And there be light – How a casual dinner conversation is transforming the Maasai livestyle

Light seeped in, listlessly, through a hole in the mud and daub walls of the Maasai hut. Sitting in the midst of the deep shadows that filled the hut, the glowing sunlight that smoothed over Tanzania’s grasslands suddenly seemed to be far, far away.

It was the last day of our safari in Tanzania. We had just spent three incredible days at the stunning &Beyond’s lodge at Ngorongoro Crater, watching wildlife both inside, and beyond, the Crater. It was the last day of the year. We were returning from our final excursion, a tough, but exciting nine-hour trip into the Serengeti. Our minds were still filled with images of cheetah being chased yowling away from a village, wildebeest crossing a river en masse, two young cheetah cubs with their mother, and large groups of general game (giraffe, zebra, and even more wildebeest) taking off at high speeds over the great, rolling expanse of the savannah. Now on our way back, Erick, our ranger, had one last experience planned for us: a short visit to a Maasai village we would pass on our way home.

IMG_2845 Masai

Approach to the Maasai village

At the village, we were warmly received with songs, dancing, jumping, and an impromptu spear-throwing contest (in which both Martin, my husband, and Erick participated). It was clear that the villagers were proud of their village and their culture. The evidence was in their eyes, which glowed when they spoke, and the broad, white smiles that greeted us at every corner. Chains of beads glinted from the ears and necks of the women. Walking into that village was like stepping through a portal, into a different world.

Despite allowing us some time to browse the small market at the core of their village, it was not long before we were invited into their huts. Our small party was divided into two, each half trailing after a Maasai warrior as they beckoned us into their respective homes. Presently, we vanished into the huts’ low, shadowy entrances.

Maasai huts are simple structures. They are erected by the women, and made from twigs and cow dung. Each woman is obliged to build a home for herself and her children after marriage. A large, round living space tapers into a short hallway that curves around its main bulk for a couple of meters. Its layout somewhat resembles a simple snail shell. The core serves simultaneously as living, kitchen, and sleeping quarters, and is outfitted as such. A small, floor-based fireplace provides warmth and a dim breed of flickering light that is quickly swallowed up by the gloom. A small hole in the wall nearby fulfills the dual tasks of window, and vent for smoke. Neither job is particularly well accomplished. Towards the back of the hut, we glimpsed a sort of bench made of tree branches and tightly spanned cowhide, and right beside it, a sleeping area equally starved of furnishings. The floor was no more than hard-pressed soil. When I asked why there were no blankets to be seen, our guide replied that his people used the clothes that they wore during the day as blankets at night.

IMG_2869

Made from twigs and cow dung, these dwellings form a ring around a central boma

Once inside the hut, we were invited to sit down on the cowhide bench, so that we would not have to stand, stooped, beneath the low ceiling. For a few moments, we merely blinked as our eyes, accustomed to the bright sunlight outside, adjusted to the darkness within. Our guide listed a couple more details about the life of the Maasai, and finally asked us, his eyes glowing in the half light, whether we wanted him to take a picture of ourselves. He did not have any trouble at all operating my iPhone, nor did the warrior who had escorted my husband and eldest daughter into a separate hut seem in any way perplexed by my Nikon D90. (In fact, the devices had considerably greater issues, as taking a picture in the dim space was rather challenging… hence the sorry quality of my pictures).

Later, during dinner with Erick back at the lodge, Martin mused on the darkness of the Maasai huts. He had recently watched a TED talk, in which the speaker, Illac Diaz, described how they had used ordinary plastic bottles, filled half up with water, to illuminate dwellings in an Indian slum. The idea behind the improvised light bulbs is simple, yet revolutionary. One must only fill a bottle with water, and insert it into a hole in the ceiling of one’s home. Then, wait, and let physics work its magic. The sunlight outside would refract in the water, and create an effect that, according to Diaz, was stunning. So long as there was daylight, the plastic bottles glowed like high-wattage lightbulbs.

To us, this idea might seem odd. After all, who needs artificial light during the day? But, as, Diaz noted, and as we ourselves had noticed in the Maasai village, there was barely any light reaching the interiors of these peoples’ dwellings, not even at high noon. It seemed the perfect solution.

Erick, himself a Maasai, immediately saw the potential of the idea. In order to escape the darkness of their homes, Maasai tend to spend as much time as they can outdoors, but when it rains, they are kept indoors. In the darkness of their huts, they can accomplish little, and the elaborate beadwork that makes them their living is set aside while they wait for the rain to pass.

So, over dinner, we sketched out plans for a small experiment that we planned to execute the very next day, to test the concept.

On our way to the airport, we passed by another village, in which Erick purchased some impromptu apparatus. A water bottle, and some rope. In addition, he brought along a thick blanket from the lodge. We used the latter to simulate the roof, while the rope clasped the blanket tightly to the water bottle. As we held it up, Isabella, one of my daughters, slipped under the roof to report whether she could see the light. To our great surprise, and joy, she did. Her face was aglow when she came out again. “It’s so bright!” She called me to take a picture, and this time, my iPhone had no trouble finding enough light to draw on for a picture. Diaz had not exaggerated in the least. It was like a small sun had risen beneath that blanket.

 

And of all of us, none was more excited than Erick.

Sadly, by then it was high time to catch our plane home, and we had to leave our experiment in disarray as we took to the skies. Over the next few months, Erick and I stayed in sporadic contact via email, and I used the time to do a little bit of digging. As it turns out, the bottle light idea originated in 2002 in Brazil, not India. The brainchild of Brazilian inventor Alfredo Moser, it had already improved the light of millions of favela homes by the time Diaz brought the innovation to India. And that’s not the only place it has been adopted. The ingenious idea has been successfully implemented in Kenya’s sprawling slums. And now in Tanzania.

“IT SPREAD LIKE A WILDFIRE”

Almost four months after we had left Tanzanian ground, Erick sent me the following message:

Finally I was able to implement the plastic bottles light bulbs idea and the response was incredible. “Soon we will be very famous!”  I had a group of six rangers that I introduced the idea to and together we went to a few Maasai villages and shared the idea and helped with the first installations. It was very easy for them to do it on their own after we had showed them how to do it. I was very happy how effective it turned out to be and the difference it has made.  

The message has spread like wild fire.  

It is very sustainable because we had a problem of lots of plastic bottles lying around that now are being collected by the local Maasai people and turning them the light bulbs. Making the light bulbs is very simple, as it is basically cleaning a plastic bottle and filling it half with clean water and putting it in, through your roof and there is a light bulb for you during the day. NO MORE DARKNESS IN THE MAASAI HUTS!” 

Martin and I were blown away. Neither of us could ever have imagined that a hypothetical idea discussed over dinner would have such a tactile, incredible impact. Eager to know more about how the project was doing, I asked Erick for additional pictures and some information on how they had implemented these bottle lights. Moser had suggested that bleach be added to the water before installation to prevent algae from growing in the water, and clouding the light — had they tried that? And did they have to blow a second hole into the roof or would the original side window suffice? What about the smoke? I was full of questions.

Erick replied the very next day.

The concept is easy: We took a one liter plastic bottle, made sure it’s clean, filled it with clean water and secured it with cow dung in the roof of the Maasai hut and had the perfect light bulb. I was a little hesitant to use bleach just in case someone was tempted to drink the water, as water is such a valuable commodity in the village. We can add it at a later stage once we are convinced that they have understood the concept.

Not only did we manage to light up the inside of the dark and smoky huts to the delight of the Maasai, but have also managed to get the surrounding communities to see the values in picking up the plastic bottles that were polluting the conservation area.

It is true that they had to make a different hole mainly for two reasons:

  1. We found that it works perfectly if it is centrally placed to illuminate the whole hut, and the original hole was on the side.
  2.  Since we had to seal the area around the bottle weather tight, they need the original hole to let the smoke out. Remember the original hole is sealed when its raining which is another advantage with the new technology because they can still get light when its raining.

Cow dung is perfect to seal off the transition between the water bottle and the roof  […]

Thanks a lot to you ,  Martin and the whole family for sharing such a great idea that I believe after seeing the impact of the first installations,  will change the entire community for the better.

Fantastic!

Below you can find a selection of Erick’s beautifully bright and colourful pictures, depicting Maasai women as they install the new technology in their homes. We wish them all the best, and cannot wait to see how far this wildfire, once kindled, will spread!

 

Cheers, Sabine (and Natasha)

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