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Bellingham graduate Jade Fairbanks brings solar power to village clinic in Africa

The Peace Corps’ instructions to Jade Fairbanks were this: Move to an impoverished village in the heart of Burkina Faso and find ways to improve the residents’ health.

Fairbanks, who graduated from Sehome High School in 2009 and studied public health and medical anthropology at the University of Washington, was accepted into the Peace Corps in May 2013 and departed for West Africa that fall. After some training, she was assigned to the village of Sigle, with about 8,000 people in the vicinity.

It’s flat countryside, green during the rainy season but dusty and scorching at other times. Villagers survive by growing millet, corn and vegetables, and by raising donkeys, cattle, pigs, chickens and goats. The only Westerner there, Fairbanks stayed inside her locked house after dark for safety.

“Not the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” she says.

She would have preferred more guidance from the Peace Corps, but she jumped at the chance to help the villagers. She taught them the benefits of washing their hands and practicing safe sex, and advised mothers about proper nutrition for infants (Rule no. 1: Don’t give babies millet wine). She led a campaign against malaria, and rewarded people by posting photos showing them with their mosquito nets.

“They loved having their pictures taken,” Fairbanks says.

Then, while observing mothers giving birth at night with only the glow of clinic attendants’ cell phones to illuminate the delivery, Fairbanks realized another way to help.

“We need to install electricity here,” she recalls thinking. “People should not be giving birth in the dark.”

Working in French and with the help of an electrician, she won approval for a Peace Corps grant to buy and install solar panels with batteries. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there to see the $4,000 project installed and bring light to the clinic, the separate maternity building and the one-room pharmacy building.

She wasn’t there because family and friends were concerned about the rise of Ebola in nearby countries. Although the deadly disease hadn’t reached Burkina Faso, Fairbanks returned to the Northwest last August.

The daughter of Patti and John Fairbanks of Bellingham, she now lives and works in Seattle while waiting to see if she will be accepted into graduate school or a fellowship at the University of Washington. Her dream job: working on women’s health issues for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.