Give me light, at any cost.
As I sit in one of the world’s poorest countries I once again realize it is so hard to not have my western glasses on. How do you move a country that is pretty much a clear palette, into a sustainable future? Some hands will immediately go up, especially in the wake of an environmental catastrophe like Sandy, and say, “Electricity”.
I was riding home recently to discover the empty electricity poles that had been planted in the ground were being strung up with heavy duty cables for the world at large it spells progress, a movement towards a brighter future. I thought about it as I juddered home on the sorry stretch of road leading to my place of habitation for the moment. As my arms took the shock, and only by standing on the pedals was I able to ride over some of the unavoidable holes, I thought to myself, why not fix the roads first? I let that thought sit with me for a while, and then thought again, fix the roads, why do that, there’s no long-term money in it.
Sierra Leone in 2012 in many ways seems medieval in its existence in comparison with much of the industrialized modern world. The people’s resilience, born of a tough life, have coped with all of it and cleverly figured out ways to circumvent the inconveniences. As for electricity, generators go on in the evenings for the few bars, restaurants and households that can afford it. I am no big fan of fossil-fueled run generators let it be said, there are other answers, and here solar panels do adorn a handful of rooftops, or are laid out during daylight hours and tucked away at night to prevent someone else walking off with them for their own needs. In a country not far from the equator, it’s pretty much 12 hours of daylight guaranteed 365 days a year, even though the rainy season might not be in bright sun, modern technology utilizes available UV light pretty well, basically though the bulk of the village and the country for that matter, have no electricity.
The bad state of the roads affects people’s lives so much more. On the typical unpaved potholed roads I have come to know a 50 mile(80 kilometer) journey takes 3 ½ hours, and jolts everyone around and slowly destroys suspension, tires and the undercarriage of the vehicles, and is responsible for many okada (motorcycle taxis) accidents, some fatal. This scene is played out all over the country. A few paved roads exist, but mainly the stretches to the major cities, the bulk of Sierra Leone’s population bounce along rutted roads for hours longer than they should, to visit family, get to markets, hospitals, and travel between villages and towns.
So why electricity I ask again, ostensibly to move Sierra Leone forward. I’ve seen it before in my travels, and although it seems like progress, it inevitably ropes the population into consumerism, shatters family time, creates more unnecessary wants and desires through the mediums of television and the internet, nurtures dependency, cuts down on creativity, and forces the natives to use more resources, those resources depending on what part of the developing world we are ‘modernising’. In Nepal for instance, after an undertaking to bring the simple light bulb to mountain villages, the after affects were people staying up longer, men working even harder to cut more wood and haul it home to burn longer into the former darker nights, more food was being consumed because people were staying up later during the cold winter nights. So by the flickering light bulbs in the small huts half way up the Himalaya, basic electricity managed to make bigger consumers out of their unknowing recipients of this altruistic, life-transforming gift. Is the same in store here?
When we speak of sustainable growth in our modern world of shrinking resources on an overcrowded planet we must look at it without our western glasses. Although politicians throw around the phrase, “Bringing electricity to…” with puffed out chests, it is just a resource depleting environmental catastrophe whenever the masses depend on living on the grid, another money-making consumable, so big business and hence political leaders, love it. I have been asking people their feelings as I work the length and breadth of Sierra Leone, the overwhelming answer I get from the local populace after talking about the realities of elctricity’s impact is, “No thanks, health care, land reform laws so we can grow more of our own food and better roads please.” Of course that is not a 100% sentiment, city dwellers for instance prefer to be on the grid, and I would agree a city needs to have access to power. Although with the possibility of electricity and all its woes, we must be careful. I am only talking out loud here and not proclaiming to have any answers, but wants, desires and needs are very different. In our world very few civilizations have had the pleasure of finding their own path to a modern way of life, be it colonization for natural resources or missionaries for religious reasons, native peoples the world over have had other ideals forced on them for millennia. This is how our world works. I recently had a discussion with a Baptist Dutch worker who proclaimed Sierra Leone needed electricity so it could have more Europeans coming down to help, but those Europeans would be more likely to come if there was hot water, electricity so they can have access to television, 24 hour internet, and of course air conditioning. My gut feeling to that line of thinking is stay home please thanks.
In an area of Freetown there are more NGO’s than you can shake a stick at. It just seems to me there are so many differing opinions on how Sierra Leone needs to move into a better, brighter future that I am sure the native’s heads are reeling with endless, confusing ways forward, every person and organization undoubtedly brings their own vision of happiness, comfort, success and the list goes on, it would be nice to see where Sierra Leone would go if we all just left. I was recently on a beach where the rule board had 2 rules; no abusive language and no stealing. I smiled thinking somehow I don’t think the population here would die in a horrible mess of disease or worse. I have no idea where it would lead, but one thing would happen, they would steer themselves into their own future.
The different customs and languages of Sierra Leone are what give this small country its personality, varying foods and sauces, music and customs, but there is a blanket starting to cover over that diversity. Instead of proudly referring to themselves by their tribal ancestry, maybe they’ll start using the term economists use to refer to the western population when talking about economic growth – ‘Consumers’ – the newest planetary tribe. In the modernized world we consumers are dependent on big companies who run our lives, we may kid ourselves, but autonomy in any way shape or form has been stolen from us and we are all indentured servants to the machine. Self-reliance hasn’t been stolen yet fully from this country and slowly people are waking up and realizing it, but quite possibly too late. The western influence is strong, but I just hope all of us can realize that all the help, no matter how altruistic, also confuses. No way is best, or totally correct.
Getting back to the matter of electricity, when the only people set to definitely gain are the big companies producing the electricity and the hardware that comes with it, plus the electronics companies of the far-east drooling with anticipation as 5.5 million possible customers get primed to become part of the developed, consumer-based world, I stop and take a deep breath. To be in a place where you can walk at night and just tilt your head back to look up at the heavens with none of the ever-present light pollution like so many western countries suffer from, and drink in the beauty right there above you; the wonderful inky-black star-studded sky, the constellations, a silver sliver of the moon, or the majestic all-encompassing milky way, you are constantly reminded that not only do we live on a planet, but we’re all part of an awesome universe as well – something much of the world may have forgotten – you feel privileged to share in the beauty. ‘Downtown’ Lunsar at night is a blast of music, and stalls with candles showing off their wares, just like all of the other places I have visited in Sierra Leone, including most of Freetown. It’s just how it is. The difference between those affected by Sandy on the east coast of America (housing and loss of life aside) and the population here being that the east coast is dependent on electricity, where here it is quite the opposite. Life doesn’t become paralyzed without electricity, it goes on as normal. In a country where the internet doesn’t rule, television basically doesn’t exist, candle light and small paraffin stoves line the roads at night with the sound of music laughter and people selling their goods behind it all, will electricity transform life here in Lunsar or Sierra Leone for that matter? Obviously in one way or another yes, the more important question to ask though is exactly what the impact will be? The mineral rich continent of Africa might house 2 billion people in a future not so far off, population is growing exponentially and many charts claim different numbers, but all agree 1 billion is not a distant reality. As we sit and watch China with her 1 billion strong population consume our planet’s resources at an alarming rate, what kind of world will our children live in if this continent follows the Chinese population shifting model of urban explosion, rural depletion, with an underlying insatiable hunger for energy, wealth, and material possessions? I shudder to think of it.
In a coffee house in Freetown I was involved in an interesting debate, my friend brought up a fact that because many Japanese work so hard there are areas of forest where they hang themselves from stress, he had recently come from America and decried some aspects of his home country as the work ethic and family life of just one generation ago had been shattered to keep up with an ever-expanding unattainable dream that keeps moving the goalposts. He then finished off by saying Sierra Leone needs to embrace technology as it is the way forward. He was so proud of all the downloaded books of knowledge that can fit on a tiny usb stick. In a place where tradition hasn’t been fully lost the internet and downloaded DIY books are maybe not worth the other trade-offs. Do we really need to know everything? Each country has developed skills to utilize their land and surroundings to its fullest. In the end I didn’t know where he stood, nor do I actually know where I stand as I am here introducing a form of technology as well. If there should be a line where does it get drawn? I know there are many holes in everything I have said. We can and have done much good in helping Africa and elsewhere, but is that only after we’ve spent hundreds of years taking from those same people? When is enough enough? When does help turn into an irreversible crippling interdependency that disenfranchises the population? When does altruism turn into a million dollar industry of NGO’s world-wide? When do mining companies cross the line from creating employment and extracting useful minerals to an industry that wreeks environmental havoc and leaves only destruction in its wake? I don’t have any answers, but every day I walk here in Sierra Leone another hundred questions come to the fore. I wish it could all be answered easily, but it’s not like that, our world wide web of influence has been around a lot longer than the modern-day internet.
With Sierra Leone’s possibility of a bright future, even without electricity in every nook and cranny of the country, the question is will the people from a land founded by ex-slaves embrace a future of indentured servitude? Slowly I am getting the feeling that maybe the answer to that question might actually one day be, “No,” but realizing that for such a tough answer sacrifices needs to be made, and the small country hugging the coast of west Africa might be a place of hope for a brighter future everywhere as the world can use a different model to strive for.