Thursday, August 12, 2010

I can’t do it Captain! I don’t have the POWER!

I’ve mentioned this before in the past, probably several times, but one of the biggest problems facing Nigeria is power (followed closely by security & roads). The national power company is NEPA which technically stands for National Electric Power Authority, but colloquially is referred to as “Never Expect Power Always.” Because it’s completely true. It’s hard to get a real estimate of how much power NEPA provides, both because they would never give realistic figures and because Nigerians have circumvented NEPA (at a high cost) which doesn’t give you a real idea of how often the power is off. Based on past experiences where it was a little easier to estimate (being in a “village” with less money to operate the circumventers) would be that NEPA works less than 30% of the time. Pitiful.

The circumventers currently in wide-spread use are diesel powered generators and invertors. When NEPA switches off wealthier homes and businesses automatically switch to generator power (or as it is locally referred to “the gen”). If a gen should fail (run out of diesel or other instances) then an inverter kicks on and supplies power. After some stealthy sleuthing on Wikipedia, it seems like an inverter is just a giant battery (BIL can correct me if I’m wrong). It is only recently that I have had much experience with inverters; in the past no one had them, but recently both the M’s and the Children’s Home have them. The downside to an inverter is that it only runs low electricity things (e.g. NOT the fridge, microwave, air conditioners or even the water heater). It is probably only once or twice a day that the inverter turns on and it’s usually for less than half an hour. Of course I don’t know how much these things cost and I would not ask what the budget is for them because A. the gen runs the entire compound so it would be difficult to get an estimate of a realistic cost, and the inverters are house by house (or lacking such as the case in my guest house—if everyone is else on inverter then I have no power…well none except flash light!) and B. it seems a little too intrusive of a question.

I think the lack of stable of electricity is one of the things we most take for granted as Americans. Even as I tell people about it, they can’t quite understand it until they come here and experience it for themselves. After you’ve lived with unstable power for a few days all of a sudden you think “Ah Ha! Now I get it!” It is really more than just an annoyance. It affects safety, health, and overall quality of life. It increases the costs of many things (generators are much more expensive to run), pollutes the environment, and on and on and on. You have to live in the environment and talk to local people and think deeply before it really starts to sink in and you get a bigger picture of things. It's one of the most challenging things for Americans to understand and yet can really have an impact on how our views of the world are shaped.

Now I'm going to go off on a semi-political/philosophical academic tangent here, so if you aren't here for the academics and just like it when I talk about getting electrocuted and making a fool of myself you might want to bow out now.

Still with me? Ok!

One of things about working with college students that is most frustrating is their (here I am generalizing) limited world view. Charming and idealistic, but also maddening when having a conversation with them. Though my most relevant experiences relate to Juniata College students and traveling in The Gambia, the basic concepts are still relevant. Juniata is a liberal, peace-loving, die-for-democratic-ideals kind of school. I know this of course because I went there and I love these things. However, in the face of reality it is often hard to reconcile these things we believe and have learned with the actualities of how people live their lives. Sitting in a technology-driven, comfortable classroom we can discuss passionately our love of democracy and how fundamental it is to human existence, but when you get out in "the real world," or at least the world that again is not quite as comfortable as the easy existence we have in the US, you find out that democracy and "ideals" have much less value. What really has value is having dependable electricity 24 hours a day, have a safe place to live without fear of robbers and kidnappers, having roads that you can drive on without worrying the next dinosaur-sized pothole is going to snap your car in two, and having access to educational and economic opportunities. If you don’t have these, things like “freedom of speech” and “democratic elections” hold much less value. It isn’t to say they aren’t important, but if you don’t have the basics, you can’t begin to think of luxuries.

Now many students would say “But this is the reason you NEED democracy and freedom of speech! You need to hold leaders accountable!” but again, this is first-world thinking. In many parts of the world if you speak out against the government you, your family, and your friends are in real danger of death. Not just someone will be mad at you, but they will KILL you. As much as I love free speech and voting, if someone tells me that if I talk about these issues they will kill my parents, my sisters, or my partner, then I’m out. Maybe braver souls are willing to die for these ideals, but I am not. I've been near the tip of a gun held by a soldier shouting at someone very close to me (physically and emotionally) and I would have done and said anything to get them to go away and never come back again. I know this happens much more often to people who live in dangerous countries 24-7 and are not just scared visitors like me. So I won't die for those things and I think I can safely say neither are the majority of people living in countries with corrupt and inefficient governments. You hope (and pray) for change, and deal with the daily struggles of living doing the best you can.

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