Thursday, January 3, 2013

Electric Feeeeel

August 7th, 2012
Back in my past life, when I lived in America, I used to come back to my dorm room after a night out and notice that I left all my lights on and my straightener plugged in and think, oh woops…no big deal. During my year before the Peace Corps, it was a norm to come home to an apartment totally illuminated without a soul inside. We all did it: we left lights on, we left TVs on, we would be in the grocery store, filled with florescent lights, freezers, refrigerators, and automatic sprinklers for produce, and gasp: "I left the oven/iron/stove on!". The standard of living in the good ole US of A requires the use to electricity and boy did we use it! There are appliances for everything from drying hair, washing clothes, chopping vegetables, and sending currents through our food to cook it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there is even something that is supposed to zap your abs to get them toned! The electricity goes out and the world stops. Fridges and freezers are emptied, people crowd the mall or movie theatre in search of air conditioning. Basically, you guys back in America are babies without electricity, and I was most definitely the same way.
Togo isn't a very electrified place and I spent my first 9 months here without electricity. It wasn't so bad, actually, but it forced me to live a very simple life. Washing clothes by hand, using candles at night, cooking with a gas stove, learning how quickly produce rots without a fridge, always having a flashlight at hand. It was doable and I got used to it easily. If it was hot, I'd go outside under the mango tree. If I had leftover food, I'd either compost it or feed it to the dogs. I'd bike to other volunteers who had powered houses and charge my computer, phone, and iPod every week or two. I learned how to spend my time without constant media entertainment and how to ration my iPod battery for runs and nighttime podcast listening. 
Zafi got electricity in December 2011, but it took till June 2012 for my house to be hooked up. Apparently people built their houses in places that don't coordinate with the village plan down at the prefectoral capital 15 km away and they either have to tear down their houses for the electricity or our little corner of the village wouldn't be connected. Obviously, you can't ask people to clear out of their houses and rebuild elsewhere for something as trivial as electricity, so there has been no official connection by my house. Paul figured out a way around it…and we may be hooked up illegally, but now we both have power! And now that I have it, I've noticed many things….like how weird it is that it isn't weird to have lights and plugs now. And how much my village seems to be on the up and up with electricity. One of my counterparts, Joseph, bought a photocopy machine and is running a little business out of his house. For some reason, I've been called over to fix it, since it's from America, I must know how to, right? He also bought a massive freezer so he can sell frozen juices. Where does he keep all of these appliances? Well, he has three wives, therefore three houses, so they're dispersed amongst them all. 
Joseph's commerce and polygamy aside, Zafi with that electric feel sometimes turns into what I like to call "club Zafi". Music blasts, people are out later, there are dance contests where every group dances the same dance over and over to the same song, except sometimes there's a kid, sometimes there's the village dwarf, and sometimes there's the guy with one arm. Paul and his family leave their outside light on all night, following suit with the center of the village, which is illuminated 24/7. Recently, there was a funeral about 5 houses away from me and a brass band played until 3 am, only to be replaced with speakers blasting Togolese music until 7 am. Popular songs include My Heart Will Go On and Barbie Girl. 
A couple days ago, I went to the new bar that opened up in my quartier: Le Chiffre Zero A Sa Valeur (The Number Zero Has it's Value) to share a Coke with Paul. They have electricity and therefore a large cooler and even bigger speakers which blast Togolese pop. Paul and I sat down and enjoyed a nice glacé Coke and watched the gang of kids ages 10 and younger grooving to the ear drum popping music. Kids of all levels of nakedness seriously hang around this bar once the sun goes down so that they can dance to the music all night. They absolutely love it. Anyways, I was entertaining myself with the kids; asking them their names and how they dance, giving away sips of my soda (once I was finished of course), and suddenly, all the electricity in the village went out. Even when the electricity is on and people leave their lights on at all hours, the stars here are brilliant, but without any electricity on this incredibly clear and cool night, the sky just lit up with a gorgeous display of what you can only see in a place like this. The Milky Way was so clear and shooting stars were all over. I kinda wish that it was interdit to have lights on after a certain hour, as to not distract from the beauty of the skies. Paul and I talked about superstitions that have to do with the sky: here, a falling star means a chief will die soon. I tried to explain the leprechaun with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but wasn't very articulate.

November 11th, 2012
For some reason, my electricity has been out for 24 hours. Well, not just my electricity but the whole village and possibly the whole prefecture (like a county). In America, this would mean the emptying of refrigerators, unplugging of electronics and a newborn relationship with your neighbors you only waved to before you were forced to hang out. In Zafi, it means back to the old ways of flashlights and candles. All the neighbors already know each other and there are four total refrigerators to speak of, which are all filled with water, juice, beer, or frozen imported chicken and fish (which is being thrown out…I hope….ew). The stars are out and I can see the Milky Way perfectly as crickets chirp in the comfortable silence of the night. It's nice and kinda makes me want to cut off my electricity for the rest of my service.
But then I think about how awesome electric power and therefore technology really is. Sure, back home, I couldn't wait to be unplugged and "roughen' it" in West Africa, but now that I've gone without and then got connected to electricity, I see what's so marvelous about it.
1. Seeing at night = getting more stuff done.
2. Less kerosene lamps for people to knock over and get scarring burns all over their legs. More often than not, I’ll see a slip of a women’s calf only to notice the horrible burn scars.
3. Refrigerators = income generation. Bars, frozen juices, frozen meat, cold drinks are a hot commodity here in Sub Saharan Africa!
4. The ability to charge things, like phones, which means more people are going to get cell phones. I know that in America, everyone is addicted to their smart phone….trust me, I've been at many a silent and distracted bar table, and I swear I'm about to block the next person on Facebook who uses this iPhone photo thing to take a picture of their food or mimosas or what have you, BUT cell phones are actually incredible things. People in Togo don't have land lines hooked up to their mud and clay huts. There are 'stores' in villages where you can use the phone service, but that might be the only land line for miles. The only way to communicate was by face to face interaction or sending your children to relay a message for you (not so much on the letter front, there are two post offices I know of in my prefecture). Cell phones have revolutionized communication for everyone. You can call your relatives in a village further away and know of news much sooner than by messenger. Crop sales are made easier, product availability easier…just think of all the things you would call about on a daily basis if you didn't have Google and just a dinky Nokia.
5. Speaking of…COMPUTERS! Man, my old MacBook (born: 2006) is of serious use to me here. After college, I would just use it for internet browsing (read: Facebook stalking) and watching Netflix and thought that my laptop would only be of use in those ways here. Wrong! First off, the internet is as slow as molasses and Netflix doesn't work in this country, even if I could get it to load. But, it's been used for so much, I feel like I have a magic tool that could do so much for the development of the community, if not all of Togo. Typing up letters, flyers, interview questions, surveys, etc. Creating budgets, graphs, labels, and nice photos. A movie theatre and music box for the kids (they love watching the Single Ladies music video). This is all without the world wide web of endless information and resources!
6. Fan. Self explanatory. And yet, it mainly works as a noise canceler, which is maybe better.
7. TV!!! I know back home there are stupid shows that just drain your brain, and it's no different here, BUT there are so many advantages to a TV: connection to the outside world, entertainment, encouragement to learn French. Hopefully some of our less than impressive shows don't pop up over here….like the Bachelor or those shows about having way too many babies…we're trying to promote monogamy, gender equality, and family planning here.
These are all the great things about electricity without the luxuries of washer/dryer, dishwasher, garbage disposal, air conditioning, ceiling fans, electric stoves, ovens, vacuums, the list goes on. Machines may run the Western world, but think about what that does for women. Women here spend their whole day just trying to get basic needs for the family: pull water from cistern every time clothes, dishes, bodies need to be washed, firewood searched for in order to heat food for every meal everyday, etc. Think about how we're all doing laundry here in Zafi the next time you say "Ugh I've spent all day doing laundry!", because I assure you, when it's laundry day, that's all the women do. With all the appliances that are so normal in other parts of the world, these women would have time for education, gatherings, and possibly even emancipation from this male dominated culture. 
Electricity and technology can do so much for someone's life and opportunities and I hope to always appreciate the power it brings. Even if it sometimes means the same pop songs played over and over till 7 am.

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