Linda Cullen’s 50 Lanterns nonprofit lets solar lights brighten Third World life

Linda Cullen
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
50 Lanterns’ Linda Cullen

St. Paulite Linda Cullen — who travels the world taking pictures and also runs a nonprofit organization that brings solar lighting to Third World countries — is back from a slightly frustrating trip to Rwanda.

Much of the trip went smoothly; she brought solar lights to women in Tanzania and coffee growers in Rwanda.

But the main mission, well, flickered a bit.

The plan — with a grant from Catholic Servite Sisters of Ladysmith, Wis. — was to install a solar system in a Rwandan refugee camp hospital.

On an earlier scouting mission, she’d seen how the lack of lighting made medical care very difficult in the camp, which at that time had 5,000 residents. A generator in the camp ran only two hours a day, and she found many babies being born — sometimes five a day and often in the middle of the night.

But when she arrived earlier this month to actually install the solar system, the camp had grown to more than 13,800 refugees, so the installation they’d planned was already inadequate and there weren’t enough supplies. Also, the tools available were low-quality and prone to breaking, and the nearest hardware store was 150 kilometers from the camp.

And worst of all: The actual solar panels that were to be installed on the thin, metal roofs of the hospital buildings never arrived. They hadn’t been shipped from another African city, apparently because of a paperwork snafu.

So, she and Twin Cities solar installer Terry Adamski (whom she’d persuaded to learn about solar installation and then dragged along on the trip) did what they could — installing the solar racks and working on wiring. They’ll return in mid-January to install the panels and get the lights on, finally, in the hospital.

Terry Adamski
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
Solar man Terry Adamski

Sometimes, that’s how things work in underdeveloped countries, Cullen said Friday. She’s no stranger to those areas, having been in many, including several African countries, plus Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Honduras.

Her solar outreach began in 2004, when she was in Afghanistan taking photos of widows who were learning to become self-sufficient. Without electricity, they couldn’t work at night.

“That’s when I got my ‘light bulb moment,’ ” she said. “We’ve done a lot of camping and I knew there were solar products out there.”

On her next visit, she brought 50 solar lanterns back to the women and was amazed at the great impact it made on their lives. Her 50 Lanterns nonprofit organization has now distributed about 1,500 lanterns and smaller solar flashlights to impoverished families in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Rwanda, Honduras, India and Tanzania.

The solar installation in the Rwanda refugee camp was a much larger undertaking — installing permanent solar panels to provide brighter, more reliable and efficient lighting for the hospital.

In addition to the solar lanterns, Cullen’s group helps sell coffee from cooperatives in Rwanda, working with Bull Run Roasters of St. Louis Park. Profits go back to fund solar lighting projects.

To raise money for her efforts, Cullen takes donations and sells the solar-powered flashlights and Rwandan coffee on her website.

You can also follow her adventures on her blog.

Cullen said she’s often asked by villagers — who previously had been using candles or kerosene lamps to light up the night — why she’s helping them. Her reply: You’re working so hard, and you deserve some help.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply