Thursday, March 28, 2013

Luz Ten, Luz Ka Ten ( There's Water, There's no Water)

            I met some youngsters from Benin the other day. They have been living here for the past 2 years because their dad works for the UN and UNDP. They speak French and so I proposed a French/English exchange. One day we were siting and chatting and I asked them to describe Benin to me. They said,” It’s great! It’s not like here because you always have running water and lights!” Because I was having them speak in English their words turned into huffing and puffing for the lack of word to express their frustration. But its true, water and lights aren’t always available.
            Lights, or electricity, here are provided by the state. You set up a contract and they provide electricity to your house. It’s very PG&E-like, but the power source is different. Electricity is generated by big generators that run on oil. And here is where things get sticky. If there is no gas, then there is no electricity. And often times there is no gas or oil.  I remember once my step –dad and I were supposed to go visit his sister. His nephew usually picks us up, but he called and said he couldn’t pick us up because there was no gas. I misunderstood this to mean his car ran out of gas. But it wasn’t the car that was out of gas, it was the country! None of the gas stations had gas and so no one could get anywhere, let alone have electricity.  ( A quick note on gas: there are gas stations, but their aren’t many. Folks have made this a business opportunity and sell gas on the side of the road in used plastic water bottles and gallon containers. I was in a Toca-toca once and the driver waved at someone on the side of the road selling gas. He ran up with a funnel and a gallon of gas to put in the car. The driver paid and we were on our way. Its pretty effeicient if you ask me.) But what I’m getting at, is that electricity is not consistent. Imagine coming home after a long day of work and not having lights. That means your cooking in the dark, your kids are doing homework in the dark, you needed to charge your phone or computer? Not today.  
Industrial generators cost on average 15,000 USD or 7million fc
            In my Portuguese class people come to class early, not to get a good seat, but to claim an outlet to charge their cell phones. It didn’t occur to me until I witnessed the underground war. Everyone has their cellphone chargers on them. I didn’t think this was a big deal because I have some friends back in the States that would carry their chargers around with them in their purse. The guy on my right was charging his phone and the girl on my left asked him if she could hop on the charger ( Batteries run out quick because more people have internet access on their phones then anything else which is a reflection of the high costs of computers and the high costs of using internet)
            He looked at his charge and said he barely had 2 bars, so he’d let her on at 12:10, leaving her 20 minutes on the charger before class got out.  I thought it wasn’t fair because he had been charging the whole class period, which starts at 1030 and it was already ten till noon. I tried to argue her case and say at least let her on at noon, but he just responded with, “She’s a girl, she has money.”  Now I’m not sure what he ment by that, but she went on to explain that it’s 100fc to charge your phone (I’m not sure where, but I imagine its at cyber cafes) and she didn’t have the money now to charge it. ( Solar phone chargers, or solar anything, would be a big business opportunity out here if someone wanted to take that on, just saying). He didn’t budge, but it was a taste of reality for me because I can go home and charge what ever I want with out thinking twice.
            Now some people can afford to bypass this inconsistency. If you buy your own generator and gas then you will have power when most don’t.  But gas is expensive so people tend to wait until it gets dark to turn on their generators. The amount of people who use solar panels are even fewer, but they do exist.
The Bank across the street provides lights at  hang out spot
              If you drive around at night you will often see lots of people hanging outside of their homes or on the side of the road. Think about it. If you have no lights, would you sit in your house in the dark or outside where you might get some light form the road or the moon? If you don’t have lights its most likely your neighbors don’t either, so everyone is outside.
            This is true for my neighbors. At night everyone hangs out in front of their house to chat under the lights from the bank across the street. As a safety precaution the bank across the street always has lights and they offered to power Avo Alice’s house because of her age. If Luz ka ten, then by 8 or 9pm most folks come over to watch Novelas because we almost always have lights in the evening. It’s more often that we wont have lights in the morning or afternoon but the sun is out so it’s not that big of a deal.
            Outside of the city of Bissau is a very different situation regarding electricity. Bafata, which is the countries second capitol, has many people spending their evenings illuminated by candlelight, unless you have a generator of course.
            In the villages you are guaranteed to be using candles, flames from a fire, flashlights, and lanterns.  But in one tabanka I did see a solar power phone charger, which was quite the scene. I wish I would’ve taken a picture! But imagine a small mud hut covered by a straw roof with a solar panel laying on one of its sides. Talk about leaps in development.
            Luz ka ten? That expression means “there’s no lights?” in Creole.  It just rolls off the tongue.  Its probably one of the first complete sentences I learned. Another is “luz bin!”, or “ the lights came!”. I put an exclamation mark because it’s usually a big deal when it happens. If you’re used to not having lights every evening and suddenly they come on, the announcement is going to be an exclamation. As with my neighbors, once someone notices the lights are back on, most people put away their lawn chairs and head inside.

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