By Ingrid Fernandez
The village of Santa Teresa in Toledo is a remote village in Southern Belize. It is 35 miles away from Punta Gorda town and an hour drive from the Jalacte Highway cutoff through a rocky road.
The village, that consists of about 70 families living in thatch and wooden houses, has persisted without light for 83 years since it was established. One woman from the village has set out to change that.
Florentina Choco is a 44-year-old Mayan mother of three and a widow. Her husband was killed in Belize City 20 years ago in a robbery attempt when they travelled to sell produce as that was their livelihood. She has lived in Santa Teresa Village all her life and does not know how to read and write.
All of these challenges, however, were no impediment for the miracle she was about to perform. Last year, Choco was offered a six-month scholarship to go to India to study solar engineering and come back to install lights in the homes of her village.
Against all the fears she felt, she took the scholarship, and made the three day trip to India, mostly on her own. She lived at the institution, learning to weld and assembling solar panels and converters. In March, she returned to her village and installed lights in 68 homes in Santa Teresa village.
The project started when ITEC Solar Engineer Grandmother’s College known worldwide as Barefoot College, contacted the United Nations Developmental Program (UNDP) to start a solar project in Belize. UNDP chose Plenty International Belize Ltd (Plenty Belize) to manage the project and select the people who would represent the country. Plenty Belize had been prolifically working with Belizean Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in the area of solar energy.
They had worked with five villages recommended by the Ministry of Rural Development, testing the installation of solar mini-grids. They recommended the village of Santa Teresa as it showed great potential during the project.
Plenty Belize got in contact with their partners in the village to decide on the candidates. The alcalde of the village approached two people, including Choco and another woman in the village.
Barefoot College asked that the community put forward two women candidates whose youngest child was not younger than 18-years-old, so that the women would be able to travel and study worry-free.
The institution sought to give the women an opportunity to learn solar engineering to provide light to the village and also to give the women a significant role in the community. “When they came and asked me, I was shocked. I don’t know where is that country,” Choco said about her selection to go to India.
Initially the two women were being prepared to take the course, however, the other candidate backed out at the last minute because her husband was worried that he could not be alone for six months if his wife were to go to India.
So Choco was left to make the journey on her own. She did not hesitate, and decided to go.
Across the globe in three days
Florentina had never been outside of Belize before and had traveled only as far as Belize City within the country. She had no idea where India was. Mark Miller, Executive Director of Plenty Belize in Toledo said: “When chosen, Florentina had no passport, had never flown in an airplane, but was excited to help her people.”
After her friend backed out of the trip, Choco tried to remain courageous and proceed with her journey. “I was not afraid, because I said to myself if I start to get scared, maybe I will give up. So what I did was to tell myself that I am going” she said. She left Belize on October 28th and arrived in India on the 31st. The day that she had to leave the river was flooded.
The journey was a life changing experience for Choco, she explained. The process to gather all her travel documents took four months. At first she could not make it to Blue Creek Village because the river was flooded so she had to take the village bus to cross the flooded bridge. When she made it to Blue Creek, Miller was waiting to take her to the Philip Goldson International Airport.
A coordinator from Plenty Belize accompanied her as far as Mexico City. From there onward Choco was on her own. After more than 10 hours on the airplane, she changed flights at Frankfrut, Germany for a direct flight to Delhi, India. When she arrived in India, Barefoot College representatives met her at the airport.
They took her to the institution located in the village of Tilonia outside the city of Jaipur, where she was going to live for the six months course. She was exhausted by the trip but said that all she wanted to do was to call her sons at home, which the institution’s coordinators helped her to do.
A solar engineer in the making
After settling in, the journey of learning solar engineering started. Since most participants were older women who come from villages with little to no education, the course was designed to be mostly practical.
Choco expressed that her determination to learn solar engineering was inspired and driven by the challenges her people face because of their lack of electricity. “In this village we have no light, nothing, we don’t have electricity we have to use kerosene or candle. So it’s hard for us. Especially the children going to school, there’s no light to do their homework or to study. When they had that meeting, the people agreed that they want light in their homes,” she said.
At the institute, she was the last student to arrive for the course and joined women from Honduras and the Ivory Coast, among other countries. Choco said at the beginning she felt the course was difficult, but gradually she learned and started liking the training. Choco learned to fix machines, welding, how to connect wires and even installed her own solar panel, lights and controller to supply her house.
She talked fondly of her teachers who she described as knowledgeable and patient. She said they treated her with respect, encouraged her often and never refused to repeat a lesson if someone needed another explanation. She expressed that she was especially amazed by Indian women professors. She said they were innovative, independent and resourceful. She also believes and is positive that women in her village need to get involved in more industries and cooperate with each other to earn a living.
Her cultural exchange was enriched with traveling to various places in India, including the Taj Mahal, shopping at Indian Bazaars and learning to like the Indian cuisine. Adapting to Indian food was challenging, she admitted: “I missed the caldo and corn tortillas, they have tortillas, they call it chapatis and rotis but it’s different”.
Coming home a changed woman with big plans
Miller, one of the first to meet Choco when she came back, could not help but notice the difference. “Florentina came back a changed woman, with great new skills, to help the people of her village,” he said.
After her training, Choco returned to install the equipment in the homes of her village. She had to wait a month for the equipment to arrive. The UNDP made the investment to provide equipment to the village structuring a system of payment.
Each household was to pay $50 for 100 watts and received a solar panel, four small ceiling lights, a controller, a battery and a fan. If the household didn’t want to purchase the package they could buy a solar hand lantern and pay a dollar a month.
One of the villagers, a man whose household had bought a hand lantern expressed said his family is very happy with it. He mentioned that the people in the village have a lot of respect for Choco because the work she is doing is very important to them.
Choco said she feels rewarded by her community’s gratitude. “They say, ‘Thank you, if it wasn’t because of you, if you didn’t go to India, we wouldn’t have light,'” she said.
She said she was so impacted by the training that now she even wants to be involved in more trainings to expand her knowledge in solar energy.
During the next month the last four households of the village will be equipped with solar lights. Choco will be holding a workshop at the community center to teach the women of her village the skills she has learned.
When asked how she feels about the difference she has been making in her village, Choco said: “I just feel very proud of myself because now, this village has light.” She said she is excited to have another opportunity to do another training course so she can expand her knowledge and make an even bigger change.