Lights Out in Nigeria – written by Chimamanda Adichie published on New York Times

February 2, 2015 4:15 pm

Article written by award-winning writer , originally published on New York Times. Interesting read. Find below…

We call it light; “electricity” is too sterile a word, and “power” too
stiff, for this Nigerian phenomenon that can buoy spirits and smother
dreams. Whenever I have been away from home for a while, my first
question upon returning is always: “How has light been?” The response,
from my gateman, comes in mournful degrees of a head shake.

Bad. Very bad.

The
quality is as poor as the supply: Light bulbs dim like tired, resentful
candles. Robust fans slow to a sluggish limp. Air-conditioners bleat
and groan and make sounds they were not made to make, their halfhearted
cooling leaving the air clammy. In this assault of low voltage, the
compressor of an air-conditioner suffers — the compressor is its heart,
and it is an expensive heart to replace. Once, my guest room
air-conditioner caught fire. The room still bears the scars, the narrow
lines between floor tiles smoke-stained black.
Sometimes
the light goes off and on and off and on, and bulbs suddenly brighten
as if jerked awake, before dimming again. Things spark and snap. A curl
of smoke rises from the water heater. I feel myself at the mercy of
febrile malignant powers, and I rush to pull my laptop plug out of the
wall. Later, electricians are summoned and they diagnose the problem
with the ease of a long acquaintance. The current is too high or too
low, never quite right. A wire has melted. Another compressor will need
to be replaced.
For
succor, I turn to my generator, that large Buddha in a concrete shed
near the front gate. It comes awake with a muted confident hum, and the
difference in effect is so obvious it briefly startles: Light bulbs
become brilliant and air-conditioners crisply cool.
The
generator is electricity as electricity should be. It is also the
repository of a peculiar psychology of Nigerian light: the lifting of
mood. The generator is lord of my compound. Every month, two men filled
with mysterious knowledge come to minister to it with potions and
filters. Once, it stopped working and I panicked. The two men blamed
dirty diesel, the sludgy, slow, expensive liquid wreathed in conspiracy
theories. (We don’t have regular electricity, some say, because of the
political influence of diesel importers.) Now, before my gateman feeds
the diesel into the generator, he strains it through a cloth and cleans
out bits of dirt. The generator swallows liters and liters of diesel.
Each time I count out cash to buy yet another jerrycan full, my throat
tightens.
I spend more on diesel than on food.
My
particular misfortune is working from home. I do not have a corporate
office to escape to, where the electricity is magically paid for. My
ideal of open windows and fresh, breathable air is impossible in Lagos’s
seething heat. (Leaving Lagos is not an option. I love living here,
where ’s
energy and initiative are concentrated, where Nigerians bring their
biggest dreams.) To try to cut costs — sustainably, I imagine — I buy an
inverter. Its silvery, boxlike batteries make a corner of the kitchen
look like a physics lab.

The
inverter’s batteries charge while there is light, storing energy that
can be used later, but therein lies the problem: The device requires
electricity to be able to give electricity. And it is fragile, helpless
in the face of the water pump and microwave. Finally, I buy a second
generator, a small, noisy machine, inelegant and scrappy. It uses
petrol, which is cheaper than diesel, and can power lights and fans and
freezers but only one air-conditioner, and so I move my writing desk
from my study to my bedroom, to consolidate cool air.
Day
after day, I awkwardly navigate between my sources of light, the big
generator for family gatherings, the inverter for cooler nights, the
small generator for daytime work.
Like
other privileged Nigerians who can afford to, I have become a reluctant
libertarian, providing my own electricity, participating in a
precarious frontier spirit. But millions of Nigerians do not have this
choice. They depend on the malnourished supply from their electricity
companies.
In
2005, a law was passed to begin privatizing the generation and
distribution of electricity, and ostensibly to revamp the old system
rooted in bureaucratic rot. Ten years on, little has changed. Most of
the companies that produce electricity from gas and hydro sources, and
all of the distribution companies that serve customers, are now
privately owned. But the link between them — the transmission company —
is still owned by the federal government.
I
cannot help but wonder how many medical catastrophes have occurred in
public hospitals because of “no light,” how much agricultural produce
has gone to waste, how many students forced to study in stuffy, hot air
have failed exams, how many small businesses have foundered. What
greatness have we lost, what brilliance stillborn? I wonder, too, how
differently our national character might have been shaped, had we been a
nation with children who took light for granted, instead of a nation
whose toddlers learn to squeal with pleasure at the infrequent lighting
of a bulb.
As
we prepare for elections next month, amid severe security concerns,
this remains an essential and poignant need: a government that will
create the environment for steady and stable electricity, and the simple
luxury of a monthly bill.
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