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Published: Sunday March 4, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday May 25, 2013 MYT 10:16:02 PM

We really need no cutting edge technology to touch lives

I HAVE a young friend working in the heart of Africa. The stories and pictures she sends back, when there is an Internet connection, are simply amazing.

In the remote village where she works to raise the mother tongue literacy level of the refugees living nearby, there is hardly any power-generated lighting. Whatever is available has to be carefully rationed.

At night, she is blanketed by a sky full of stars. And when the moon is full, it is almost possible to read by moonlight.

I have known this friend for a long time and seen how her passion for life, and her quest for knowledge, has taken her to both the United States and Australia to gain degrees up to postgraduate level. Coming from a middle-class home in Petaling Jaya, with a fine attitude to complement her accomplished CV, she can easily fit into any job.

But she has chosen to take the road less travelled. And it is on such a road that she knows how to be thankful for the many things that we often take for granted.

Recently, she and her team came upon a solar-powered oven. No, not the type run by solar cells but basically a wooden box with black painted metal inside and a sheet of glass to keep the heat in, and an open lid with zinc that directs the sun's rays into the box.

It cooks rice, sauce, pasta, and bread. Quite amazing, she tells me in a recent email.

For rice or bread, for example, you just prepare everything and put the pot inside, cover it with a black sheet, and two to three hours later, hey presto, it's done.

“Even if we use the solar oven just for rice and bread, it could save us a lot of gas. I'm just amazed that putting something in a box in the sun can cook it!” she writes.

We can actually do this here as well, since there is no shortage of sunshine, but considering that we have a choice of either a gas, electric or microwave oven, I doubt if anyone wants to go back to such basics.

Growing up in Jelutong, Penang, we baked Chinese New Year cookies with something very basic as well. A giant pan is placed over a fire, and a zinc plate is placed over it, and then charcoal is added onto the zinc, thus creating an instant oven.

When we went fishing, we made our own nets. Even the weights we used, we melted the lead ourselves.

We used to also make our own toys, cupboards and shelves with the waste wood that my uncle took back from the lumberyard.

Perhaps it is a reflection of my growing-up years that I still like to buy stuff from Ikea as I can still do some of the assembly myself. But putting together pre-cut parts is not quite the same as starting from scratch.

But when you consider the number of high-tech conveniences at our disposal, gadgets that are so smart or easy to operate, you might think that we now should have more time on our hands. But is that so?

It would appear that the very gadgets that are meant to simplify our lives end up complicating them. For instance, never in the history of mankind have people been so connected smartphones and tablets make us reachable 24/7. But whether better connectivity has translated into better communication is something else all together.

Perhaps what is needed is to occasionally silence all those beeping and flashing devices that incessantly demand our attention, and pause to reflect on whether we are on course in our life's journey.

I suspect that those who are deeply convinced of being on course are very likely to be people who have disentangled themselves from modern trappings, and found the simple joys in life.

Which is why I am most impressed with what my dear friend is doing in Africa with her nifty solar oven, and indeed, with her life. Not only her, but also many here in our country are quietly doing work in their communities, giving free tuition to the poor, feeding the homeless, helping the marginalized, building bridges with neighbours irrespective of race, religion or creed.

No cutting edge technology is required to reach out and touch lives.

> Deputy executive editor Soo Ewe Jin believes he can make a living out of doing handy jobs when he retires but he will have to first employ a business manager so that he simply does not do everything for free.

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