Today, I want to talk small about electricity. Just for a moment, think about how crazy people in the US get when a big storm is approaching. Think about how useless we all become when the power goes out. Then imagine that’s what your life is like every day. It is a reality for many in Liberia outside of the country’s capital, and certainly in our community in the southeast. Nick and I do not have electricity at our house, and neither do any of our neighbors. Neither of us have electricity at our schools, even though my campus offers a night school. I repeat for emphasis, a night school with no lights. Aside from the obvious inconveniences (you adapt to those pretty quickly) lack of reliable electricity has incredible consequences on education levels, health care, and many other basic human rights Americans take for granted. Have you ever actually tried to read by candle light or a small lantern? Many of my students do, as the middle of the night is one of the only times they have to themselves. Have you ever had to worry about a hospital not having power because they can’t afford any more gas for the generators? Many families here have. Access to electricity is directly linked to poverty levels in many countries, and some social scientists consider universal access to stable electricity a basic human right. If you’re interested, the term is “energy poverty”, and there are some great articles out about its effect on people across the world.
So back to Liberia- most people do not have electricity here (or current as it’s called in country). And while we can’t just call our local power company to get lines run to the house, we manage just fine.
The simplest option is to go simply without. Many people do not have any type of current running in their houses, including many Peace Corps Volunteers. You adapt to this pretty quickly, rising and setting with the sun, and finding other ways to light your rooms at night.
Many Liberians use candles, flashlights, and small solar lamps for lights, and rely on charging stations to charge their phones or other electronics. A charging station (or charging booth) is a great little business. It’s essentially a small building, or booth, with power and a whole bunch of power strips and phone chargers. You can drop off your phone, and pick it up a few hours later fully charged.
Here are a few pictures of some charging booths around our area:
If you’d like to get fancy and prefer current in your house, and you can afford the pretty significant costs, there are three standard options here:
Option one is only available to a limited (though growing) section of the country, and that is to get your electricity from the power grid. A small number of businesses, and an even smaller number of residential houses, are able to pay to get hooked up to the “city current”. During the war, almost all the infrastructure across the country was knocked out, and power and water lines were the first to go. If you look inside many of the nicer houses that survived the war, you can see where valuable things (like pipes and wires) were ripped out. In our first house, you could see the remnants of wires that were once running through- places for outlets and switches that were long since taken out of the wall. Liberia has been rebuilding, and is working to run power lines throughout the country, but it’s still only available in the cities. My understanding is that the city current down here comes from the Ivory Coast. It is not particularly reliable, but it’s better than nothing. Some volunteers in Liberia live in houses already hooked into the current, and sometimes they pay a monthly electricity bill. This is pretty rare. Other volunteers live in more remote towns that will likely never get on the grid. We live in an area that has access to current, but it’s only run to the bigger business- this is the reason we can so reliably get cold beer and ice cream.
Option two (if you don’t have power lines in your area) is to buy a generator, or better yet, get yourself hooked up to someone else’s. If you’re a big man or woman in town, you’ve probably got a generator. Often people will run their generators for a short time each night, e.g., from 7-9, so they can have a few hours of light and access to charge their phones. Generators are loud, they are difficult to maintain, they smell, and the gas used to run them is very expensive. But, again, it’s better than nothing.
Option three is solar, which I don’t see used very often down here. I think as far as sustainable investments solar is the way to go, but it is quite expensive. We set up our house with solar about six months after we got to site. I didn’t miss lights, and I didn’t mind rationing my phone battery and using the charging booth down the road. What I DID mind, however, was the heat. Nick and I live in, what I would argue is, the hottest city in the country, and when February hit we were getting into peak dry season mercilessness. At this point I needed to sleep with a fan, and was willing to drop all of our money to make that happen.
So does one set up a house up with solar power? I had no idea, but I learned.
Step one- Find and acquire the things (for a reasonable price).
I would say the first step is the one that gave us the most trouble here. To set up solar you need a panel, a battery, a charge controller, an inverter, some wire, and a friend stupid enough that loves you enough to crawl into your attic and onto your roof. I can’t get free two day shipping to my house here, and we don’t have anything close to an electronics store, so we had to hunt. Some things we found in the market, some things we found at business centers and specialty shops, and some things we had to get from the big cities (a two day drive). Once you find the stuff, you have to reach a reasonable agreement on the price. There are no price tags here, prices for pretty much everything are negotiable. We don’t have a lot of money, so that took quite a bit of bargain hunting, negotiating, and patience.
Step two- Attach the panel to the roof.
Once you’ve figured out how to get the massive solar panel and very heavy battery you just purchased back to your house (I don’t have a car here, gotta walk that stuff), you install it. Attaching the solar panel to the roof in concept is quite simple. One person gets on the roof with the panel, and one person gets in the attic. You take some strong steel wire, run it through the solar panel, then tie it down on the insides. Sounds easy, right? And it is easy, except we don’t have real ladders here, the attic is full of all sorts of creepy crawlies, and the odds that you’re going to fall through the roof are extremely high. The fan gods were looking out for us the day we installed ours- a Liberian passing on the road saw Nick timidly trying to crawl out on the roof, and stopped to help. Probably more out of protecting the community from the fallout if one of the Americans fell and broke their neck than selflessness, but we were grateful nonetheless.
Step three- Put it all together. During our training, we were given some information on how to configure the solar system (heh), which I found terribly intimidating. It’s really just the matter of running wires between all the components, e.g., from the panel to the battery so it can charge, in the right order and through the charge controller. After some trial and error, we succeed and had power. By trial I mean a lot of guessing, and error meaning small electrocutions and two-ish small fires.
Step four- Sit in front of the fan and never move.
We still use candles at night, and charging booths occasionally if it’s convenient, but that fan hasn’t had one day of rest since we bought it.
And that just about wraps up February. The next few posts will shift back to some of the work we did in the spring and our second semester teaching. FYI- It’s taken me about two solid days of fighting with the network (and quite a few scratch cards $$) to get this post up, so bear with us. We’ll get caught up eventually.