When you're in the dark and you want to see,
You need... Electricity, Electricity
Flip that switch and what do you get?
You get … Electricity, Electricity
Every room can now be lit
With just... Electricity, Electricity
- Schoolhouse Rock, c. 1970’s
On August 14, 2003, I was standing at the photocopier at an IBM Mobility Centre in downtown Toronto when the Big Blackout occurred. I still remember thinking when the lights went out, “Uh oh. Did I cause that?” How’s that for a guilty conscience? For the next forty hours or so, my apartment languished without power. Even when homes on neighbouring blocks lit up again, mine stayed dark. My housemates and I developed a serious case of power envy, as we contemplated pressing our noses against our neighbours’ windows just to catch a glimpse of television again. Devolution into Lord of the Flies brutality was just around the corner. But come Saturday morning, power was restored, along with our sense of order, and we ran to happily hug our air conditioners.
And that was just forty hours without power.
It’s now been over seven weeks since I moved into the Pink House, and I’m still in the dark, literally and figuratively. Only this time, there aren’t any neighbours’ windows to provide me with hope that power is on its way. The entire community of Kagoro is lightless, and we’re not alone. Throughout Nigeria, only an estimated 10% of homes in rural communities such as Kagoro have access to power (and only 40% of all homes in the country). Considering that the population now stands at close to 140 million people, that’s an astonishing number to be in the Dark Ages in the 21st century. Now, to be completely honest, some homes in Kagoro (including mine) are wired for electricity, and power does come on sporadically. But the amount is so low that no appliances can be run and the light provided is barely enough to avoid collisions with furniture. So, I’ve given up and now rely strictly on lanterns and flashlights after the sun goes down.
It’s a strange existence. By day, I’m working on my laptop, accessing the internet and listening to people discuss network issues that I don’t understand. By night, I’m living in a Dickens novel. Crouched by my kerosene lantern, I inhale more smoke than the Marlboro Man. When someone knocks on my door, I have to resist the urge to call out, “Who goes there?” All I need to complete my Victorian existence is a raven quothing “Nevermore!” But there are benefits to being stuck in the dark. I’ve learned how to use my windup flashlight as a musical instrument, its whining wheeze especially evocative on “Smoke on the Water” and, oddly enough, “Dancing Queen”. And the darkness hides my evening visitors, although the pitch black does nothing to muffle the skittering of their claws on the concrete floor.
But the lack of power is more than inconvenient. It can be deadly. We have been warned repeatedly as newcomers to the country about the dangers of driving at night. That caution is issued for many reasons, including the preference of drivers to use the cover of darkness to attempt to break the sound barrier without the aid of headlights. But without electricity to power the few streetlights that exist along the highways, one truly drives in a void. The results of such blindness can be horrific. On the trip to Ossiomo, the sides of the road were littered with the carcasses of vehicles destroyed overnight. And when I say destroyed, I’m understating the wreckage. Cars fused together to the point of being indistinguishable. Tanker trucks flipped on their side and scorched by the explosion of the fuel they carried. The carnage left me in an apocalyptic daze. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find Mad Max waiting for me around the next corner. And drivers aren’t the only ones at risk. On the handful of occasions that I’ve been on local roads after dark, I’ve been amazed at the number of people walking along the shoulder of the roads, close enough to touch. The effect is eerie as the headlights catch them, revealing silent phantoms on the periphery that appear and vanish in an instant. I can only imagine how many lose their lives due to a moment’s inattention.
So, who is to blame for the appalling state of the power grid? Many in Nigeria point the finger at the National Electric Power Authority, known as NEPA for short. NEPA is a term in regular usage and has even replaced "electricity" or "light", so that when power does come on, one hears shouts of "NEPA is back!" Reflecting the cynicism engendered by the consistently terrible service provided, that acronym is now widely interpreted as Never Expect Power Again, although I prefer the slightly more profane No Electricity is a Pain in the Ass. Currently, the state-run agency produces less than half of its generating capacity and the power cuts have become part of its operating strategy. I spoke with one of my co-workers regarding the crisis. He said, with tongue firmly in cheek, that only three things are missing from the Nigerian electrical system: generation, transmission and distribution. I asked whether the unstable political situation of years past contributed to the lack of focus on resolving the crisis. He shook his head and listed the periods of rule which extended for years without any progress made. At 28, he can’t remember a time when there was a stable source of power in the country.
This might be one of the keys to the continuing crisis. Now that the country has been effectively without power for generations, most of the population has never experienced a consistent electrical supply. It’s difficult to miss what has never existed. This is not to say that Nigerians are ignorant of the benefits of electricity or that they don’t understand that their country is lagging behind other nations. It simply means there’s a certain amount of resignation to living with the status quo. People have adapted to a life without electricity, so it has not fixed itself in the national psyche as something which must change. Politicians campaign on anti-corruption platforms first, and issues such as the power grid are assigned a lower priority. The hope remains that once the issue of corruption is addressed, the rest of the items on the agenda will soon follow suit. With corruption endemic to the political system and influencing the management of utilities, this may prove to be a faint hope at best.
But recent events indicate that the patience of the Nigerian people may finally be running out. A demonstration in Kaduna on January 15th was precipitated by anger over NEPA and the non-existent supply of electricity. Police responded by firing on the protestors, and four people were killed. This resulted in a further escalation of the violence over the course of the day, as those involved in the demonstration burned vehicles and buildings. It’s difficult to say at this point whether this will prove to be an isolated incident or the beginning of a larger movement for change. One can only hope that more lives won’t be lost if the nation is in fact rising up to demand a stable power supply. I fully support their cause, but I won’t be joining them on the front lines if the demonstrations persist. Instead, I’ll be settling in to my Little House on the Prairie lifestyle for the time that I’m here, weakly resigned to using the light from my wheezing flashlight to read a book rather than shining it on my placards for the protest.