I have been living in Africa for the last decade and when I return to the city in Europe I find it hard to adjust to the night. The street lights cast an orange glow that seeps through the curtains. The stars are pushed back. Even on clear nights you can see only a handful of them and not the silver blanket with shooting stars and satellites you see in the African bush. This industrial dimness may over longer periods alter our circadian rhythm and make it harder to appreciate that we are creatures breathing in and out on a fast spinning orb in a vast circumference of unsupported space. Whereas darkness in remoter bits of Africa is more complete. When there is no moonlight you cannot see a thing. Every thorny branch is a surprise and the soil and insect song make the dark alive. You feel the sun has been thumbed out with putty and that it will never return. For tribal peoples, the beasts and spirits are closer. For outsiders, there is only the glow of dung fires. Go deeper into the bush and you get an understanding of the relationship between dark and human-engineered light. In the semiarid tracts of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia I have seen how a single lantern is blotted out by a thickness of moths drawn from far away. You take clumps of these moths off with your hands and throw them up into the air, but still they return because there is no other light on the hillside. To state this is not to be overly romantic, for the future of solar lamps in Africa is in on the edge of towns where electricity is unaffordable, it is simply to argue that in those places where the nature of darkness is still complete, the singular quality of Frederik and Olafur’s Little Sun is possession. You own in the night a personal beam of light yesterday’s sun gave you. You can point it where you will. You can follow your footsteps through the scrub, gather more firewood, you can read your schoolbooks in a corner of the manyata, you can ready your camel for the day’s work ahead. To distribute Little Suns in such wild places is an act not just of empowerment, but also of precision.
Writer and Africa Correspondent, The Economist, Nairobi, Kenya,
Fellow, Future Africa, EPFL, Lausanne, Switzerland
For Little Sun
Extract From Submergence by J.M. Ledgard
Millions and millions of years ago we were different forms and we lived in the ocean. When we emerged we had to move in two dimensions, instead of three. That was painful at first. No up, nor any down. We learned to drag ourselves along without legs then with them, going faster and faster by any means. The lack of a third dimension is one explanation for our need to head out over the horizon. Another explanation is that we were raised up from chemosynthetic life in the deep ocean to become photosynthetic life at the top. Having ascended from the eternal night we cannot stop ourselves from heading towards the light. We are moths in the thrall of the sun and the stars, shedding off darkness. That is our instinct, but our conscious nature is also to be drawn to the unknown. We want to know what is behind the wood, what the next valley looks like, and the valley beyond that. We want to know what is in the sky and what is behind the sky. These have been our obsessions since our beginnings, yet the curiosity does not extend to the ocean. We forget there is so much darkness in our world, and to be out on a beach is to be lucky, and to be able to light your way is lucky.