The Heart of Darkness

In Swahili the name of our village means literally “good light”, and two months into our work the joke has been worn out but not the irony. As Tabora lacks electricity, besides cooking fires and tiny, kerosene lamps made out of discarded coke cans, there is not a light, good or otherwise, to be found anywhere in the village. When the sun goes down around 6:30pm we have a few moments to start dinner before thick, uninterrupted darkness sets in. A conversation about history revealed that it has no always been this was; the village was connected to the electrical grid as late as 1998, a vestige of the sisal plantations upon which the village was founded. However the government cut the line when power needs of the population surpassed the capacity of the nation’s plants; apparently a rural village of 2,000 was not of political importance. The Swahili word for electricity is umeme, but it is more often used in the context of its second meaning, lightening.
Huge power lines and towers still line the horizon just outside town, though no current has been transmitted in years. On a recent guava-picking expedition, a young girl asked if I was able to repair the lines. Regretfully, my electrician skills are limited to flipping the switch on the basement fusebox at Vesta when two people tried to blow-dry simultaneously.
While Taborans have developed ways to cope with the loss of current, the use of fossil fuels instead of an efficient electrical source is beginning to take its toll on the environment, not to mention the time and physical strain of collecting firewood or making charcoal for cooking. The water treatment plant features antiquated equipment that cannot operate, resulting in an unsafe water source. A gas generator is hooked up to a tv to play important soccer matches. Our neighbor’s mud house has a solar panel affixed to the roof which from which one can charge cell phones for around twenty cents. (For more info about solar power bridging the technology gap in East Africa check out: http://www.un.org/ecosocdev/geninfo/afrec/vol20no3/203-solar-power.html)
Until alternative technologies or electricity catch up, I have proposed a name change to the village elders, perhaps Tabaya (bad light) or Hamnata (there isn’t any light), to prompt the powers that be to prioritize Tabora’s energy needs. I am not holding my breath, or giving up my battery-powered headlamp any time soon.

 

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