to send over the equipment and install the array—about $8,000. I set out to raise that amount through my contacts with churches and lay groups who work with charity projects in Uganda. During this fundraising process, I met an African bishop who challenged me: he said you’re going to put electricity in that orphanage, but I have no electricity in my facilities—hospitals, schools, etc.—why do you stop there? Out of that was born a project, in cooperation with the Ugandan Church and some commercial solar companies in Uganda that my son was connected with.
The plan was this: we would provide solar installations in schools and village facilities, and I would raise half the cost on my side through charitable grants, and the receivers of the solar panels would pay the other half through loans from the Ugandan bank guaranteed by the Ugandan Church. That was the beginning of our organization, Solar Light for Africa.
You can imagine that the desire for this service on the African side is literally unlimited. We had all kinds of people asking for it and we began to need some serious money on this side. We realized that in order to get the best possible economic arrangement we would need to ship the solar panels in bulk containers. That involves a lot of money. I can’t remember the exact figure, but it was a lot more than I could raise through charitable fellowship groups.
We began to look around for other sources of funding. In the course of doing that, a man came forward with an offer of a substantial amount, and we were glad to consider his one condition—which was to create a youth mission to Africa. That challenged us to put together a summer youth mission and we advertised it in the church press. We got a number of kids from all over the country to sign up for it through the Anglican Church and other denominations, though in practice most were Episcopalian.
Now, the idea was this: we would take our American kids and through my contacts with the African churches and other friends and colleagues stationed there, I proposed that we would build a team that was half Americans and half Ugandans. We began putting together teams from both countries, of a same age and comparable education. Our criterion for selection was: first, they have a settled Christian faith; second, they are able and enthusiastic to build cross-cultural personal relationship; third, they were able to tolerate unfamiliar even rough living conditions; fourth, they have basic mechanical and technical skills.
This began the Solar Light Youth Mission. We would take the U.S. kids to Uganda, provide some basic studies in missionary principles, cross-cultural relationships, the technical principles of solar application, and the cultural issues about what electricity does for community development—because you can’t have community development without electricity.
This was in 1999. That March in the guerilla forest in the south west part of the country, some American tourists were killed by insurgents coming over from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The incident got a lot of publicity just as we were putting together our youth mission. We were concerned that it would deter parents from letting their kids go somewhere that seemed unstable and potentially dangerous. So we decided to go to the Ugandan embassy in Washington to see what the security might be for such a mission. We asked the Ugandan ambassador and told her about our project and she immediately was very excited that the first lady of Uganda, Janet Museveni, would be very much interested in the issue.
We didn’t want to bother the government, but the ambassador said, “Absolutely not, you must tell the first lady about it. In fact she is in Washington right now.” So we made an appointment and met her and she was indeed very enthusiastic about American and Ugandan young people coming together to do missionary work in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and to provide energy through solar work. "It will make internationalists of these young people." She would be glad to be our sponsor and help us in any way she could. She was as good as her word and now, after 15 years, our relationship has never been stronger. Every summer since then, we have taken American youth, matched them up with Ugandan youth and sent them out to every corner of Uganda to install solar panels in hospitals, schools, homes, libraries, etc.
We’ve been to other countries as well—to Rwanda, Tanzania, Liberia, and Ethiopia. And we have had inquiries from communities all over central Africa and other parts of the world, though we have been unable to follow up on them simply because we don’t have the resources.
Who are your partners? How do you identify them and work together on a practical level?
As we’ve gotten some notoriety we have had applications from a number of churches in Africa and also from people in the U.S. who have relationships with projects in Africa. Last summer (July 2012), we worked with the first lady on a project the Uganda government is working on in the remote Karamoja area of the country. It involved installing solar light in a community of small houses for the nomadic people to be settled providing school for the children and medical clinic. For the local Anglican Church we completed a project electrifying a guest facility. Later we did a little project in an orphanage that was sponsored by a group from the United States. This was typical of what we’ve done over the last few years.
We work with both churches and private enterprises. Some projects involve partnerships with hospitals both church and public. It depends on how we can underwrite a mission; get to the site and organize resources through Ugandan vendors” to make it work. We have worked with a couple of Ugandan distributors, in particular out of Kampala, to provide equipment and technical help, with my son providing oversight.
Can you describe your partnerships with the private sector?
We worked with one man who was trying to develop a business. He had some problems—financial and organizational—and we’ve seen this with others as well. But business practice there is different than it is here It has taught us patience. We have learned a lot from individuals; African engineers, small business people, and some large organizations.
In Uganda, where we are focused, and in East Africa, there are very few American enterprises. Coca-Cola, Caterpillar, and maybe one or two corporations. American companies are notable by their absence. Chinese enterprises are everywhere. They are paving roads, putting up infrastructure, drilling for oil—they are everywhere. The American presence in East Africa is mostly through volunteer religious organizations; American companies are simply not there.
What is your working relationship like with the local pastors and churches and their roles in outreach?
Whenever we go we work with the local community leaders and government people. The pastors have been very accommodating—giving lectures and talks and celebrations as we turn the lights on. Ugandan kids speak the language of older locals and explain to them what we are doing. And because we are associated with the first Lady, all of the local politicians get involved. Their influence plus the support of the first Lady and other political associations helps to make it possible to raise the needed funds in the U.S and other places.
Where do the funds come from?
Our funding is pretty much hand to mouth. We have had over the course of the years some major grants from USAID, corporations like Coca Cola have been very generous to us, as have some individuals; local churches also contribute. So our funding is over a broad base. We probably have barely enough to do a mission a year.
And though we have been able to raise funds abroad, we haven’t been able to receive as much on the American side. I think that Americans take electricity for granted, and they don’t think that it’s quite as important as water or other projects. I think that we haven’t been able to capture the imagination of American givers. I am not quite sure why that is, but I guess it is because our organization is quite small and we haven’t been able to access the creative support to put together a big operation. With the exception of one staff person, we are completely volunteer.
How did your Christian tradition bring you to working on energy access issues?
First of all, my relationship with this work was formed through the Church and its wider associations abroad, and my association with Anglican friends in Africa, and through my medical associations. It was relational, and not institutional at all. In fact, we don’t have an official endorsement from the Anglican Church.
What faith teachings or scripture inspire you to bring light to the poor?
I have to tell you that I learned on the job. It was just a matter that there was a little orphanage that was dark at night. It was purely practical. We helped where we could through the Church abroad. And so in that case you care for the orphanage, you care for the poor, and part of caring for them meant bringing electricity for light. But as I thought more and more about what we were doing and the needs our work revealed, it became apparent that light is significant—if you read the story of Genesis the first thing that God says is “Let there be light.” This was the first act of God’s creation. In scripture you read that everything else comes from that—all of light, all of creation, human enterprise, everything. But foremost, it was God’s own son who said, “I am the light of the world” and “you are the light of the world.”
I was also brought to the passage in James, where it says that “if you see a person who is hungry, feed them and if you see a person without clothing, clothe them,” because you shouldn’t have clothing and food and not share it. And my sense was, what good is it if you’ve got a flashlight in your pocket, and you don’t share light with people when you can? That’s pretty much my message.
I also say that we in America have so much light and take it for granted. We don’t understand what darkness is all about. We don’t have a mystical or spiritual understanding of light because we just take it for granted.
I’ll tell you a story that I love. I heard it on the occasion of our one-thousandth installation at a Catholic high school in a very remote area. We were able to electrify the school, and also won a grant from a Rotary Club in Virginia to purchase a bank of computers. We ended up installing computers and got the Discovery TV channel people to put a satellite in the building to provide internet. And the students at that school now have the same academic opportunity as kids in the city. For the celebrations that inaugurated that installation, a Roman Catholic bishop gave an address.
He told this story: A man is hurrying to get home to his village before dark. He is running along but he is too late. The sun goes down and it gets dark. He hears a noise and is terrified. He is fearful that it is a “night dancer.” (a spook in the night—in the village culture, they are terrifying people under the darkness of the night. Night dancers could also be people who are perfectly normal in the day but at night do horrendous things) So, he is terrified and he gets down on the path and covers his head with his hand, waiting for the dawn. Now the noise that he heard was another village man also hurrying home, who has also gotten down on the path and covers his head as he waits for dawn. When the dawn comes, they see that they are brothers.
The Bishop then said, you have brought us the light so that we can see that we are brothers. Because the light defeats the darkness of superstition and ignorance and fear and hostility and gives us the light that is the peace of Christ. So what he was saying was that the light would be able to transform the culture of that community and that school. It not only gave light to study by, but also gave light to overcome all the things that go against the human spirit. And that is the essence of the light of Christ. That is the spiritual foundation for it all.
Do you do any advocacy work, such as on energy pricing issues?
Yes, we do. For a while, we were putting on little conferences for people in Africa, especially with government people, advocating for renewable energy. Only about 16 percent of the population of Uganda has access to electricity and most of that is generated by hydroelectric plants on the Nile River at Jinja. One of which has been built with foreign investment just over the last 15 years. But that electricity is very expensive and sold to the highest bidders. And what they are doing is exporting that energy to major urban areas, even outside of Uganda, instead of to rural areas in the country. That kind of development doesn’t do Uganda any good at all. In fact it exacerbates the problem.
I spent some time in Latin America and saw the situation there; the only places where there was any type of development was in urban areas where there was electricity. The urban areas were sucking the people out of the countryside into these teeming slums around these huge cities. The slums became a hotbed for radical political activity—revolutionary stuff that was very destabilizing. Africa is not at that point yet. The only way to bring energy of scale to the rural areas is through initiatives like solar or wind, or locally generated power. We’ve been promoting this point of view as hard as we can and it is beginning to catch on. We’ve been able to speak to members of parliament and government who are now promoting the development of the solar industry in East Africa.
Have you done any similar advocacy work here in the U.S.?
That is my son’s business—he does that professionally. He works for a consulting firm in renewable and alternative energy everywhere for large consumers. And of course, we promote solar power here whenever we can as well.
When we began, we approached our own government here in the U.S. Under the Clinton administration, we had very good response. In fact, we were even given an award from the Department of Energy under then Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson. Hillary Clinton was also supportive. But under the Bush administration, we didn’t receive any recognition. We haven’t had relationship with Obama administration.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you have encountered and how have you overcome them?
Lack of money is number one. I think it has to do with the attitude towards renewable energy in this country. There is a sense that electricity is like the air—just assumed. I think that it is part of our failure that we haven’t been able to tell the story. We have tried the best we can with a couple of documentaries that we have put out, but somehow many still don’t know what is going on. We have produced a couple of videos for fundraising. But we haven’t had the money to do any promotion other than t our youth mission and the projects that the youth are involved with.
I think, though, that our greatest asset is the 200 American kids and 200 Ugandan kids who have done our missions. A lot of them have gone into energy-related enterprises in Africa, and in the U.S. as well. You can’t really understand the program and the challenge without going with us—without going up into the village, working on the roof putting on the panels, wiring the system, putting it together, and at the end of the day turning on lights for people that have never had light at night and seeing their absolute joy.
Let me tell you one little story. We were doing a project in the hills of the Ruwenzori Mountains, electrifying the whole place. The village was just a group of little houses gathered around on the hillside. Somehow we were able to haul the gear up and electrify that village. The first day we were there, we equipped three or four houses. That night we went back down to the town where we were staying, and as we looked up at the hills, you could see all these little lights blinking in the darkness. The next day when we went up there, we found that many people had come down to the houses of those who had the lights on to celebrate and erejoice that they had light. That is something that most Americans can’t understand.