Friday, October 18, 2013

Rural Electrification

Subtitle: How Lyndon Johnson Won Texas, And I Taught Children To Yodel Like Tarzan

In my free time I am currently plowing through The Walls of Jericho, a ponderous but well-written history of the battle for civil rights legislation in the U.S. Senate.  Historian Robert Mann notes, concerning then-Representative Johnson (who I’m starting to loathe; is it common knowledge that he went on to scrape his Senate seat through deliberate electoral fraud? But I digress): “The crowning achievement of his congressional tenure had been the acquisition of electrical power.  Nothing had meant more to the forgotten rural people of the hill country than the electricity he brought them with a loan from the Rural Electrification Administration in 1938… Electric power had brightened and simplified their dreary, rugged lives [and] won him their undying gratitude.”

I bring this up, although a passing remark for Mann—who goes on to detail Johnson’s time in the Senate and relationship with progressive Hubert Humphrey—because it proves a remarkable parallel to my life as a forgotten rural person in the hill country of Cameroon in 2013.

That’s right.  Two days before the legislative elections, written about below, the RDPC pulled a Johnson and brought SONEL, Cameroon’s REA, to my tiny village of Mandama, as well as to several other towns in the Mayo-Louti arrondissement.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have electricity.

True, this stunt achieved its intended purpose; Mandamans remembered upon which side their bread was buttered and solidly plumped the RDPC into the mayoral office in Mayo Oulo.  But more to the point: we have power!

I should temper this heady excitement with a dose of reality.  Electricity is only available to those who can pay for the installation of a meter box and counter; as these expenses are beyond the capability of most subsistence farmers, the number of houses on the grid remains, as far as I am aware, in the single digits.  In theory, the appropriate Ministries should have assured that the health center and schools got hooked in to the system as soon as SONEL installed it.  In practice, it will probably be years before any of the schools get lights, or the health center gets a refrigerator for vaccines (currently stored in room temperature Styrofoam lunch coolers). 

My landlord El Hadji, He Who Is Richer Than God, ensured that his was the first compound to be connected.  Since I moved in, there has been an empty meter box attached to my house—a hopeful and very premature investment on El Hadji’s part—but as there is still no counter, my house cannot yet be wired.  However, one of El Hadji’s older sons, Idi, trooped over a week or so after the elections with a solution.  He took a look at the tangle of wires that had been installed and declared that he could hook me up to draw from his father’s meter.

The electricity was all anyone was talking about at that point, and even a week after the fact it was still exciting news, so the feat of wiring a house attracted a small gaggle of onlookers.  I mixed a pitcher of lemonade, carried it out to the front porch, and we sat around sipping our drinks and watching Idi work, commenting on the probability of success.

As dusk fell at long last, after sending a child into my rafters, bringing over a younger brother to consult, and twisting every wire into every other wire at least twice, the magical—the impossible—happened.  The single fluorescent tube that Idi had installed in my salon flickered into life.  I leapt up, whooping, and a cheer went around the remaining bystanders.  The twentieth century had arrived.  I celebrated by screening Tarzan the next night for an exponentially expanding crowd of children; by the end of the movie, there were kids outside my door with their noses pressed against the screen in an impromptu standing room.  When the credits rolled and I shooed them all home, they wandered off in a happy daze, letting loose with Tarzan’s signature jungle cry.  The next day I was hearing yodels from the other side of the quartier.  I may live to regret my choice of films.

It’s been a little over a week now, and it’s incredible how electricity has changed my life here.  Robert Mann, although presumably extrapolating rather than speaking from experience, was not far off.  I haven’t had the chance to buy more light bulbs, but even having one means I can read, or write, or generally do things after 6:00 p.m. without hunching over a flickering candle or a single solar lamp, straining my eyes to see text.  I find I detest fluorescent light (the glare and the light temperature feel industrial), so I alternate between leaving the light on and voluntarily going back to candles if I’m not trying to read.  Call me a Luddite. 

At first I felt conflicted being part of the grid again—it assuaged my constant carbon-footprint guilt to know I was using no fossil fuels in the home—but being able to charge my computer, which I was never able to manage with my small solar array, is an undeniable benefit.  In the space of a week I went from inwardly scorning those volunteers who spend their service hunched in front of a screen watching hours and hours of television to being one of those volunteers, eagerly drinking in the second season of Newsroom and half a season of Firefly (incidentally, fellow nerds, why did no one ever tell me how good that show is?  How tragic that it only lasted 14 episodes).  Now that I’ve given myself a week of gorging, I’m trying to pull back from the edge.  Television can be great, don’t get me wrong, but it was also kind of nice to be screen free for the only time in my life.  I painted much more and read dozens more books in the past year than I ever would have had movie nights been an option, and I don’t want to lose that creative inquiry the minute I can re-glue myself to the boob tube.

I also find I’m more inclined to communicate when I can pre-write blogs and emails in word documents, rather than scratching them out by hand, only to be re-typed later.  I’m more organized about work when my thoughts about projects can be put into formal plans and spreadsheets, rather than jotted on stacks of loose papers and sticky notes.  Like many volunteers, I definitely get a perverse pride out of living in hardship conditions—but technology is progress, and progress is good.

It’s amazing, too, to observe how Mandamans react to this new and incredible resource.  I feel like I’m watching rural development happen on fast-forward; the excitement of electrification was the impetus that was lacking to spur local entrepreneurs into action.  A moto driver from the quartier traded in his helmet (figuratively) for an apron (literally, which I find totally endearing); he sold his moto, used the money to set up a little omelet shack with an electric burner, and is rapidly establishing himself as the go-to spot for hard-boiled eggs, omelet sandwiches, and hot, sweet tea.  As he’s set up across the street from my house, he even delivers, wearing his apron and a jaunty hat.

Next door to him, a sign has gone up: PHOTOCOPIES MADE HERE.  Upon closer inquiry, the sign is step one; step two, obtaining a copier, has yet to be carried out—but the shopkeeper is enthused, and I don’t doubt that it will happen.  His other neighbor has already sunk an enormous amount of money (by village standards) in a small refrigerator for soda.  I’ve asked if I can pay him to cool bottles of water for a few hours; he accepted immediately.  The one bar in town is talking about getting a fridge for cold beer, which would be a godsend during hot season.  Every day I see someone trundling by on an overloaded moto with the newest purchase from Nigerian electronics dealers: a television, a fan, speakers.  I wonder how economical these purchases are, given that everyone is constantly complaining to me about their shortage of liquid funds; whatever the wisdom, though, I can hardly deny the impulse.  I also bought a fan at the first possible opportunity, and fully expect to be stationed in front of it from February 1 to April 30, the parameters of hot season.

My favorite response to the giddy sense of possibility charging the atmosphere came from my best friend in village, Howa, several days after her family’s compound had been wired.  She and I were crouched outside around a wood fire, over which she was preparing fried beignets to sell across from the mosque, a daily informal employment she takes on to try to make ends meet.  Her husband Moussa’s youngest wife observed that the light bulb in Howa’s room had been left on, and advised her to turn it off if she was outside.  Howa raised her eyebrows and shot back: “Am I the one paying the electricity bill?  I seem to remember that meter box being set up in Moussa’s name.  When was the last time he bought clothes for the kids?  When was the last time he gave any one of us money for his food?  He says he’s too poor, but he just bought himself a television.  So I’m running up the bill.  Let him pay it.”  And waving a contemptuous hand, she turned back to the beignets bobbing up and down in their bath of oil.  I felt like cheering: the Industrial and Feminist Revolutions had peeked around the corner hand in hand.

Thus change happens.  I doubt it’s entirely good; despite my best efforts, I’ll probably end up watching more movies than I intend to (it’s just so easy!), and I’m guessing there’s more than one family that will rue that television purchase when the frugal months between harvests come.

But it’s mostly good.  And that’s enough.

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