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Rays of sunshine: Wenatchee volunteers help install solar power pack for remote african hospital

By on September 21, 2018 in Travel with 0 Comments

The Kibuye Hope Hospital’s five new solar arrays in the foreground feed into the inverters, batteries and switches that control the off-the-grid power. The Power-Pac system is housed just behind them under the blue roof. In the background is the hospital.

By Yvette Davis

Imagine you’re an eye surgeon taking out a cataract. Your fingers are holding a sharp scalpel that’s about to slice through the patient’s cornea. Then without warning all the lights above you flicker and go out.

What do you do? Do you dare move or do you try your best to freeze until someone hits the switch to turn on the backup power generator?

That scenario might sound unimaginable to us but it’s an everyday possibility in Kibuye, Africa. At least it was, until Dale Hill and the organization Friends of Hope Africa University got involved.

Friends of Hope Africa University is a North American-based Christian organization that assisted the nationals in founding a university 15 years ago in Burundi during a time of great civil unrest. The university is three hours away from the Kibuye Hospital.

To this day, travel to the region isn’t recommended by the U.S. State Department.

“It’s startling to be in a place that has trucks with soldiers and AK47’s and the mounted grenade launchers. It gets your attention when you walk out of the airport and see that,” he said. He likened travel to Burundi, Africa as a step of faith. Luckily, he has some.

Dale got involved with Friends of Hope Africa University about five years ago after his formal retirement as a partner from the Homchick Smith and Associates accounting firm. He and his wife Donna went to Africa for the first time in 2014 so he could help the university’s finance department with their accounting.

Dale Hill: “When we in America go into surgery, we just assume we are going to have electricity.”

They now have their finances on QuickBooks and are producing timely and accurate reports.

Born and raised in Sunnyside, Dale joined the board of Friends of Hope Africa University with no idea he’d be travelling 35 hours one way between layovers and 23 hours on a plane to do good deeds, but that’s exactly where the path of service has led him. And he’s very excited about what he’s helped to accomplish for a rural hospital almost 9,000 miles from home.

This summer Dale and a team of 28 other volunteers helped install a 125-kilowatt Solar Power-Pak system for the Kibuye Hope Hospital. The trip was two years in the making, its goal to bring reliable power to the McCropder missionary surgeons there who perform over 300 surgeries a month.

The final cost on the power pack unit was $600,000, with about half of those funds supplied via a grant from Africa Missions Healthcare Foundation and the rest raised from donors, some from here in Wenatchee.

Locals making the trip with Dale were Mike Babst, who retired from the Chelan County PUD and is now a board member for I-TEC (International Technical Electric & Construction) the organization that built the system, Jim Fife, former Ag Supply general manager, Ed Therriault, Ernie Briggs, Andy Parks and Dale’s daughter and son-in-law, Brian and Christina Voth. The group bonded and worked well together in the foreign atmosphere.

“It’s a very different culture,” Dale explained. “In a sense you go way back in time.”

For example, it wasn’t unusual for Dale and Donna to see four or five bicyclists hanging onto the back of semi-trucks going up the three-hour long hill from Bujumbura to Kibuye. “It’s dangerous how they travel, but it’s a helpful way to get up the hill.”

Many of these travelers suffer broken bones due to accidents, which lands them in the hospital. If they are lucky, they are operated on but with only local anesthesia, and are given no pain medication afterwards because none is available. Another thing we in the U.S. take for granted, just like electricity.

“When we in America go into surgery, we just assume we are going to have electricity,” Dale said.

“But in Kibuye they had power from the grid for maybe two to four hours a day, and there would be surges so the frequency and voltage was a problem. Plus the price of diesel went up, making it cost prohibitive to run the generators, and tough to run a hospital.”

Now, the impact of having 24/7 power is being felt in positive ways beyond Kibuye. During Dale’s last visit, he and others helped put together 19 wooden incubators for babies designed by one of the surgeons. The hospital is now selling them to other African hospitals that have heard about their success rate.

A baby being treated at the Kibuye Hope Hospital pediatrics ward is carried by his brother.

Most importantly, the power unit saves lives. “Even something as simple as a cataract shortens peoples’ lifespans in Africa,” he explained.

Dale said he’s not crazy about the nine-hour jet lag, the lack of air conditioning, nor the travel delays he’s experienced during each trip, but he largely takes these things in stride. For him, it’s a small price to pay for the satisfaction of doing even one small thing that makes a difference for others.

Besides, “Africa is Africa,” he says. “Some of the places I’ve been are definitely out of my comfort zone but I am just learning to go with the flow.”

Depending on circumstances and if the organization reaches their funding goals, Dale and the I-TEC volunteers will go back to Africa in July of 2019 to help install the same Power-Pak at the university in Burundi. “The need for reliable power is rampant in Africa,” he said. And he feels called to help.

“As a Christian taking care of the poor and disenfranchised is to me what you are called to do.” For one place in Africa, help and hope is coming.

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