LETTERS TO GAMBIA – 4: Light Goes
Dear Mother Gambia,
The last time I wrote to you about the deplorable state of our streets during the rainy season when they turn to large pools of muddy water through which we must wade in a helpless state of indignity. To say that walking or driving in those muddy streets does not inspire a sense of shame is to say an untruth, Mother Gambia. Now the rains are gone and we are in the phase of dealing with the stench and the mosquitoes as the street pools are transformed yet again into hills and craters on which we must stumble like a drunken people. No surprises there for you Mother Gambia, are there? Sure there are no surprises today either because you must have been waiting for this particular letter on this very troubling issue of our chronic blackouts!
Dear Mother Gambia, I’m sorry to say but over the past few months, the state of our electricity supply in this country has gone from bad to worse. It seems as if we are literally moving backwards, regressing into the past rather than progressing into the future. Sometimes, light goes anything from eight to ten times a day! And sometimes for many hours on end. Anytime light goes, a stifling sense of frustration is injected into our psyches Mother Gambia!
Dear Mother Gambia. Yesterday we did not have light in our area from around sunrise to sunset. It came in the night, and very early this morning, even before we were fully awake, light went again. It seems like we are doomed to suffer another mentally exhausting and psychologically debilitating day with no light which inflicts upon us a sense of helplessness that can only be felt to be understood. This helplessness is sharpened by the nagging feeling that we are a backward people, Mother Gambia. A people incapable of meaningful progress and a people grappling with problems that are long solved in other societies and that could have been long solved here too, but are not. Problems that have been with us forever, so to say!
Dear Mother Gambia. We had a great rainy season this year and we are so happy that our farmers’ crops are good. But we are also happy that the rainy season is over. That’s because during the rainy season, it seems as if our lights are afraid of thunder. As soon as thunder rumbles, light goes! That was why as soon as thunder rumbled at night, we reached out for our candles and hand fans in readiness for the darkness and heat that was sure to swoop down upon us with the first drops of rain! And you know how hot it gets when it rains here Mother Gambia!
Year in, year out Mother Gambia, our nights are often full of frustration thanks to the frequency with which light goes! You have your dinner and prepare to get some work done; light goes. It may or may not come back several hours later. Even if it does come back, your spirit is already damp, your motivation ruptured by the blow of darkness that hits when light goes. And you may just lie there, gazing at the ceiling, using the hand fan and lamenting the wasted opportunity to do something useful for the night! If light comes back, you may manage to pick your spirits up a little bit and resolve to put in an hour or so, before bed. And so you turn your laptop on, and you sit, ready to start; light goes again! And your heart painfully sinks and you find yourself saying, ‘Oh, cam’on man’, and your head sinks as you are smothered by the universal embrace of maximum security darkness from which there could only be temporary escape. The frustration bites at your being and you can’t break free from the heaviness of the ineptitude that locks you up in a prison of needless darkness Mother Gambia! And so you sit again and wait in the hot house, Mother Gambia, and you make use of your hand fan. Or you sit outside and endure the painful bites of our very serious mosquitoes!
Equally painful or even more so are the early morning blackouts, Mother Gambia. You wake up in the morning, ready to make a cup of tea or coffee and get ready for work; light goes. No coffee and no tea unless you use the gas if you have one. You gaze into the morning darkness and you feel the bleak helplessness. These morning blackouts are particularly malignant in their capacity to frustrate and dampen our spirits, Mother Gambia. For when light goes so early in the morning, a cloud of frustration descends on our hearts that is hard to lift for the rest of the day.
And you know what, Mother Gambia? On most days, the situation is no better at work! Sometimes, light goes so many times at work that you lose count of it. I have had days at work when light goes at least six times in every single hour for the entire 8-hour work day! Imagine having to endure 48 instances of light going off and coming on every few minutes! Can you imagine the anger, the trauma, the depression, the frustration that your people suffer from day to day because light goes so many times every day, Mother Gambia? Can you imagine just how many hours of productive work are lost when light goes so many times a day? Come on, Mother Gambia, we have to be able to do better than this for ourselves!
And, Mother Gambia. Is it true that even our main hospitals are not spared this chronic spate of blackouts? Is it true that at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic here, blood samples got spoilt due to lack of electricity at the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital? And that both the EFSTH and Serekunda General Hospital suffer frequent and often prolonged bouts of blackout? Is it true that at the EFSTH there are often long periods of water shortage so bad that patients have to bring their own large containers of water for use while admitted there? If, as we suspect they are, the answers to all these questions are yes, then our country is in a very sad and sorry state that must be remedied as a matter of urgency Mother Gambia!
And, Mother Gambia, do you know that many of your people’s expensive appliances get blown up because light goes ever so often? Do you hear the cries of poor families and struggling mothers whose precious food items get spoilt because ever so often, light goes for long hours on end, sometimes 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or even more hours at a time? Do you know that nowadays, most telephone conversations at night include questions as to whether you have light or not? Yes, Mother Gambia. After a few words one or the other would say hope you have light today? The answer could be yes, so far; or no, we don’t. Or we haven’t had light since yesterday. Or, it just came and went off again. It has come and gone I don’t know how many times today! And the tone of these conversations express a resigned frustration whose end no one knows, which makes it all the more difficult to deal with these chronic blackouts Mother Gambia!
What on earth is going on Mother Gambia? Why on earth are you not able to provide stable electricity for a population of less than three million people since you started providing some form of electricity services in or around 1977, some 43 years ago? Are we to believe some of the theories making the rounds in our country, Mother Gambia, including allegations that those responsible do not want to try solar or other renewable energy because if they do they will miss out on the kickbacks they receive from the purchase of machines, spare parts, fuel, or the signing of contracts with foreign providers such as Senegal and Karpowership? Of course we would rather not believe these allegations; but in the absence of practical solutions to this very old, chronic and frustrating blackout situation, many of us would be inclined to imagine that these allegations might just be credible.
Needless to say Mother Gambia, it is extremely dangerous for our country to depend on foreign suppliers for such a vital service as electricity. What if these providers decide to terminate their services for one reason or the other? Can you imagine what a tragedy that would be for our economy, our national security and our mental and physical health Mother Gambia? I dread to imagine it and hope that you will treat this chronic problem of blackouts with the utmost urgency. Your children are very tired of these endless and extremely debilitating blackouts, Mother Gambia! So please do something now! And of course you must do something about the chronic and widespread problem of water shortage too, Mother Gambia!