Saturday, April 28, 2007

Heat of the night

Earlier this week I met with a representative of a microfinance organization in her office. Our meeting was at 2 p.m. and when we arrived, the lights were flickering in the reception area. We were ushered right into her spacious office where she was hunkered over her desk. She lifted her eyes to greet us, but didn’t move. I looked up at the air conditioner hanging over her desk. It was barely squeaking. The room was hot, and I could immediately feel the dense humidity.

She sat up in her chair and motioned to the air conditioner. “Lights out,” she said. “Our generator isn’t working well. I haven’t been able to print anything for our meeting.” No further explanation was needed. The West Africa AIDS Foundation (WAAF) a fledgling NGO where I volunteer doesn’t have a generator. Most people don’t even bother coming to work on lights out days.

We chatted for a couple of minutes about the perpetual ‘lights out’ affecting the country. Every neighbourhood loses power for 12 hours every two days either during the day or at night on an alternating basis. This is the government’s way to conserve energy.

Ironically, two days ago I logged on to CBC radio’s morning show and heard Elizabeth Weir talking about the wait time for home energy audits. It can apparently take up to 8 weeks to get an audit in Saint John. Refitting a home to conserve energy takes money and commitment. Obviously with wait times as they are, people are taking the issue seriously. I wonder if the province would ever just consider shutting off residential and commercial power for a few days a week. This would certainly help people save money on their electrical bills and would have the additional benefit of lowering greenhouse gases. Hmmm…

In Ghana, people with enough money to purchase a generator are not thinking about conserving power. They’re thinking about comfort. The cost of generating power, however, triples while operating the machine.

In the neighbourhood where Mark and I live, most people around us have generators. We don’t have a generator. Not having a generator means that by 6:30 p.m. our world is dark. We have two candles in our room that we burn all evening. During this time, the room gets so hot, that we have to leave our door open to create a cross breeze. Keeping the door open lets the mosquitoes in and makes the candles burn faster.

We also have one basic rule on ‘lights out’ nights. No touching. Thankfully we have a king size bed so the rule is easy to enforce.

Going to bed with pajamas is optional but not recommended. The only problem with the no pajamas option is that without them you’ve got to really deal with the mosquitoes. Last week I woke up with 10 bites on my legs and feet. Thankfully we faithfully take our malaria pills.

Our refrigerator loses power so we have to keep it cold with frozen water bottles. We also freeze an extra couple of water bottles to take to bed with us. We cuddle with them to keep us cool. We’ve learned it’s important to wrap the water bottle in a towel before curling up with it. Not wrapping the water bottle means waking up in a pool of water some time around 2 a.m.

We live in an apartment complex but most houses around us are single family dwellings. They are occupied primarily by international workers and wealthy Ghanaians, all of whom have generators. To lessen the noise of the generator heard inside, the house immediately behind us has parked their generator at the back of their property right by our shared wall. The shared wall is about a foot away from our window, and the window is about 8 inches from our bed. When the lights go out, their generator turns on, and it sounds like it’s in bed with us. We can decrease the noise a bit by closing the window, but, well, as you can imagine, we don’t really want to close the window.

Thankfully tonight is not a lights out night. I can type away on my computer, see my food, and will probably get a full 7 hours of sleep. And, I might even get to cuddle with something other than my frozen water bottle.

- Janet

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