The best kind of gift to give at Christmas

In  a country like Australia, it is all too easy to take electricity for granted. It is interwoven with the fabric of our daily life. Not only does it make everyday living less of a chore – enabling us to cook, to wash, to light our way – but it gives us access to the world from our living rooms, through television, radio and technology. If fire is counted as the greatest invention of humankind, then electricity must be our second.

But really, it was not until I found myself sitting in a small, remote Cambodian village at nightfall that I realised its intrinsic value. As the sun dropped, I was suddenly in darkness. Absolute, impenetrable darkness – the kind where you can barely see what’s in front of you, where there are no street lamps, no reflected light from nearby buildings, no roads with passing traffic. Literally, no light.

Right now, around 70 per cent of people in Cambodia have no access to electricity. This not only puts children and families at risk, but acts as a major obstacle to their future development. Hearing Tharin’s story made this all too evident. At age 13, living with electricity has already had such a terrifying impact on her family.

Like most of the community here, Tharin’s family rely on kerosene lamps at nightfall – while toxic and dangerous, they are much cheaper to run than torches, as batteries are expensive to replace or difficult to recharge. When the family is unable to afford fuel, they use fire sticks – literally, a branch with a flame, and even more dangerous, particularly for children.

In the evening, Tharin and her brother would sit as close as possible to the lamp to do their homework. Unfortunately, the inevitable happened – one night, her homework book caught fire, spreading quickly to the rest of her bamboo home. Another evening, the family forgot to extinguish the lamp before retiring to bed and woke up to a house in flames. Tharin’s father sustained a severe, and permanent, disability from burns to his leg but ultimately her family were lucky – no one lost their life. This isn’t always the case.

Fortunately, those dangers have now been removed. When I visited Tharin, we sat outside her rebuilt thatched home to talk. The sun had set. But we could see each other’s faces, because between us sat her new solar lamp which Tharin had just switched on, with no fumes, no need for fuel, and no danger.


Danielle with Tharin and her younger sister whose village has no access to electricity

For Tharin, I now understand that this lamp means a way out of poverty. She says: “I didn’t want to be like my parents, who were not able to go to school. But the kerosene lamp flickered so much I couldn’t see. If it was windy or rainy, the lamp would go out, and I couldn’t re-light it to finish my homework.

“The solar lamp helps me and my big brother study at night. It is helping me at school, and my school marks have improved a lot. Now I dream of finishing school and being a doctor, so I can help my family. And I wish all children could have solar lamp like mine.”

In a village where there are no water and sanitation facilities, it also means Tharin’s younger sister Kakada can keep an eye out for snakes when going to the toilet outside in the evening. Complete with a USB port, this lamp means her father can charge his phone and call if a doctor in an emergency, or call buyers of produce and sell his harvest. It means that at the local health centre, midwives no longer have to hold a torch between their teeth when assisting women in childbirth at night.

This lamp also gives families access to the small but essential things that improve our quality of life – in a home with no TV, the family can read for pleasure at night time. If a younger child is having a bad dream, a mother can turn on the light in the wee hours to provide reassurance. And if someone forgets to turn off the light, it’s ok, everyone can rest easy.

As I get into the festive spirit this year, and put up my tree and decorations and fairy lights, I am going to take a moment to think of those who living without light every day. I encourage you to do the same. One solar lamp can mean the world of difference to a child like Tharin – it means protection and opportunity and hope. And that is the best kind of gift to give at Christmas.

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