|Kathryn Cunningham and Gambian Girls (photo courtesy of Power Up Gambia)|
There are things which most of us take for granted. Things so essential to our comfortable existence, that we have grown to view them as basic rights, not luxuries. Things we assume will be present, perhaps even give little or no thought to, because not having them would be, well, simply unimaginable.
When faced with surgery, we assume there will be power in the hospital to run the machines needed to keep our hearts beating and our lungs filled with air. When we deliver a child, we assume the incubator he or she is kept in if needed, will continue to provide the warmth imperative to survival. When receiving stitches, we assume the lights that allow our physician to see what he is doing will be bright and copious.
We assume these things as facts, as they are all we know, and all we would want to know.
Yet in many of the world’s nations, these simple assumptions are still fleeting luxuries. Even in a hospital or clinic, where one would assume would be the safest place to be for an ill or injured individual, oftentimes the opposite becomes the case, when faulty electricity can become a death sentence.
|This bucket system was used by doctors, nurses, and midwives in the maternity ward (image courtesy of Power Up Gambia)|
Kathryn Cunningham witnessed this, first hand, while she was a volunteer at a hospital in Gambia. There, everything from blood transfusions to deliveries were often done by candle light.
This reality became even more brutally shocking when Kathryn witnessed first, the death of a newborn who had suffocated in utero because there was not enough power to run a machine that would have alerted doctors to the issue, and later the death of an infant girl whose incubator lacked dependable electricity.
She decided to turn her shock into action, and returned to the U.S. with the intent of creating a solution.
She founded the nonprofit Power Up Gambia in October 2006, with the goal of providing solar energy to the hospitals and clinics of Gambia, beginning with the Sulayman Jungkung General Hospital (SJGH) in the Gambian village of Bwiam.
The hospital, one of only four in the African nation of 1.6 million people, and servicing over 16,000 members of the rural farming community each year, was government-built and only a few years old. Yet a lack of funding forced the hospital to make painstaking budget decisions.
Among them, running the diesel generator that supplies the hospital only 10 hours a day because of the high cost of fuel.
This lack of electricity has been staggering, in more ways than one would even imagine.
|Kathryn and a doctor at the Sulayman Jungkung General Hospital |
The hospital treats much of what is most fatal in Gambia and throughout Africa– HIV/AIDS, malaria, and even diarrhea.
Power Up Gambia's informational website states that the lack of power affects everything from donated vaccines that are lost because of poor refrigeration, to the diagnosis of illnesses which requires blood samples to be put under a microscope, to an unreliable water supply that creates unsanitary conditions for surgery, to even the morgue doors which cannot be opened without power and cause deceased patients to lie waiting in often high temperatures and with infectious diseases. The lack of constant electricity is an unthinkable reality that patients, doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff are forced to bear daily.
At the time she founded Power Up Gambia, Kathryn was only a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. Although she was young, her passion was great, and her youthful energy propelled her to take on a challenge thought nearly impossible by many.
The figures needed to be raised to create a reliable solar power system with low operating costs were grossly unattainable in Gambia, where an average family earns a little over $300 a year and a consultation costs $.06. Costing over 300,000 US Dollars, the amount needed was large even by US standards.
|A solar powered water pump now ensures the hospital has running water all day. (photo courtesy of Power Up Gambia)|
Kathryn took on the great task and even coupled with it the additional intent that her project would also serve to educate youth in America about renewable, sustainable energy (like solar power) and would expose them to African culture and pressing social issues, consequently helping them understand the importance of giving back.
Currently, youth in 25 Delaware and Pennsylvania schools participate in a ‘Power Up Gambia for Kids’ and the project continues to grow.
Power Up Gambia has already raised $150,000 but is hoping to double this figure before summer, when malaria infestations go into full swing as the heat turns up. Nevertheless, Kathryn and her colleagues feel that the goal is indeed attainable, and that, come summer, 72 solar panels will be installed at the hospital.
With the funds already raised Power Up Gambia has already replaced all of the lights at the hospital with energy-efficient bulbs and has installed a solar powered water pump to ensure the hospital has running water all day long.
Kathryn hopes that soon, to the tens of thousands of Gambians who rely on this hospital for their lives and well-being, something once considered an unattainable luxury will come to be seen as a basic right there as well.