GWAKWANI, SOUTH AFRICA —
South Africa is the African continent's most advanced nation -- yet an estimated 3 million of its residents live without electricity. The government says it's working to improve its infrastructure to reach those people -- many of them in remote areas -- but it is simultaneously struggling to provide enough power for its growing urban population. In a remote South African village - actually called "armpit" in the local language - electricity is available for the first time in 2014.
Wilson Tshitande has lived in the remote village of Gwakwani for as long as he can remember. He boasts that he knows every stick, every rock and every plant in this settlement of less than 100 people.
But one thing the 70-year-old never thought he would see has finally come to this village in South Africa's largely rural Limpopo province: electricity.
In the local Venda language, the name "Gwakwani" literally means "armpit." It's so named because it's wedged under the nearest river and other important landmarks. But perhaps, residents say, the village's modesty has also led to their being overlooked in their request for electricity.
"We have been expecting that there would be electricity, but since we are poor we have nothing. So we've just been hoping that someday something would happen," said Tshitande.
Despite the villagers' appeals to the municipality, the power lines stop at the next village over.
Local ward councilor Rabelani Gadabeni said the power utility and municipality don't have the budget to bring the lines to Gwakwani. Instead, electricity is coming through a private initiative led by the University of Johannesburg.
"We see that that thing, it will take time. So that if we even happen to engage with the University of Johannesburg so that if maybe they can do a solar project, it will help our people faster than when we have to budget for the main line," said Gadabeni.
A team from the university's electrical engineering department recently travelled 800 kilometers to the village to install solar panels donated by a local business.
Engineering lecturer M. Hove helped the university choose the village.
"There are a number of these communities that are needy. But we found this village as the most needy. As I often say, I call it the 'forgotten village,'" said Hove.
The small amount of power generated by the solar panels will initially fuel a water pump that until now has run on diesel fuel. Hove said that is just the start of the project -- the next phase will include more improvements.
Godfrey Nefuluphudwe has operated the aging pump for four years. He travels once a month to the nearest town to buy the diesel fuel.
He said he's grateful for the small amount of electricity, but he and his neighbors would like more.
"It's going to help us a lot. But we need you to come back and electrify all of our houses. Because, without electricity, we live hard. Because we must move from that village to another village to charge even your phone or laptops. We must buy batteries for our radios," said Nefuluphudwe.
Gwakwani has always been a sleepy little village. But now that electricity is finally coming, maybe its residents -- young and old -- will get a better connection to the modern world.