17 October 2007


Last night, as the sun was setting in all shades of blue and gray and white, I sat in a chair in the middle of the compound looking up at the sky, feeling that happy Africa feeling (which is quite an accomplishment, since I haven’t felt that happy Africa feeling in this town at all before). I was thinking about how living in a rural part of Africa sometimes results in far fewer stories than a city. I was thinking about how it’s sort of boring to write about, actually, and what would you call the color of the sky? Periwinkle, maybe? It was the perfect cloudless blue of day painted over with a transparent, no, semi-transparent layer of gray. Gray that deepened every few minutes. Hm, periwinkle. Such a nice word. Such a nice color. It makes me think of those flowers growing in front of the house that was on the office road in Buchanan, Liberia, the house I rode my bike past every day on the way to school when I was little. Those flowers were periwinkle, and their description was the first time I heard the word.

Then Visiting Colleague came out of his tukul and said, “Why are there no lights?”

“Good question.” I said, “Even if the v-sat turned itself off from lack of power, there should still be power for the lights.”

I got the key and went into the storeroom to the panel of batteries. The charging levels on all the batteries were red. Not even blinking red, which means “Danger! Go to bed soon! We are about to run out of power!” but just solid, empty red.

I looked over at the inverter, which takes the power from the solar panels and stores them in the batteries. It was beeping sadly and a yellow light was blinking. I looked closer. The word underneath the blinking light – I swear I am not making this up (how could I make up something like this?) – read, “DEFEAT.” DEFEAT. Who comes up with something like that? “I know, let’s call the flashing light of no hope the DEFEAT button!”

I considered myself defeated and made the announcement of no power for the evening. (I know. Look how I’ve suddenly become the electricity expert. Yes, I did once wire a building for electricity on a service project in high school, but that was under the direct supervision of an electrician. Now I’m just teaching myself. The guy who usually deals with this stuff is out of town.)

Visiting Colleague said, “This is the worst night of my fourteen months in Southern Sudan. No lights? Ah!” (With that “ah,” you have to imaging a very African sound of disgust in which the -h is so sharp as to be almost a -ch. I love this sound. I’m working on perfecting it myself.)

I went for the little tealights that T sent with me in an almond tin. I brought them to the mess hall and lit them. Visiting Colleague was standing out in the middle of the compound holding high the Thuraya, looking for satellite coverage, hoping to call someone for a generator. Normal Colleague was sitting, as usual, with his radio tuned to BBC, paying no attention to the ruckus of no power. It’s just no power. No big deal.

The generator quest was unsuccessful and we ate by candlelight. At 8 p.m., there was nothing to do but go to bed. “This is the night for crying and wanting to go home. Tonight you should cry and want to go home,” said Visiting Colleague. (Er. Yes, there was a little wanting to go home a few days ago, although I wouldn’t say crying, per se. This wanting to go home had to do with being bored out of my mind. For a whole bunch of reasons, I never had a “what am I going to do here?” meeting. Now I have more to do, ergo, not bored and don’t want to go home.)

“Nope.” I answered, “I love this stuff. I tend to annoy people, because when things go well I get bored and depressed, and when everything goes wrong, I’m the one smiling.”

In desperation for something to do, we raided the office, came up with one laptop that was fully charged, and watched the Bourne Identity on it. (I love that movie so. very. much. I watched it six times in the theater when it first came out.) The battery light started blinking red just as the credits rolled.

In the morning, the computer person from the office came into the mess hall where we were all eating breakfast and stood just inside the door, looking scared. “Is there a problem?”

“Yes,” he said, “a big problem.”

“You are missing a computer.” I said. “I have it, in my room.”

He started breathing again.

No comments: