I used kerosene lanterns for more than 20 years before moving to Colorado, United States in 2007.
I am the 5th born in a family of 9 and grew up in a remote rural community located in Chivi District in southern Zimbabwe. My parents are peasant farmers in Masvingo Province. Growing up, I had to study a lot to maintain my “top of the class kid” status. I also spent time helping classmates who struggled with subjects such as Math, English, Science and Geography. During end of school term examinations, friends would often come over to seek help a night or two before the examinations. This meant that I would spend hours and nights burning kerosene lamps. Sometimes the family would run out of kerosene and we used diesel fuel instead. Diesel powered lamps emit dark, reddish thick flames and they make it extremely hard to read and complete homework. In both cases, the smell was terrible. Candles are relatively brighter and smell better than kerosene or diesel lamps but they were more expensive and therefore beyond the reach of my family, especially for long reading hours.
Looking back, I don’t know how I survived such a dangerous but certainly unavoidable lifestyle. I recall an event in 1993 when I used kerosene to cook vegetables for the entire family, thinking that it was cooking oil. This happened because a family member placed a kerosene bottle next to a bottle of cooking oil and I couldn’t tell the difference. I didn’t even realize it because I cooked the green vegetables the traditional way—cooking oil is mixed with fully cooked and moist vegetables and so there is no deep frying, something that could have caused an explosion and fire in our thatched kitchen hut. You won’t believe this but upon realizing that I used kerosene to cook the vegetables, my family washed the vegetables several times hoping that the smell would disappear so that they could re-cook the recipe again using cooking oil. Well, it didn’t work out but my father, who was in a hurry, ate the kerosene soaked vegetables anyway. Now you can see how dangerous my experience with kerosene oil was and this is sadly everyday life for billions of people worldwide.
Healthwise, I was never a healthy child growing up. If you go back to my village and ask my parents, they will tell you that I was always coughing severely, an experience which kept them awake and worried most of the time. I also had frequent vision challenges and severe headaches. Of course I didn’t know what was causing all of that then. But looking back now, it’s reasonable to think that constant exposure to open fires and excessive use of kerosene and diesel lamps ignited most of my health challenges. I remember everyone complaining that my eyes were always looking reddish. I also recall severe coughing particularly towards end of school term examinations. Thatched huts would also often catch fire, particularly during winter and rainy days when kerosene is used to start open fires from rain soaked firewood.
Having lived in the US for more than 7 years, I now fully understand how easy student and everyday life is for people with uninterrupted access to electricity. Reading for my PhD was as easier as it could ever get. I didn’t have to worry about reddish and tearful eyes, excessive coughing, and constant headaches. I have a friend who spent five years reading for his PhD in Zimbabwe instead of three years. This was because his night studies were constantly interrupted by excessive load shedding even though he lived in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe. The last time I visited Zimbabwe in 2012, there wasn’t much difference between living in Harare and life back in my village. Access to electricity or the “bright lights” has always made people’s migration to urban areas exciting. In Zimbabwe, this is not the case anymore. In fact, most Zimbabweans remark that people in rural areas are much better off because they never had access to electricity anyways. Now those living in Harare and other cities are always in the dark and the level of darkness is extreme for people who have tasted the beauty of light in their homes and the brightness from the now defunct fluorescents in Harare’s Central Business District.
So, what Nokero is doing really resonates with my experience living in a remote village where not a single person had access to electricity or other modern energy sources such as solar. I am glad to see Nokero leading global efforts to eliminate the use of kerosene lamps and open fires. Kerosene lamps and open fires are a cancer to our society and the environment. Unfortunately, few people in my village in Zimbabwe realize how bad kerosene and open fires are to their health and the environment. I also didn’t fully realize it before I met Steve Katsaros at Nokero back in 2012. I strongly believe that Nokero solar lights are ideal for people living in rural communities and underserved developing cities because they are portable, cheaper and easier to use. We should work together to eliminate the use of kerosene lamps and open fires. I don’t see how I could go back to my village one of these days and let my family and other community members continue to live that way. Everything and everyone must change and move towards solar!
I hope that this brief story helps you and others better understand the positive health and environmental impacts that Nokero solar lights could have on people living in villages such as the one I grew up in.