Africa / Ghana

“Light Off”

Memoirs of a Ghanaian Child (Part 1)

Our elders say, “You need to remember where you are coming from to know where you are going.” In my bid of remembering, I find myself teleported into a mine of memories and events that I realize are enough inspiration for stories in themselves. This is perhaps why our elders lay emphasis on remembering – actively involving the past in the present and future, in order to truly weave a thread of understanding our fundamental existence.

There are so many things unique about Ghana – good and bad. Our electricity system is one of them – an initially phenomenal idea that has developed a bad track record over time. I believe it is important to ask the question – Where did we go wrong? Where did we fall short in transforming Nkrumah’s ideals into what we have now?

Yet still, it is interesting how sometimes, the very shortcomings of a system become platform for one’s fondest memories and the very buds of nostalgia.The rationing of power by the Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG), fondly or disdainfully referred to by Ghanaians as “light off”, is for me, one of those shortcomings. So banal has the term become that, it fits perfectly into a category of terminology I call the “certified lexicon of the modern transformative Ghanaian walking dictionary” (*taking a bow*). Yup, I sure did summon all the verbosity I could conjure to come up with that term, as Ghanaians are very likely to do in intellectual spheres and journalism! I came up with this term because, in Ghana, our language is pretty much influenced by circumstance and is very reflective of the thought of society as a whole, which in itself is very transformative over time. Certain phrases that may catch foreigners in limbo or seem very avant-garde are accepted as normal by all. To this list of “ghan-erisms” one will find “light off”, “light on”, the casual response of “I am coming” as we actually walk away, saying “just a second”, which usually means 5+ minutes, “Oh, I am on my way!”, when we are now about to set out from home/the office, 10 minutes into the start of the event we were supposed to be at. My people, in other parts of the world, this is “lying”. lol. But don’t get me wrong. This is no heavy launch of criticism to brand Ghanaians as having low moral standards or feed into the “African Man time” stereotype. Neither is this self-exclusive or pushing blame at all. I have often found myself guilty of all of the above. However, beginning to recognize that “convention” does not mean “normal”, and “habit” is not necessarily the same as “the right thing”, has been a huge stepping stone for my “paradigm shifting”.

I remember fondly now, how ECG decided, seemingly nonchalantly, to take away power from our homes. Like our disorderly “ghan-erisms”, I always thought, and still believe some of our apparatuses of state, are very disorderly. “Light off” meant, no ironing my creased pinnafol uniform before school the next morning, no re-fridgerator (milk for cereal the next morning will go bad), no TV, no sockets to charge appliances, no light.  This was the norm in Ghana at the time. (It still is today, although I choose to believe the effects are less pronounced now than back then, but then again, I may be wrong and less acquainted with certain harsh realities still existing today).

I imagine myself narrating this story to my kids in future (hopefully, this will not be their reality otherwise it transforms from a fond memory to a shameful failure of a developing state). I see my self telling them of how we would sit around a candle light immediately the lights went off, as a family – brothers and sisters around the table, as dad, mum, uncles and aunties chatted away and laughed. Of course there were times when the lights  would go off in the middle of a football match we were watching on TV together and boy oh boy, the loud “Ooooo!!!” emanating from dad and the boys was loud enough to be heard miles away and propel the neighboring dogs to bark in accord – They were obviously displeased!

In a sense however, sometimes, by being envelopped by the warmth of family and detracted from the surrounding cold and dark void, we fostered a sense of unity. I like to think of these situations as reflective of the relationship I have with my family. Their warmth and love, like the candles that sat on the centre of our sitting room table, will always be there for me when my world grows dark. That small candle light too, is perhaps, reflective of how my “fiery passions”, no matter how little, are enough to keep my dreams and hopes aflame, and perhaps some day, light up this cold, void, dark world.  I also choose to think of these moments as our modern version of the stereotype picture of African children sitting around the fireside to hear an elderly woman weave tales under a baobab tree in the village square. I do not make this analogy in scorn but perhaps with regretful fascination. The core traditionalist in me, sometimes wishes she had that experience, or connection, I have often heard older people allude to.

I also remember how sometimes, the sound of thunder, raindrops hitting our rooftops and the strong breeze, served as signals that ECG was going to be up to no good that night. So, Sean, my older brother, and Sister Akua would scurry outside to take the clothes from the drying lines before they got wet with Accra’s warm tropical rain, mummy would start searching for her candles and match boxes to light up the corridors, dad will switch off all electrical appliances so that he did not have to foot an extra bill for damages, whilst we, the younger ones, started getting ready for the impending darkness by looking for each other to huddle in the sitting room. It was a regimented plan – almost military-like if you asked me. We all knew our positions.  True to our guesses, we were right 95% of the time, the rain was pre-emptive of darkness. ECG had once again decided to give us “light off”, and we, the families without generators, needed to make do.

Another interesting coincidence, perhaps peculiar to my family, always happened when our lights went off. Our lights always went off, on the days dad had a radio interview with “Uncle Cephas” on Joy 99.7 FM. Since there was a power outage, we would all huddle outside in Aunty Gloria’s car, to listen to the radio. In tough times, you just have to make do. We would sit in her car that was parked outside in our compound and turn on the car’s radio. We, the kids, jumped in the back seat, mum in the passenger seat, and Aunty Glo. in the driver’s seat. We left the car doors open for the fresh Accra night breeze . I realize now that my family has been teaching me what togetherness, love and family is all about for a very long time. At those times, we only did this because it was our last resort, but now in retrospect, I would love to do this with them again. This is because, our listening to dad was inadvertently coupled with stargazing whenever there was a radio advertisement interruption during the interview, or, we would have a side conversation about interesting things going on in Ghana at the time, at school, in our lives, in our families. Right there, in Aunty Glo’s car, star-gazing and interacting, our cosmos was in tune despite all the chaos of Ghana’s failed eletrical system. It’s still interesting how small beacons of light always managed to bring us together. First, it was the candles Mummy lit in our corridors. Then it was the stars that stretched out in the night sky. Perhaps it was in these moments that  grandpa’s favorite Latin adage began to make more sense to me – per adwan ad astra, he would say. Through difficulty to the stars.

Looking back now, I wonder how that made any sense. How does it make sense that huge sectors of a country that is  hydro-electrically powered, experience blackouts whenever there is heavy rainfall? As far as I remember, I used to sing along to the TV gimmick “Akosombo kaneaaaa ah- ah- ah”, with a little bobby-head swirl and waste wriggle that came with the ad. In the song, they explained how the water rises  in the dam when it rains, thus turning the turbines to generate more energy, so we ought to be happy when it rains. Our reality still remains a paradox to me, unless my understanding of the mechanism is truly flawed. I am certain my mind cannot even fathom the complexities of managing such a system, but yet still one must ask, how does this make any sense?

My memories of light off now, always come with mixed feelings. I guess I am blessed to actually have this hybrid of emotions associated with it. For some, it may not be as pretty. The darkness once crippled me with fear too, but now that I understand the physics behind it, I know that the shadows were actually caused by the light. In my childhood however, the shadows of objects in our house always towered over me. Time and time again, I found myself facing the wall, transfixed by the shadow of the coat-hanger that had all of a sudden transformed to look like a 6-foot tall hunch-backed monster. Yes, there were countless occasions when Mummy sent me to pick something from my room, but with candles lining the hallway, and shadows lining the corridor, I will inch steadily to my room, hoping not to disturb or aggravate anything lurking in the shadows ready to pounce. I was a “pro” at walking on my tiptoes the whole way through.  And even with my discretion, I always seemed to catch the attention of that “tall thin elongated shadow” that stalked me as I crossed from one end of the corridor to the next. Little did I know, that was my shadow. I actually owned it. It was mine. Was it Jane Eyre who remarked that “the shadows are as important as the light”? I think I now understand Eyre’s wisdom, for, the shadows also taught me lessons, as important as the candles did … sometimes our deepest fears are unreal, and at other times, what we most fear, is ourselves.  Perhaps this is why my favorite quote by Marianne Robinson resonates so deeply with me ~ “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”. 

It is also important in my romanticizing my childhood experience with light off that I address the true calamity of sorts that it is. I count myself blessed when I realize that some people had it worse, and of course some too had it better off. I was taken aback the first time I saw this picture:These are boys, studying under street lamps in the streets of Accra because their homes have no light. Their story is reminiscent of my paternal grandfather’s story. He tells me when he was growing up, he had no light and so, he would study with candles and lanterns, the repetitive cumulation of which has led to his current blindness in  old age. I do not wish to think these are the prospects of these young men, but seriously, this should not be the 21st century Ghana. I have also had a fair share of this, during my time in boarding school, when the lights will go off and the generator was out of fuel. What this meant was that, a group of girls in my hostel and myself will gang up in one persons room and share our lamps, one at a time, so that when one’s battery died, we could pull all the others to study the whole night through. The absence of light, in every sense of the word (enlightenment, education, exposure, opportunity) is very blinding to the dreams and aspirations of many. I am incensed. I am outraged. I am provoked to action. We must make sure this not only reaches the doldrums of political circles, it must catch their urgent attention.

I am interested to know why this is the case. Why do we export electricity to Togo, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and soon enough, Burkina Faso, when we do not have the whole nation covered? I do understand “trade” is the name of the “international development” game these days but what good has that done for us, as a people?

With barely a month to what has been widely agreed to be Ghana’s most closely contested election thus far, political manifestoes have reached their zenith of feisty promises to recuperate the output that was intended to come with our electrical system (Article here). In actual fact, I was pretty amused by the fact that a whole new website has actually been created for people to be able to know when they would be having a power outage in their part of the country –> Light Off GH Website. This is exactly what I mean when I say, we make things conventional, and then all of a sudden, they become normal. Now, it is okay that a whole website has been built for me to prepare myself for impending “light off” in my area.

As I write this, I am simultaneously hearing the inconsistent sounds of my gchat beep – it is my best-friend in Ghana. Like the incongruous decisions ECG takes with load scheduling, so are the incongruous sounds of her gchat beeps. I was just complaining to her how upset I am about  an email I received tonight which said “there may be power shortages on my campus due to hurricane Sandy”, especially since I have a lot of coursework to cover tonight. When I said this, she quickly responded, ” At least they tell you before they put your light off! lol. You act like you are no expert at handling “light off issues”, knowing where you are coming from!”. I stopped in my thoughts. She is right. Why is this so big a deal, knowing I have had a long history with power outages? Is it perhaps because I did not expect this at all to happen to me here in a “prestigious” school in the United States? In the same vein, with all the “prestige” Ghana accrues as West Africa’s black ‘star’ and ‘shining light’ (the irony of the ‘luminous’ nicknames. lol.), there is no excuse for us to accept what is now convention as the norm.  My best friend reminded me that she is only here chatting with me on g-chat to while away some time because her lights are off and she cannot study. I guess, she fueled my current thoughts and is the inspiration for this post.

Change must come when darkness begins to overshadow light. Change must come when our fury supersedes our nostalgia; the extent to which we cling on to old customs and traditions. Change must come when our futures, lie in front of us, but we cannot see, because it is shrouded in darkness. And one day soon, Ghana’s faithful impassioned shall shout at the very top of our lungs, until the corridors of power are shaken by the reverberations of an incensed people: “Let there be light!”, and there will be light.

Written: October 29th, 2012

Dedicated to:

Kordai Mould for inspiring this, as alluded to above. Thanks. 🙂

Dad, who I must say, has an exceptional book titled “Lights Off”, and my family for making light off bearable. (Yes, of course I will make a pitch for my dad’s book, though on a different subject matter. lol.)

The cohort of hardworking ladies (my study squad of ‘sistren’) who huddled on the floor, around one lamp at a time for several hours of study before exams, in Turkana Room 3 when the lights went off: (Eyram Sah, Efua Asibon, Mama Abankwa, Kweiba Sam, Phoebe Prah, Delight Gavor, Audrey Eshun, Crystal Adu-Poku, Kordai Mould). I miss you all, and it seems like we have something to call “the good ‘ol days” too. lol! Good times, chale!

And for all those people fighting for their dreams under the street lamps of Accra …


One thought on ““Light Off”


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s