In One Turkana Village, A Solar-Powered ‘Electro-hut’

Simon Ekaale and his wife lounge in the shade of their mud hut in Turkwel, Kenya, January 17, 2013.  Near the horizon are the traditional palm-frond homes found throughout the region. (Nicole Bansen)

Simon Ekaale and his wife lounge in the shade of their mud hut, which stands apart from the traditional palm-frond homes found throughout the region. (Nicole Bansen)

By Michael Ruiz

TURKANA, Kenya – In the monotonous desertscape of this arid land of palm-frond huts and acacia trees, one home differed from all others. Unlike its neighbors, this one boasted vibrant red walls made of packed mud, a square — not round — floor plan, and an unexpected flourish from the 21st century.

This mud hut had a solar panel on its roof.

The owner of this innovative dwelling, Simon Ekaale, was as odd a sight as his hut. Unlike his fellow tribesmen who were mostly swathed in colorful toga-like robes, Ekaale wore crisp, pinstriped slacks and a breezy button-down shirt.

“Change is good,” Ekaale said, beaming. “Before, we didn’t even have windows and doors.”

For hundreds of years the Turkana, the pastoral people of this land, have led a nomadic lifestyle. They built simple huts from sticks and palm fronds, which they could fold up to migrate between pastures, but the introduction of western aid to the region has led many of them to put down roots in more permanent mud manyattas, or homesteads, near sources of subsidy. Ekaale took that one step further: he built the neighborhood’s first “electro-hut”.

Where does a desert dweller get the cash for such a high-tech pad? Ekaale was among the few villagers hired by the Turkana Basin Institute — an interdisciplinary scientific research outpost co-founded by famed anthropologist Richard Leakey and Stony Brook University — when it launched here in 2008.

Encouraged by his success at the institute, and desirous of a more Western lifestyle, Ekaale then launched a small business selling sundry goods, including beer, peanuts and toothbrushes, to supplement his income. He even built makeshift monkey bars for the children out of local timber.

“I want to leave tradition behind,” said Ekaale.

And, in some regards, he has. Unlike most of his neighbors, he prefers beer to busa, the local brew; he has a pet dog — a rarity in the bush — a rooster and a hen. Ekaale also adopted a more proactive approach to dental hygiene: now, unlike many locals whose teeth are stained tobacco-brown, Ekaale, his wife and two daughters model spotlessly white, full-toothed smiles. And Ekaale is one of the few Turkana tribesmen who aspire to send all of their children to school.

The solar panel sits atop the thatched roof of Simon Ekaale's mud hut, January 17, 2013.  The panel provides power for an electric hair trimmer, lamp and a radio, and provides a battery-charging source. (Nicole Bansen)

The solar panel sits atop the thatched roof of Simon Ekaale’s mud hut, January 17, 2013. The panel provides power for an electric hair trimmer, lamp and a radio, and provides a battery-charging source. (Nicole Bansen)

Then there is that solar panel. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, less than one percent of Americans use solar power. If established infrastructures and special interests have hindered the widespread use of renewable energy sources in the United States, by contrast this Turkana tribesman, who lives in the raw and undeveloped wilderness, boasts an amazingly 21st century green lifestyle that some New Yorkers may envy.

“The sunshine is so powerful here,” said Dr. Devinder Mahajan, an expert on renewable energy from Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory who visited the Turkana Basin Institute. “And basically without any cost.”

The panel itself didn’t cost much either — by western standards.  Ekaale bought it for 7,000 Kenyan shillings (approximately $85), which is about half of his monthly salary. The rest of his hut cost 30,000 shillings ($342) to build. While many men here measure their wealth in goats (approximately 4,000 shillings for a healthy, big one) and camels (approximately 6,000 shillings for a medium-sized one), Ekaale’s capital includes a radio, an electric hair trimmer, a lamp and a motorcycle.

In another part of Africa, Ekaale might have used his “electro-hut” to make money off of people in need of a cell-phone charge. But with the Turkana Basin Institute lending electricity for free in his backyard, his hut is just a symbol of his success. In fact, it helped establish him as a man of financial prowess: the villagers chose Ekaale to be the chief of their “sacco,” the traditional community banking system used to manage funds for education and health care.

Ekaale believes the Turkana will all soon embrace the ways of the 21st century. “I think we’ll see a full transition to the modern world by 2050,” he said hopefully, surveying the dusty homesteads around his hut. Goats bleeped in the background and toga’d village men sat lounging in the shade of thorny acacia trees. Given the evidence at hand, it seemed a faraway, if not improbable, idea.

Then again, who would have ever thought a solar panel would top a mud hut?