Written by Pooja Choksi

A few kilometres off the highway, the asphalt road gives way to a dirt road. I know I’m getting closer now. It is my very last day in Belize and over the last two and a half months, I have tried to cram every hour possible for data collection. However, my last day is reserved for a special event, which I am honoured to be invited to- the inauguration of the micro solar grid in the Mayan village of Santa Teresa.

The rain that lashed the south of Belize the previous days rendered the dirt roads a motoring adventure. Countless bumps on the dirt road later, I have arrived at my destination, Santa Teresa. Upon my arrival, I am immediately aware of a sense of excitement present in the village. The men tend to the logistics at the community centre while the women have gathered at one of the houses to cook a traditional meal of Caldo. After a few introductions and a quick look at the community centre, I make my way to the house where the women have gathered. As is something I have commonly noticed with the Mayan women in Belize, they speak softly amongst each other while continuing with their tasks of cleaning the chicken, keeping an eye on the wood fired makeshift stove and making the perfect tortillas. I have made my way to Santa Teresa to meet a very special woman, Florentina Choc, who I find at the other end of the palapa, watching the Caldo stewing away in a large pot.

Florentina and her community members cook a feast for the day of the inauguration.

Florentina and I know each other from another meeting we had in the Belizean capital, Belmopan, a month ago. The first time we met was at a project completion meeting at the GEF Small Grants Program office. Florentina had remained quiet through most parts of the meeting, which was dominated by her male colleagues. After the meeting had finished, she and I had stepped out to discuss all things Indian. Florentina, who had never ventured farther than Belmopan in the past, had been chosen to be a solar engineer along with another member of her village. they were chosen by the NGO, Plenty Belize as a part of their project to set up a micro solar grid in her village in collaboration with Barefoot College. Consistent with the Barefoot College model, women chosen to be solar engineers under the project would spend six months training in the village of Tilonia in rural western India.

To my surprise, she was just as excited to see me at that first meeting as I was to see her. I was eager to hear her stories of India and she was simply happy to be in the company of an Indian after many months of having left the country. We spoke about her training, Tilonia, Rajasthan, the beautiful kurtis (traditional Indian clothing) and how comfortable they are and ended our conversation at Rajasthani food.

A month later, I find myself in Florentina’s village in hope of seeing the fruits of her hard labour to set up a micro grid in her village over the last few months. The first thing I notice about the village is the solar panels outside each of the houses. The entire community uses solar energy either by installing panels to their homes or solar lanterns. 

Solar Panels outside the homes in the village of Santa Teresa.

On this big day in the village, she is the centre of attention at this event and many dignitaries have been invited. Her humility and simplicity, however, deceive one of the chief role, which must be noted is voluntary, she has played in bringing electricity to Santa Teresa. Florentina has selected her best traditional outfit for this event and hands me her photo album from India while I wait for her as she gets ready for the inauguration at the community centre.  In this album, I see photos of her with women from around the world; all of them at their training, visiting the Taj Mahal and locations in Rajasthan. Through the photos, it is evident that her time in India was extraordinary for Florentina and why she misses the people and experiences that Barefoot College brought into her life.

Florentina’s photo album from her time in India.

As we walk over to the community centre, she shares with me more stories of her journey to India. She tells me about her first time in an airplane and her arduous journey from Belize to Mexico and eventually to India. I am struck by her courage and open mindedness.

The community centre is filled with the village members, visitors from other villages nearby who are inspired by Santa Teresa’s accomplishments, local media and dignitaries. Within the dignitaries, present are the resident representative of UNDP Belize, representative of the Ministry of Rural Development, the village alcalde amongst others. Florentina takes her seat amongst the dignitaries at the table.

Local and national media present for the inauguration.

The inauguration ceremony commences with the cheerful Paul Mahung as the master of ceremonies. After a couple of speeches, all eyes are on Florentina as she is asked to say a few words on this special occasion. Florentina has carefully prepared her speech, which takes the audience through her initial struggles of being part of the micro grid project to the project’s eventual success. Overcoming many hurdles, often in the form of delays in securing equipment and funding, Florentina and her community members eventually achieved their goal of lighting their village. While she led the village through the engineering process of the project, another group formed the electricity board that regulates the use of the energy generated.

She stands up and faces a large crowd to begin her speech. “Never did I think that I would be a solar engineer. When Plenty Belize and SGP proposed this project to take place in Santa Teresa, I never thought they would ask me to go to India to be the solar engineer. The fact that another woman from the village was going to join me on this trip to India consoled me when I was nervous about the trip and this project. However, when she decided to drop out, I became confused and wished to cancel my trip too. Now, the entire project was riding on my shoulders; had I decided to not go to India, today this project with Plenty Belize and Barefoot College would not have taken place and Santa Teresa would not have had solar energy. At this confusing time, it was my two sons who encouraged me to continue with the decision I had previously made. They saw this project as my opportunity to do something for the community of Santa Teresa, and help change all our lives. So, I was convinced. I spent six months in India and trained to be a solar engineer.” The entire room is silent and intently listening to one of the most important speeches of the inauguration. Her story is one of awe and inspiration to many, including myself.

Florentina speaks about her experience at the Barefoot College, her struggles and her triumphs in the process of this project.

Florentina is fondly known as the woman who brought light to her village and has appeared in national media for her voluntary efforts for her community. The college has inspired her and many other women to be at the forefront of change within their communities across the world. The quest to improve living conditions for her community and many others in Belize has only begun. Florentina aspires to gain more advanced knowledge of solar engineering and hopes to make it back to Barefoot College. In the meantime, she plans to share her knowledge and impart the solar engineering skills to members of neighbouring villages.

I leave on this extremely positive note and hope I can return to see the change Florentina will bring over the next few years.  I cannot think of a better last day and last memory of Belize to take back with me as I end my summer research in this gorgeous country.

Florentina and I take one quick photo before I depart.  (Photo Credit: Zana Wade)