by Sarah Baird.

Seven miles from the center of Kampala, down a busy highway clogged with the hum of motorbike taxis and vans is the village of Bulenga. It’s a 45- minute journey through a tapestry of hope and sorrows, entrepreneurism, artistry and toil. The rutted roadway is hemmed in on all sides by open-air vendors hawking cuts of goat and nsenene (grasshopper) in banana leaves alongside stalls with sandals, onions and phone batteries. There are rough-hewn coffin makers next to elderly women in brightly colored traditional dresses peddling roasted maize. And weaving in-between the customers and vendors, there are smartly dressed professional women and men carrying briefcases alongside uniformed school children walking the long roads home.

IMG_1209-impIn December I traveled from Connecticut to Bulenga to work with the executive director of a small Ugandan community development agency, Derrick Luwaga.  Amongst other things, I wanted to discuss the implementation of off-grid solutions to entrenched energy poverty and educational access issues. In my bag I carried the Lifeplayer MP3, a compact and deceivingly simple-looking piece of technology from Lifeline Energy.

As part of my visit, I was prepared to train Derrick on the Lifeplayer’s basic usage and then to explore with him the various ways he envisioned being able to use the solar radio, media player and recording device. I expected to introduce him to the controls and the charging capabilities (solar, crank, and dc), and to explain the Lifeplayer’s potential to radically change the community’s ability to access and disseminate educational and news content. I had prepared some notes for the tutorial, but I quickly realized that with a minimum of introduction, the Lifeplayer becomes its own trainer and source of educational inspiration.

“Yes, yes. I get it. We will use it for so much,” Derrick began. “I will use it, for vital messages about health, education and agricultural services. We will use it immediately for awareness and sensitization about HIV/AIDs and, of course, learning about the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. And I will have my staff make important announcements at the commencement of our weekly workshops on income producing activities and voluntary AIDs counseling and children’s immunizations. This is beautiful. So, so beautiful.”Women at the health center listening to a life player and asking questions

I began to guide him through the wide variety of pre-loaded educational programs, while he took notes on topics as varied as bee keeping, drip irrigation, children’s songs, and basic hygiene. As I scrolled past a pre-recorded lesson on micro-finance, though, he shook his head.

“Stop. Please. This is very important.”

Yes, I replied.

“No. No, you don’t see. It is very, very important here. Here in the villages most people do not keep records for anything. It is always day-to-day. There are no records for their businesses, and they do not understand about basic bookkeeping. About the expenses. This is very important if we are going to help people become more successful and independent. We must educate people about separating their personal from their business expenses. It is a major problem. When I go to our community farm to collect eggs to feed our volunteers, for instance, I must always pay the farm from the volunteer budget and record both, even though both are part of our same organization. Can you see how important this is?” Yes, I said. Thank you. I do.

School Choir using recorded music from the life player

“Another way we can use this is in the classroom.” He continued, “We have children who are not able to take notes in the same way that others can, but still they want to learn. If we can use the Lifeplayer to record lectures and create spoken notes, then that child can have help when it is time for the exams. The children can listen together and at term’s end study without needing the extra expense for hiring more teachers and tutors. This can make all of the children have an equal chance for success. We must not leave some behind. This is very good.”

Indeed, this is very good! A humanitarian and development tool that not only addresses basic needs such as education, health, communication and quality of life issues but also allows for flexible applications and program development is a rare tool in the crowded world of development. From what I have seen, the Lifeplayer MP3 has the ability both to enhance institutional and community capacity and as well as to allow for creative problem solving from within the community.

I left the Lifeplayer MP3 in Bulenga several weeks ago and now am beginning to hear how its limitless potential is changing lives thanks to the creativity and energy of my friend and the vision and generosity of the creators of the Lifeplayer.