Alice’s town, Nimule, is situated just inside South Sudan, on the border with Uganda. Approaching from the South, after a 4 hour drive on a dirt road, you make your way through Ugandan passport control, drive a further 10km through ‘no man’s land’, until you reach a bridge over a river.
Most people’s livelihood in Nimule is connected to the border e.g. security, hotels, food, SIM card sellers, etc, and Alice is no exception. She makes money by carrying water from a well to a hotel. The wage is flexible and is negotiated daily; typically for a morning’s work Alice will earn 5 South Sudanese Pounds, about £1.25. To put this in perspective, it costs 25-50p to charge her mobile phone battery. Clearly money is tight but Alice is determined to try and to pay for her children’s school fees. Whenever she cannot pay, her children are pulled from school.
Alice tells her story at 8pm one night, sat on one of her three beds inside her hut which is nestled amongst other mud huts 500m from the main road. Other than a small table in the centre of the hut there is no other furniture. Every 10 minutes or so Alice gets up to stoke the burning grass called ‘ayese’ which is used for lighting. Naturally in a hut with no chimney, the air is thick with smoke. And unlike with a kerosene lamp, doing homework or reading with this poor quality and intermittent light is impossible. It is only used to make tasks like putting the children to bed a little easier. Approximately a third of the households in Nimule light their homes this way.
But burning the grass is only one side of the story. Alice tells me that most days she has to walk out of town into the dry bush to find and cut the grass.
The next morning I meet Alice outside her hut at 8am before the heat of the day. After the sadness of last night, today she possesses an air of ambition about her and after strapping her baby boy onto her back we walk out of town. Going over a small pass on the outskirts, we are approached by soldiers stationed on the ridge. After an uncomfortably long, lingering conversation we are allowed to pass without the payment of a cigarette bribe.
After a 30 minute walk Alice puts down her bag, withdraws an attractive fixed blade 4 inch knife with wooden handle, and begins her grass cutting procedure. The tall scraggly yellow grass is found growing in amongst bushes where grazing animals cannot reach. After cutting the grass for one hour she divides it up into bundles, securing each one with ribbons of bark that she strips from a young tree, before making her way home.
Whilst it’s hard to imagine a lower energy lifestyle, the health repercussions of inhaling the smoke and the two-three hour trips to cut grass each day shatter the idealistic sentiment of how one should live a low carbon life. Solar power could revolutionise Alice’s life in a sustainable way.