Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Ordinary Oddities

As it’s beginning to sink in that I will be leaving Bo in under two weeks and Sierra Leone in less than a month (after a brief detour to Morocco), the ordinary parts of life for me here start to surface as strange, as things that I will not encounter when I return to California. No traffic lights or stop signs, no strict attention to staying on a particular side of the road, children and mothers clutching newborns helmetless on motorbikes, for example.

What hit me last night, as I was shuffling out to turn on the generator for its daily four and half hour run from 6:30 to 11pm, was the strangeness of having 24-hour light. I have not had a day of 24-hour power since December, when my family came to visit and we stayed in a nice Freetown hotel. I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on anyone reading this or trying to prove that I’m tough (I’m not—the generator broke about 2 weeks ago and I had a mini-meltdown). The hospital (and all of Bo) was without municipal power from Thursday evening until this morning, so we had over 5 days without light. The city is powered by a hydroelectric dam that relies on a high water level to function. Now, at the very last gasp of the dry season, there have been longer periods of blackouts. Although the government is supposed to supply the hospital with fuel or with money to purchase fuel, it has all been “eaten” on its long journey from Freetown to Bo, through so many bureaucratic hands. It costs just over $100 to power the hospital for five hours—a considerable expense in a hospital that requires patients to provide their own food, linens, dressings, syringes, and blood, even in emergency situations. In a hospital, lack of power is a serious problem, as one can imagine.

Our house is one of a handful of structures that have generators in our neighborhood—the others include a motel, a private hospital, and a district councilman’s house. It becomes immediately apparent at night who has a generator and who doesn’t—if the flares of light don’t give it away, the chugging of the engines certainly does. Lack of power is a fact of life in Sierra Leone. Most people don’t have it or have it intermittently. Some people have visited me at night just to be able to plug in their cell phones (which became apparent when there was no conversation beyond “How are you? Can I charge my phone?”). Cell phone charging stations are a thriving business. When I returned early from work last Friday, a neighbor, Hawa, asked me a standard greeting: “How de work?” I ended up complaining, with an exasperated gesture “Light no deh na hospitu,” only to realize how ridiculous a gripe this was, since Hawa does not have a generator or even wiring in her house to support a generator. I didn’t feel bad about it—we do need power to function as an organization, and it’s incredibly frustrating to come to work and know that nothing is going to get done until the power comes back—but I did realize how absurd it was.

To have power, I have to request for fuel, get the money, get the jerry cans, take them to the gas station, fill them, bring them back, and then get the tank filled (our caretaker, Amara, siphons the fuel into the tank. I am way too much of a wuss to attempt anything that will most likely end in a mouth full of diesel fuel). Then I have to turn it on and sometimes turn it off, making sure that we aren’t keeping it on too long so there’s enough fuel for the whole week.

It’s the same with water—we have a well, we have to turn on the generator to pump up the water to the tank, and then we have running water. When I first got here in September, we had no power and therefore no running water. When Helen first arrived, Amara was hauling water up to the tank by hand so that she could have running water. Once she figured out what was going on, she asked Amara to stop and enacted bucket showers. We recently had to stop allowing our neighbors to use our well (many do not have one of their own) because of concerns that our well will dry up. As it is, I can see the bottom when I lean over and stare down into the water for a while. And two of our neighbors just dug wells, one of which is under 20 feet away from ours. At the hospital, the pump that WAFF donated broke due to some power surges that destroyed the circuits. The patients usually have to fetch their own water for drinking and then we pay a truck to come in twice a week to fill our ward tanks so that the patients can bathe (in a fistula ward, this is pretty vital).

What’s strange about utilities here is that their sources are so near and so apparent. It’s not turning on a light switch or a faucet and what you need is right there—it’s having to see where the power and water come from everyday and knowing everyday that something could go wrong to stop them coming. The house pump or the generator could break. The gas stations could begin hoarding fuel to create an artificial shortage, as they did when the government forced them all to lower to a standard price (Le 12,500, or $4.15). Fortunately, this did not work, and the brief shortages were more annoying than anything else. I’ve never been so aware of water and power, even though I’ve lived in California during “rolling blackouts” and severe droughts, including the one we’re currently experiencing. Here, every minute the generator is on, I am aware of it and aware of the fuel that it is consuming. Every second I’m in the shower, I feel the water draining out of the tank and being pumped out of the ground.

I’m not optimistic, however, that once I go home I’ll be taking cold army showers and keeping the lights off during the day. These amenities are so convenient and beyond that, so important to functioning as a person, family, or society. Yes, you can get along without them. And yes, the vast majority of Americans and other Global Northerners/people in developed nations/Westerners should conserve a lot more power and water than they currently do. But when I go to the hospital and sit in the dark, listening to the patients pass the office to and from the hand pump, I’d take wasted water any second or lights left on when no one is in the room, if it meant that there was, at the very least, running water and power for the hospitals here. And I can only hope that once I go home, I’ll shave a few minutes off my showers and I’ll remember to turn my computer off at night and unplug it. But first I’ll have to get used to turning on the light switch outside the hours of 6:30-11pm.

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