Below is the text of an email from Alexis Cullen. She and her husband Steve are Peace Corps volunteers in Naviso, on Maewo Island, in Vanuatu. They organized a big launch event for the SolarSPELL library’s debut there, to coincide with their community’s annual holiday. I have inserted photos that Alexis shared from the big event. Wow!
The SPELL debut was a smashing success! When we returned to our village of Naviso after your training in Port-Vila, the community was in the throws of busily preparing for the huge party to celebrate our annual provincial holiday on September 15th (PENAMA day), which the whole island was invited to attend. Temporary food stalls and kava bars were being built out of bamboo, lights were being strung from the classrooms that would be powered by a generator, and a sound system with huge speakers and a control/sound system board were being carried down the mountain on the backs of villagers.
Everyone was buzzing, and as soon as my husband and I arrived, the chairman of the school committee found me to ask when I was going to show the special thing I had gone to train for. I popped it out of my bag and showed him the SPELL digital solar library, and after I was done he excitedly told me I needed to join with the first speech so that we could turn it on at the very start of the party so everyone could connect the whole time.
I went and made “Wi-fi” hot spot signs and put one unit in the school library, with the device sitting in the window so people could see it and then another device at the kava bar. That night, the night before the 3 day party started, I turned it on so that everyone working on setting up could try it out first. One of our villagers who is from a neighboring island who married into our island found a video in the “geography” section under “local topics” that showed video of his family dancing! He couldn’t believe it. He promptly downloaded it to his smart phone to take it back to show his wife. (There are probably 3 smart phones in our village, population 600). Everyone started referring to it as “kiaman internet” (fake internet).
The next day the party began and people started pouring into our village from all around the island. This is no feat to be understated, as many people on our island have never visited our village, because the road to get there is so hard – literally our village is referred to by other islanders as being “in a hole”. The first speech that morning addressed this, as a prominent leader from the other side of the island described how happy he was to see this party happing in Naviso, as often they think of Naviso as its own island, sort of an island within the island. With no cell phone communication and no truck roads, known for sorcery and tradition, they are unfortunately often labeled as “backward” and “man-bush” by those from the other side of the island. But during this three day event, everyone joined hands and the islanders from all over, including Naviso villagers themselves, were PROUD of everything they had done to put this party together – including – they were SO proud of the the SPELL unit!
Little groups huddled together over smart phones to watch videos and look up things using offline Wikipedia and no one could believe that the village “in the hole” had a technology so advanced. Teachers from other schools wanted to know how to get one from their schools. People asked all kinds of questions and explored the content. My little 4 year old host sister, sitting in our kitchen, who has never seen a truck, said “Wi-fi!” proudly as we all looked at her, mouths wide open.
There were just a few glitches with certain smart phones, but other than that the SPELL units ran night and day! We turned them off at 10 PM each night and turned them on again at 7:30 AM the next day, and they worked! We sometimes put them in the sun, and sometimes charged them off of our larger solar panel/battery/inverter unit at our house that keeps our satellite phone charged, if we needed a quick fix. But these units are so low power, they just keep going and going and going!