The Asian Education and Friendship Association (AEFA) builds schools in areas in Asia affected by extreme poverty, and by working on school development hand-in-hand with local residents, it supports the improvement of the children's education environment and activities designed to promote the independence of residents in these areas. AEFA reached its 15th year of operation in 2019 and is planning to build its 100th school in Laos, bringing the overall total to 300.
This is the second time we've donated solar lanterns in Laos, the first being in 2017 with Panasonic and its 100 Thousand Solar Lanterns Project. On this occasion, we raised money by making use of crowd funding* for the first time. What surprised me was that most contributors were not AEFA members. Along with the donations, I was glad to receive messages such as "It's good that there's no risk of fire with solar lanterns," and "I wanted to go with you and carry a lantern on my back," which encouraged us.
For villagers who have only ever experienced the small amount of light emitted by candles and flashlights, the light from a solar lantern shines like hope itself. This time, we have been able to deliver 102 lanterns to schools, dormitories, and medical clinics in off-grid areas. The children saw the light and exclaimed with joy, "We can read books at night as well with these!" and, "We can go to the outside toilet, too!" The lanterns enable teachers who are busy instructing children during the day to prepare the following day's lessons and also do some studying of their own at night. Clinic staff were also overjoyed, saying, "Thanks to the lanterns, we will be able to receive pregnant women and patients without any worries."
Among the many advantages of the solar lanterns, such as saving on fuel costs and allowing residents to study at night, the best feature of these lanterns is their ability to enhance communications among villagers. For example, it is gratifying that in recent years, graduates of the first school AEFA built have returned as teachers or carpenters. Since they are busy with their work, they have little time to talk to each other during the day. However, with the lanterns, they have the opportunity to invite each other to their dormitory after work and have a chat. Chats under the lights with village elders, who are the pride of the village, help children create their own dreams. Some of them might say, "When I grow up, I want to get involved in making solar lanterns."
AEFA has built numerous schools, which have so far all remained open. We can put this down to our participatory approach. Everyone involved—our staff, local partner NGOs, students' parents, and local community residents—is engaged in school construction from the very beginning by working together to carry building materials and lay bricks. This gives the people a feeling of pride toward the school, as they can say "That's our school—we built it," and encourages them to look after it. In my opinion, the school has three powers, specifically the power to unite the villagers, promote village improvement, and bring neighboring villages together. The lanterns not only fuel these powers but also support the children's dreams. I truly believe this.