This is Gideon, Gideon Owour. He lives in far western Kenya near the shore of Lake Victoria in the small rural village of Pap-Onditi. ‘Pap’ means a flat, dry place in the Luo language; ‘Onditi’ is a name of a local family — Onditi’s flat, dry area. Gideon is in 7th grade at the Konditi Primary School. Most days he sits in the front row, far right, under the long line of windows that make up one wall of his classroom. He shares his small bench-desk with two other boys; shares the school workbooks as well. There are only so many resources at Konditi Primary School, everything is needed — chalk, chairs, paper, space — everything is shared. The only thing that there is plenty of is an eagerness to learn.
Gideon wants to go to a good high school and then hopefully to university. He wants to be a doctor or an engineer or a pilot someday but first he needs to get good test scores. In Kenya, the big 8th and 12th grade national exams determine if and where a student goes next. Do well and you are welcomed to the next academic level. Do poorly and you are welcomed to a life of either manual labor for boys or an early marriage for girls. Every student in Kenya knows this, knows how life works. They know from where opportunity springs, how dreams are made and how hopes come true. And every student knows it all starts at school.
Gideon sits in his classroom quiet and attentive from 7:30 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon not including a 45-minute break for lunch. There is only one 7th grade classroom; it is stuck between the one 6th grade classroom and the one 8th grade classroom. Continue down the building counting six more classrooms and you have the entire Konditi Primary School — Pre-K – 8th, nine classrooms, 12 teachers and 380 students.
After school Gideon races a mile home to do his chores — collect wood for the cook fire, feed the two cows, clean their corrals — hoping to get done before the sunsets too low and dusk descends. He doesn’t race to play with his friends or wander the dusty trails, he races to read, racing the setting sun and the diminishing light to get to a few more pages read before darkness arrives.
Gideon and his family are one of the 1.3 billion people of the world who live without electricity, live without power. This is to say they spend half of every day, half of every month, half of their lives in darkness. The only light at night comes from the flickering flame of a small dirty lamp — an old rusty tobacco tin with a shoelace wick — filled with a cup of kerosene.
The family can afford only one lamp because kerosene costs a dollar a day and a dollar is a lot to spend for a few hours of light. On many days they can’t afford even a dollar’s worth of light so a candle is used if one can be found. If not, they fumble around in darkness unable to do much and go to bed too early.
Kerosene isn’t a solution to darkness it is a lesser evil. The problem with light from a kerosene flame is that it isn’t nearly enough and it is very toxic causing eye irritations and respiratory problems. And to buy kerosene trees are often cut down to sell the wood or wild animals are illegally killed. Spend hours a night, hundreds of hours a year cuddled up to this dirty flame and your life will be torn and soiled.
Gideon couldn’t do his homework when there was no fuel, no light; he couldn’t read, he couldn’t study. His mother couldn’t really see what she was cooking, couldn’t take care of her children’s scrapes and cuts, couldn’t even keep track of her family. Gideon’s father couldn’t fix what was broken or do extra work to earn bit more money. It was dark and life slowed to a stop.
Last year Gideon, along with his entire 7th grade class received Luci Lights. A Luci Light is a small plastic, inflatable solar light that throws enough light to light up half a room. Now Gideon can read as long as he wants at night, his mother can do some extra sewing and cleaning and his father can bring work home to try to get ahead. The money the family used to spend on kerosene can now be used to buy more food or a needed pair of shoes or a visit to the clinic.
This is not an idle change to Gideon. In the past year Gideon’s grades have improved by 10 points, the equivalent of one whole letter grade. It is the same for his entire class and the 8th grade class that got Luci Lights as well. It’s shouldn’t be a surprise — more light means more study time, a better life, more things done.
It doesn’t seem like much but ten points is a significant jump, a huge academic improvement in one year. Ten points is a better chance, a brighter opportunity, a closer hope. And it’s just the beginning. Soon ten points will become fifteen points and what is average will become exceptional. All it takes is desire, a little illumination and small, inflatable solar light named Luci.