Solar energy brings healing to land and communities
The original version of this article was first published by Mennonite World Conference, April 22. This adaptation (published at: https://www.mennonitemission.net/blog/4901/Solar-energy-brings-healing) focuses on how solar energy in the hands of women and girls is a tool in bringing God’s shalom to the earth and its people.
“Climate anxiety” is not a recent experience for communities that depend on rain-fed subsistence farming. I joined my family in worrying about the weather when I was eight years old. In farming communities, conversations about the weather are not small talk — weather matters. Weather is a major determinant for quality of life, as it affects water, food and energy security.
In my early years, I was drawn into the complexities of droughts and their implications for the wellbeing and survival of my relatives and their communities in rural Matabeleland, a region in southwestern Zimbabwe. Other fears haunted my childhood, as well. I feared the spread of genocidal killings, which caused waves of my relatives to migrate as they were displaced by both droughts and deaths.
I began to dream of growing up to become powerful enough to solve the complex problems I saw. Therefore, I studied rural and urban planning and have worked and done research in multi-themed development since 1996. I have thought a lot about what authentic sustainability and resilience would look like in my context and believe these principles can be adapted to other regions of the world, as well.
My vision for southern Africa has three interrelated elements: general access to off-the grid solutions, like solar power; empowerment of women and girls, as dignified co-agents in local peace and development spaces; and re-imagining agriculture, to mitigate the negative impacts of the exodus from rural communities.
Solar energy - a women’s issue
During the colonial period in southern Africa, men were pulled off the land to work in mines and in urban jobs. Armed conflicts and tribal cleansing forced more men to flee for refuge in neighboring countries. It then fell upon women and girls to do the bulk of the work including food production, finding firewood, hauling water, and foraging. All these tasks can take hours and may require covering large, and sometimes dangerous, distances. In Zimbabwe, nearly 70% of the population is rural and the majority of that population comprises women and girls. This makes energy transformation a women’s issue that requires men’s involvement.
In the United States, going solar does not significantly affect individual quality of life. In vulnerable communities like those in rural Zimbabwe, nearly half of the population does not have access to electricity. However, with more than 320 days of sunshine annually, solar power is one obvious off-grid solution. Solar panels are not perfect, but at this point, they are the cleanest, least destructive form of energy we know. Access to renewable energy can empower women, transform communities, enable education, jumpstart development and healing of the land.
Solar energy paves the way for education, better health, and environmental protection
My involvement with local programs has shown that access to electricity frees rural women and girls' time for other tasks. With a borehole and solar-powered pump providing clean drinking water, development of other kinds of infrastructure, like irrigation, becomes possible too. Solar power also increases attraction to teachers, who are otherwise reluctant to move to remote areas without electricity and water.
Solar energy improves the functionality of healthcare centers and creates alternatives to cooking over smoky fires, thus, improving women and girls’ respiratory health. Solarization decreases deforestation and the carbon emissions caused by cooking with wood.
Rural electrification has been an ongoing strategic program of Zimbabwe’s government since 2002. However, this program has not moved forward as fast as planned. Rampant deforestation looms large in both rural and urban areas. Off-grid solutions, such as solar projects are a faster option for closing the energy gap that continues through overdependence on firewood for domestic use.
Solar brings healing to land and communities
I believe we must accompany rural communities, as they heal their soil and interpersonal and inter-group relationships. I would love for our communities to keep thinking more about what we can do with locally available resources, as climate change is hitting the whole world. Off-grid solutions can reorient production and offer a path to innovating with what we have, as we help people embrace one another and the land.
Pathways to solar access
Women must be part of the solution. Giving women access to solar energy is a direct way to return dignity to women and girls as equal, honored partners in development. It will increase women’s ability to have a positive impact on their local economies, through income-generating activities. Authentic power should be available to women and girls, as producers of market-worthy goods and services. I would love to see women and girls become solar engineers, creating tools, implements and off-grid solutions. I want them to have the wherewithal to maintain a dam and waterworks, or to keep irrigation equipment running. They need to be equal partners in contributing to household livelihoods.
Churches and schools must be part of the solution. Churches owe a lot to women’s participation. Government structures mostly have men at the helm and seem to marginalize women. However, grassroots programs depend a great deal on women’s agency and churches have had long staying power at the grassroots level. If the solarization of churches can begin, this would strengthen the work of women’s clubs, saving and lending groups and other important communal efforts that meet in the safe spaces of church structures. Other community facilities would make good partners, as well. Local schools can function more sustainably by producing their own food. This would diversify income sources, reduce tuition and increase staff retention in the long run. Solarization can run concurrently with intense reforestation and other watershed-healing interventions.
Support networks must be part of the solution. Vibrant networks that share information and build partnerships that can help communities access resources for harnessing solar energy are an essential point of organizing for sustainability. Through regional representatives and global connections, Mennonite agencies offer those bridges and conduits for support.
I am interested in birthing such a collaboration between Anabaptist agencies as part of the strategic means for sustaining holistic creation care across the African continent. Anabaptist churches, schools, agencies and their adjacent communities may contact me at SibonokuhleN@mmnworld.net or email@example.com as we work together to realize Mission Network’s tagline, “Together, sharing all of Christ with all creation.”
Mission Network Regional Director for Africa and Europe.