Electricity is a Real, Live Thing

My father was one of those people who adamantly conserved energy. Lights were turned off sometimes while children were in their bedrooms reading. “Costs too much damn money,” he would bulk. “Read during the daytime.” Nowadays such strict conservation is generally upheld by new millennium hippies who have become cognizant of Earth’s depleting resources and think it only logical to curtail the culture of mindless consumption. For children of people like my father, however, the ideal to conserve has always been more linked to saving money than saving humanity.

I have been in Kigali, Rwanda for less than a week and have found the link between conservation and cost has been all the more clear to me than it has been in the past. Many modern day necessities are pay as you go. Electricity is one of those things. Outside my apartment is a meter that very clearly shows numerically how much electricity “lives” here. On my first day here the meter read 2950. (I don’t know what the unit of measurement is, but it seemed like a whole lot of electricity.) I was told to simply monitor the meter and when it gets low, head down to almost any grocery store and buy more electricity. If I allowed the meter to make it to zero, I would be in the dark. “I usually take a photo of the code here on the meter, show it to the clerk and buy more units,” my boss explained to me after he had gotten me settled into the place. “The clerk will give you a code to plug into the meter, which will immediately reflect how much more electricity you now have.”

It is not unusual for westerners to monitor their electricity. Most people can relate to getting an electric bill in the mail that seemed exorbitant and immediately adapting how often they used air conditioning or buying more energy-efficient light bulbs. (Or turning off the lights on their nerdy child while she read her favorite book.) However, SEEING the visual representation of this suddenly animate object right in front of you puts this idea of smart consumption in hard to ignore reality.

Today, my meter dipped into the 1900s.

It has only been three days. Two of those days, I was in the apartment alone awaiting the arrival of my colleagues who will be teaching with me this school year. I had been very conscientious of the meter. Suddenly, leaving the kitchen light on even when I walked back to my bedroom for a few minutes seemed not so smart. Each day, as I left the apartment, I gave the meter a quick look to gage how much electricity I used daily. It was not like getting a monthly utility bill, when the damage had already been done. Here, in front of me was a daily reminder that every single lighted room, every single charged cell phone, chipped away at what I had imagined as an invisible privilege that simply existed somewhere in a magical fairy land.

My roommates ate up my electricity. They are nice ladies and I enjoy talking to them, but my meter was still in the 2000s before they arrived with their insatiable need for illuminated meals and immediately dry hair.

Cellular service is also pay as you go. I gave an amused Rwandan at the the cell phone place what felt like a whole lot of money (but, once I did the Math was really only about 16 American dollars) and bought what should have been a lot of cell phone service. I was told I got voice and data. And I could again monitor the usage as I went. Once the money ran out, I would have no phone service until I came back in the store and bought more.

It is funny how I no longer have an obsessive need to check Facebook several times an hour. How insignificant it seems to read and respond to every single email that comes to my phone within minutes of its arrival.

Do I really need to send this text?

Do I really need to post this photo?

Do I really need to google “What happened to K.C. from Jodeci?”

Do I need to even have the data feature on my phone turned on all day?

These are questions I find myself asking much more frequently. In a sense, I have turned the beginning of my new life into a game. How long can I stretch out this electricity? Can I make 1900 units last TWO ENTIRE WEEKS? Can I ride out these 16 bucks of cell service until the end of the month?

“Back in the 80s,” my boss mused, “they had this thing where every family got one 40 watt light bulb for an allotted amount of time. They were expected to screw it in whenever they needed it in different rooms and if it didn’t last until the next time they were given their light bulb, then…oh well…”

My boss is a British Canadian who, although he has been the director of several international schools in African countries, has only been in Rwanda for a year. Who knows how much truth there is to his one light bulb story. It sounds like an urban legend if I ever heard one. I thought for a moment about goggling it, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth my data usage. And the “internet stick” that someone loaned me for my laptop only has a week’s worth of internet on it. I am confident I can stretch it out to at least a week and a half.

One Response

  1. a different conscious

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