chiamanda adiiche’s article on the condition of nigeria’s power supply

LAGOS, Nigeria — WE call it
light; “electricity” is too sterile
a word, and “power” too stiff,
for this Nigerian phenomenon
that can buoy spirits and
smother dreams. Whenever I
have been away from home for
a while, my first question upon
returning is always: “How has
light been?” The response,
from my gateman, comes in
mournful degrees of a head
Bad. Very bad.
The quality is as poor as the
supply: Light bulbs dim like
tired, resentful candles. Robust
fans slow to a sluggish limp.
Air-conditioners bleat and
groan and make sounds they
were not made to make, their
halfhearted cooling leaving the
air clammy. In this assault of
low voltage, the compressor of
an air-conditioner suffers —
the compressor is its heart,
and it is an expensive heart to
replace. Once, my guest room
air-conditioner caught fire. The
room still bears the scars, the
narrow lines between floor tiles
smoke-stained black.
Sometimes the light goes off
and on and off and on, and
bulbs suddenly brighten as if
jerked awake, before dimming
again. Things spark and snap.
A curl of smoke rises from the
water heater. I feel myself at
the mercy of febrile malignant
powers, and I rush to pull my
laptop plug out of the wall.
Later, electricians are
summoned and they diagnose
the problem with the ease of a
long acquaintance. The current
is too high or too low, never
quite right. A wire has melted.
Another compressor will need
to be replaced.
For succor, I turn to my
generator, that large Buddha in
a concrete shed near the front
gate. It comes awake with a
muted confident hum, and the
difference in effect is so
obvious it briefly startles: Light
bulbs become brilliant and air-
conditioners crisply cool.
The generator is electricity as
electricity should be. It is also
the repository of a peculiar
psychology of Nigerian light:
the lifting of mood. The
generator is lord of my
compound. Every month, two
men filled with mysterious
knowledge come to minister to
it with potions and filters.
Once, it stopped working and I
panicked. The two men
blamed dirty diesel, the sludgy,
slow, expensive liquid
wreathed in conspiracy
theories. (We don’t have
regular electricity, some say,
because of the political
influence of diesel importers.)
Now, before my gateman feeds
the diesel into the generator,
he strains it through a cloth
and cleans out bits of dirt. The
generator swallows liters and
liters of diesel. Each time I
count out cash to buy yet
another jerrycan full, my throat
I spend more on diesel than on
My particular misfortune is
working from home. I do not
have a corporate office to
escape to, where the electricity
is magically paid for. My ideal
of open windows and fresh,
breathable air is impossible in
Lagos’s seething heat.
(Leaving Lagos is not an
option. I love living here, where
Nigeria’s energy and initiative
are concentrated, where
Nigerians bring their biggest
dreams.) To try to cut costs —
sustainably, I imagine — I buy
an inverter. Its silvery, boxlike
batteries make a corner of the
kitchen look like a physics lab.
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The inverter’s batteries charge
while there is light, storing
energy that can be used later,
but therein lies the problem:
The device requires electricity
to be able to give electricity.
And it is fragile, helpless in the
face of the water pump and
microwave. Finally, I buy a
second generator, a small,
noisy machine, inelegant and
scrappy. It uses petrol, which
is cheaper than diesel, and can
power lights and fans and
freezers but only one air-
conditioner, and so I move my
writing desk from my study to
my bedroom, to consolidate
cool air.
Day after day, I awkwardly
navigate between my sources
of light, the big generator for
family gatherings, the inverter
for cooler nights, the small
generator for daytime work.
Like other privileged Nigerians
who can afford to, I have
become a reluctant libertarian,
providing my own electricity,
participating in a precarious
frontier spirit. But millions of
Nigerians do not have this
choice. They depend on the
malnourished supply from their
electricity companies.
In 2005, a law was passed to
begin privatizing the
generation and distribution of
electricity, and ostensibly to
revamp the old system rooted
in bureaucratic rot. Ten years
on, little has changed. Most of
the companies that produce
electricity from gas and hydro
sources, and all of the
distribution companies that
serve customers, are now
privately owned. But the link
between them — the
transmission company — is
still owned by the federal
I cannot help but wonder how
many medical catastrophes
have occurred in public
hospitals because of “no light,”
how much agricultural produce
has gone to waste, how many
students forced to study in
stuffy, hot air have failed
exams, how many small
businesses have foundered.
What greatness have we lost,
what brilliance stillborn? I
wonder, too, how differently
our national character might
have been shaped, had we
been a nation with children
who took light for granted,
instead of a nation whose
toddlers learn to squeal with
pleasure at the infrequent
lighting of a bulb.
As we prepare for elections
next month, amid severe
security concerns, this remains
an essential and poignant
need: a government that will
create the environment for
steady and stable electricity,
and the simple luxury of a
monthly bill.

Author: HandsomebeautyGarden

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