On electricity...

One night last week, I lost electricity my phone's internet connection died; the gas went out while my pasta was on the stove; and my water died just as I was stepping into the shower. It was the night that wouldn't end. After cursing my luck, and bemoaning the bad karma I'd deservedly received, I went to bed. But the part that annoyed me the most was not having power. 
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On Friday, 4 technicians came to wire my apartment for internet. Not the wifi variety because that would have cost upwards of 160 dollars, but for ethernet. For now, it'll do, and to be frank, I had far more pressing matters on my mind: would I have electricity long enough to test the internet and make sure it worked before the crew left? 
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The next day, my roommate returned from Dakar and asked me how long we'd had lights. It was a variation on the questions that people often ask when returning to their homes in many West African countries. In fact, power had been so good recently, that when she asked, I quickly shushed her, convinced that she would jinx our temporary good fortune.  
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In a very short time, I have come to worship electricity. It has ceased being the normal thing I always had -- and that might go out because a storm knocked out a power line. Electricity, which allowed me to fuel my electronics filled life has now become a symbol of something so much bigger: privilege.  You see, much like the air I breathe, I never thought about electricity. It just was. Now, I obsess over it. I prep for when it goes out. I charge my phone and ipad as soon as possible, just in case the power goes. And I keep making the mental note to call Nandjo, the guy who is supposed to turn me on to a secondary generator run by a neighbor. This heightened sense of awareness tied to electricity also plagues my roomate. She keeps asking me if I've called Nandjo --her non-existent Portuguese means I am the designated home logistics person -- and as a say I haven't, this unspoken tension hangs between us.  I can tell we're both thinking the same thing: next time, it'll go out and it'll go for a long time. 
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Sometimes, I complain, vociferously, about electricity to fellow expats, or local friends. But instead of finding empathy, or equal tales of woe, I got what amounted to shrugs: people just didn't expect to have power. I was mystified by this attitude. Why weren't people incensed? Then, a friend explained to me that the EAGB, the public company tasked with supplying the capital with power, was so rotten to the core that senior employees had been stealing the gas meant to power the plant and selling it on the black market at bargain basement prices. Anxious to get their hands on cheaper fuel, people bought this gas, even though they all knew where it came from. The end result: Bissau sitting in the dark for a couple of months. No one knows how many people died in hospitals or from the inability to access power -- this isn't the place to come looking for reliable stats. At some point, the new government stepped in, replaced management, and Bissau got lights again. 

People talk about water being a human right, and I agree with that.  Something we talk about a lot less is the human right to electricity. Electricity is not a luxury and it is unacceptable that people have to plan their lives around hoping that that the state will provide a basic service. It isn't too much to ask to get statements, meters, and consistent reliable services, without lines that snake around the block. Finally, as a private individual, I shouldn't have to turn to the informal sector to hook me up to a generator down the street.  Lack of electricity stymies people in their everyday lives, endangers people's health, and suffocates potential before it can blossom into something more beautiful. I have learned here that having the time to focus on lofty goals such as democracy, equal access, and whatever freedom you want is the preserve of those who aren't focused on the more pragmatic realities of seeking food, shelter, water, or power.   
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P.S. Lighting all of Bissau for a year would only cost about 15 million USD. That's not a mind-numbingly large amount of money, is it?  



Joanna Busby1 Comment