Power is Power

electricity power wires mess nest safety hazard
This is a fairly typical setup in the slum.

The electricity just went out for four hours. It wouldn’t have been a problem…except the one appliance we’re running in the middle of the day is the ceiling fan. That matters in August.

Thank God it was only 90 degrees with manageable humidity, one of the more pleasant days we’ve had. But little Shakeenah struggled to sleep without the fan, and if Shakeenah can’t get her nap then Peregrine can’t either. So the two of them got progressively more miserable.

A few hours in Shakeenah got so tired that she faded out despite the heat. I fanned her as much as I could with a hand fan but that made it difficult to complete tasks like cooking lunch. Eventually we gave up and packed our bags. A mile from our slum is an apartment that we share rent on with about a dozen other foreigners who use it as an office, meeting space, and language lessons locale. That place has power.

That’s an option our neighbors don’t have. I’m now writing under a working fan, which is powered by an inverter battery whenever the electricity cuts out. I’ll be here until I finish my post. Shakeenah sleeps soundly. Our slum neighbors go without.


 

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The hook-up for our second home. I didn’t design this one. It was terrifying.

When I tell people from the West that I live in a slum, one of their first questions is “do you have electricity”? Somewhere around 90% of households in our nation have electricity access, and the ones that don’t are primarily rural (though the kids I teach in the morning are among those few urban slum dwellers who go without). All of the homes we have lived in have been electrified.

But there’s more to the story than mere access.

In our first slum, power would go out 5-7 hours a day and 2-3 hours a night. Imagine no fan in the middle of the day with summer temps that peaked at 120° F (49° C). Actually, 120 was the temperature at the weather station – in the middle of a pure brick-and-concrete slum with virtually no airflow it had to be even hotter. Try to sleep with no fan when the temps hadn’t dropped below 100 yet. It was miserable.

Why isn’t there enough power? It’s not the minimal electricity needs of the slum that drain the grid. In fact, the average slum resident uses less than 10% as much electricity in their home as the average American. If everyone was in a slum, there’d be more than enough power. But all the middle-class homes nearby have air conditioning units, inverters, electric water filters, electric water heaters, large refrigerators, washing machines, multiples TVs, sound systems, laptops, and so on. Especially in the summer, when the AC units are running full blast 24-7, there just isn’t the infrastructure to handle the loads. So transformers blow, or generation just doesn’t keep up, and everything goes black.

At least, in the slums it goes black. Those same middle-class homes that overtaxed the system in the first place were charging up inverter batteries the whole time the power was running, so they can ride out most of the blackouts.

Ironic, isn’t it?

  • The middle-class folk have AC units pumping out hot air 24/7, so the slums next door get even hotter.
  • AC use helps blow the grid, so in the blackout the slums go without even fans…on a day that’s that much hotter because of the AC use they had nothing to do with.
  • However, the middle-class homes ride out the blackout with inverters…even though charging those inverters helped cause the blackout in the first place.
  • Meanwhile global temps are rising in large part due to excessive carbon emissions caused by all those things the poor had little to do with.

On one level after another, those who dominate resources and those who lack resources are connected. But the problems created by those dominating resources have consequences that are passed down to the others who barely had access at all.

And so it goes, across the world, with nearly every issue of overconsumption. The rich spend, but the poor pay.


 

Our current city has a better grid, perhaps only because greater regional poverty leads to fewer resources taxing it. Today’s four-hour outage was an aberration – most days power doesn’t even go out and when it does it’s often for only an hour or less.

But even half an hour without electricity is annoying. Especially at night. I sit up fanning Peregrine because she desperately needs her sleep, My arm gets tired, I’m bored, my eyes are sleepy…and I keep fanning until the power comes back on.

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We added the “real” board so that we didn’t have to hook an exposed wire onto a nail every time we wanted to plug something in. The family we were living with suggested it wouldn’t work.

Beyond access, the manner in which electricity reaches the homes here is scary. For a few years I thought that electrocution might be my ticket out of this world. Exposed wiring is prevalent and small electrical shocks were common. Surges can destroy appliances – one took out our ceiling fan and would have destroyed our table fan too if I hadn’t disconnected it right in the nick of time. We only run a few simple things, but families with greater electricity needs (like those who cook on a hot plate instead of a gas stove or have to use some sort of power tool for their work) often overburden the cheap electrical boards that are available. One day on my way to teach I helped an 11-year-old kid put out an small fire that had started from such an incident.

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And….looks like they were right about why that board wouldn’t work with their connection.

And then you have to worry about the costs. A legal electric connection, even with the relatively few appliances being used (a few lights, the fans, a TV, a water cooler, phones to charge), might run a family $10-15 a month. That can be 10-20% of some families’ monthly income.

Many of the poorer families can’t afford to pay their bills, or don’t prioritize them. So interest builds up, the bills become unmanageable, and the electricity gets cut off. It’s tough to survive with no electricity, so typically the family will resort to stealing power off of local lines, a process that is not only dangerous and illegal but also unreliable. Last Saturday a government employee came through the slum cutting off all the illegal connections. So all those families are without power again, though it will be only a matter of days before they hook back up to a line somewhere. And the game continues.

Outsiders rarely think about our electricity beyond the simple question, “Do you have it?” They don’t think about how much it costs, or how often it’s cut, or how dangerous the systems are that bring power in. But trust me – slum dwellers may use far less electricity than the average Westerner, but they are forced to think about it a lot more. That’s the consequence of living in a place this hot with electricity access that is this unreliable.

Remember, the rich spend, but the poor pay.

One thought on “Power is Power

  1. It must have been bad karma to write this post. Ever since I wrote it we’ve had power go out multiple times every day (once four times in a single night), sometimes for only five minutes but on other occasions for as long as two hours. I have no idea what’s going on that the electricity has suddenly become so unreliable.

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