Electrify Africa: Looking for the light in Malawi

Electrify Africa: Looking for the light in Malawi

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This post— part of our #LightForLight blog relay—is by Karen Walrond and originally appeared in full on her blog, Chookooloonks, on July 1, 2015. See the rest of the #LightForLight entries here.

Photo credit: Karen Walrond

Photo credit: Karen Walrond

Last May, when I was in Malawi, my travel companions and I ended up criss-crossing half of the country, starting from Lilongwe (the capital) and ending up in Blantyre (the commerce center). It was a distance of over 200 miles, and our daily schedules were packed; but every day after our last appointment, our bus driver and trip organizers would hurry us onto the bus. “We need to go,” they would say. “We need to get to the lodge where we’re staying before nightfall.”

At first, I thought their insistence that we arrive at our destination before nightfall was out of concern for our safety — but it became clear almost immediately that Malawi is a safe, peaceful country. So I was confused. But then it dawned on me:

At night, there are no streetlights. But there are still many pedestrians, walking along roads with no sidewalks. We needed to be off the road for their safety.

The headquarters of ESCOM, Malawi's national electricity supplier. (Photo credit: Karen Walrond)

The headquarters of ESCOM, Malawi’s national electricity supplier. (Photo credit: Karen Walrond)

In Malawi, the antiquated and inadequate electrification system is the single biggest obstacle to economic growth and development. Fewer than 1 in 10 people (9%) in Malawi have access to electricity, and that number shrinks to 1 in 100 (1%) in rural areas, where 85% of the country’s population resides.

The electrical supply for the entire country of Malawi is managed from this one tiny control room. It's no wonder only 9% of the population has access to electricity—while the employees of ESCOM are dedicated, they're not working with much equipment. (Photo credit: Karen Walrond)

The electrical supply for the entire country of Malawi is managed from this one tiny control room. It’s no wonder only 9% of the population has access to electricity—while the employees of ESCOM are dedicated, they’re not working with much equipment. (Photo credit: Karen Walrond)

It’s probably not hard to imagine that electricity is critical to all aspects of development. For example, without electricity, health clinics are unable to keep vaccines at the proper temperature, causing them to spoil, and rendering them useless to save lives. Hospital equipment sits unused. Businesses, especially those unable to afford a generator, aren’t able to function efficiently. And Malawi’s situation isn’t singular: Across sub-Saharan Africa, 7 out of 10 people don’t have access to electricity.

Seventy percent. Millions of people who don’t have access to refrigeration. Millions of children who can’t do homework at night. Because there is literally no light to work by.

I’m known for saying “look for the light” a lot on Chookooloonks—light is, after all, a photographer’s medium. In fact, the word “photography” literally means “drawing with light”—without light, I couldn’t do what I do. So when the ONE Campaign asked if I would help spread the word to convince U.S. politicians to help pass the bill, I was only too happy to help. So I’m asking you to sign the petition to encourage lawmakers to pass the Electrify Africa bill, to help bring electricity to countries who desperately need it—for their economies, for their children’s education, and for, literally, their lives. It only takes a few seconds to sign, and as you might recall, ONE will never ask for your money, just your voice—so once you’ve signed the petition, that’s it. You’ve done your good deed for the day.

Easy-peasy.

And so, as promised, my favorite light-filled photograph. Obviously, I take a lot of photographs that are light-filled, but the one that immediately came to mind for this campaign was one that I shot with my iPad while I was in Malawi — I didn’t process or use a filter in any way. It’s my favorite shot that I took on the trip, and a great reminder that it often doesn’t take fancy equipment or Photoshop or filters to make a good shot. Often, all it takes is light.

Sunset over Lake Malawi. No filter needed. Because light is awesome. (Photo credit: Karen Walrond)

Sunset over Lake Malawi. No filter needed. Because light is awesome. (Photo credit: Karen Walrond)

Share your own favorite light-filled image on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, and tag it #ElectrifyAfrica, then sign the petition to support the Electrify Africa Act!

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