Lights Out in Nigeria – written by Chimamanda Adichie

Article written by award-winning writer Chimamanda Adichie, originally published on New York Times. Interesting read. Find below…

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 shake.

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
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 food.
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.

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.

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.

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