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One of these days I’m going to get myself a solar powered cooker. This is a promise I have made to myself every year for more than ten years now, usually during the month of August.

The month of August holds a special place in the hearts of the Akamba people. The Akamba are long-distance traders who live in south eastern Kenya between Nairobi and Mombasa, more or less along the railway line that was built at the end of the nineteenth century and which is still referred to as the “lunatic express” more in affection today rather than the scorn of yester years. Thanks to this accident of geography, Ukambani enjoys ideal climatic conditions: sunny twelve-hour days, every single day, the whole year through, with some rain thrown in at refreshingly regular intervals to wrap up the divine package.

Hot on the heels of the May/June rains, we harvest pigeon peas (“nzũũ” in Kikamba) in such plentiful supplies that the month of August has been nicknamed “mwai wa nzũũ” (the month of pigeon peas). Consequently, it has become the month of choice for all kinds of festivities in
Ukambani because nzũũ, a delicacy for the Akamba people, is so readily available in August that the dish of boiled green maize and nzũũ can be served in every homestead at every meal.

Which brings me back to the solar cooker. Boiling a meal of maize and nzũũ can take anywhere between three and six hours, depending on method and fuel used. That automatically rules out electricity, in a country where the national grid continues to lag so far behind domestic consumption that power blackouts have become the official modus operandi of rationing power. Gas is just as unreliable. Gas shortages are the order of the day. And, with each shortage the price of LPG doubles, so much so that current prices are not just out of reach, but way out of sight for the majority of Kenyans.

Given all these points in favour of solar cookers, you would think that entrepreneurs would be falling over each other in their eagerness to get the product to the market, wouldn’t you? If solar energy is as cheap, clean, safe and inexhaustible as touted, then all my meals can cook themselves while I get on with the business of living. But hard as I might look, I have yet to get my hands on a solar cooker. I have occasionally come across media reports of solar cookers that are said to be positively transforming the lives of rural women. So why, oh why, aren’t these wonder gadgets in every supermarket?

And herein lies the crisis for us in sub-Saharan Africa: not that we are at the risk of exhausting what we have, but that we lack the patience and dexterity to harness the power of what is freely given.

© Esther Mbithi 2007
Published in the Carleton University Magazine, Fall 2007

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