Looking for Light at the End of the Tunnel

Jul 122011

Living without power – light, refrigeration, Internet, fans, TV, etc. – means adapting to a simpler way of life… and a more difficult existence. I go to bed early and wake when the sun comes up. I eat canned meat and canned vegetables because there’s no power for the small fridge in my apartment. I eat by candlelight or kerosene lanterns. I drink my Nescafe coffee with powdered milk in water heated over a kerosene camp cooker. I inhale countless amounts of carbon monoxide fumes from spewing generators. I beg for time to charge my phone from small shops hosting miniature generators. (1000Le or about .25 per charge). I read by the light of a small, battery-powered headlamp.

Living without power – light, refrigeration, Internet, fans, TV, etc. – means adapting to a simpler way of life… and a more difficult existence. I go to bed early and wake when the sun comes up. I eat canned meat and canned vegetables because there’s no power for the small fridge in my apartment. I eat by candlelight or kerosene lanterns. I drink my Nescafe coffee with powdered milk in water heated over a kerosene camp cooker. I inhale countless amounts of carbon monoxide fumes from spewing generators. I beg for time to charge my phone from small shops hosting miniature generators. (1000Le or about .25 per charge). I read by the light of a small, battery-powered headlamp.

At night, Freetown is a dark city. There are no streetlights. Shops are dark. There are no twinkling lights on the horizon from buildings in the city core. Flames from burning garbage at the local dump are sometimes the only visible light. A couple of hotels or bars dot the night with light from noisy generators that compete with loud, electronic music. The hum of distant generators, especially up the hill where the President lives, accompany the slow sweeps of car headlights in the night.

And, I relish the few stolen moments of power whether they’re at SLBC via generator or at a local hotel that usually sparks up their generator during the early morning and later evenings. Electricity is a scarce commodity in Sierra Leone despite the millions of dollars donors have poured into the Bumbuna Hydro-Electric dam and power generation sites. The promise of power is yet to be realized… and it’s a fact of life that no one seems to question – or more accurately, people have lost hope in.

SLBC suffers – along with listeners and viewers – when the electricity from the National Power Authority runs short (N.P.A., re-named on the street “No Power Altogether” or in Krio, “Na Powa Avva”). Sometimes, because of the shortage of petrol or because the SLBC generator is broken, the airwaves and TV transmission towers fall silent. Static takes over the programming schedule. The voice of the national public broadcaster is quiet… Listeners tune their battery-powered radios to other stations with more reliable supplies of petrol or electricity generation.

To many, this is an appalling situation. And I’d agree except for the fact that this has been a perpetual problem in Sierra Leone – especially since the end of the ten-year civil war. Power was promised by a succession of governments. Donors have supported the idea for almost thirty years. Yet… we continue to exist without reliable power supplies. I can’t help wonder how this country will ever emerge from the dark without massive changes in government, infrastructure, economy, laws, and so on.

I’ve asked myself this question many times, “Is there light at the end of the tunnel?” I believe in the power of the people… I just wish the people had the power.