duct duct duct DUCTS.ORG Issue 12 | Winter 2003 the webzine of personal stories   duct
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Dog Days and Dark Nights

Heather Hewett

Blackouts from Senegal to Manhattan.

Five years ago, my newly married husband and I moved to Senegal, West Africa, where losing electricity was as common as the goats that wandered the arid Sahel. The first time the power went out, it was late afternoon. I barely noticed. The sun poured through the windows of the classrooms where I was teaching English, so we still had light; and because the building didn't have air conditioning, none of my students even batted an eye. I only realized what had happened when I returned home and saw that the electric fan we'd purchased at the local market, after hours of amateurish haggling, had stopped working. We pulled two chairs onto our porch, where my husband read and I graded papers; and when early evening dragged into night, we borrowed a candle from a neighbor and played cards by its flickering light. The darkness drew in around us, blanketing the flat landscape of scrubby trees and hungry goats. But this was no different from every other night in rural Senegal, where you wouldn't find much in the way of street lights or billboards when you looked out over the desert.

Slowly, we came to detect certain patterns in the electricity's disappearance - every night at dusk for six days, or during an entire weekend but not the week. We learned to take these power outages in stride, like the unpredictability of the mail or the spottiness of the phone service. We filled our days with simple routines: listening to the BBC on our short-wave radio, taking naps in the sweltering heat, cooking dinner on our tiny gas stove. "Just like camping," we told each other in the beginning, though we knew that it wasn't, that this was simply life for most Senegalese. When the novelty wore off, we forgot that we'd ever been addicted to email or must-see TV. That was all a part of our past. It seemed like we'd always lived there, in Senegal, where nothing - not even the routine breakdowns of the country's infrastructure - could stop the hours from ticking by.

What was harder to take were the days without water. Life continued without electricity, but the absence of H20 disrupted our daily routine to its core. We couldn't take a shower, or clean the layers of dirt permeating our clothes and our sheets. We couldn't wash dishes, flush the toilet, or boil water for drinking. By the time we went thirty hours without water, we'd developed certain rituals to help avert true disaster: filling large buckets with tap water, stockpiling bottles of filtered water, rushing home whenever we noticed a sputtering faucet. Even so, I wouldn't have survived that thirty hours if not for Fatou, the young woman we'd hired to clean our apartment. She knew where they were handing out purified water, and taking pity on our ignorance, appeared at our doorstep with more than enough jugs for the final fifteen hours.

So we had to smile when the power grid went down all over the East Coast last summer. Sure, this could happen in Senegal, but in Manhattan? Once the shock wore off, we gradually remembered our routines from our days in Senegal. At the bottom of some drawer, we found our short-wave radio and my headlamp (which lesser deity had convinced us not to throw them away?) and we ate dinner by candlelight. We relished spending time together, without movies, restaurants, or lists of things to do. We walked down darkened streets and looked up at the stars; we gazed at the Empire State Building, looming dark and silent. Strangers offered us food and water, and in return we pointed out the planet Mars. The next day, we hung out in Union Square park, watching everyone else hanging out; and after a hot and sticky nap, we retired to our patio, where we played cards and listened to NPR.

"Just like Senegal," we told each other, though we knew that it wasn't, for daily life in New York City had been completely transformed. But the city wasn't the only thing that had changed; we'd changed, too. Even though we told ourselves that we were still resilient and tough, I knew this was no longer true. We'd long since forgotten the hardships of Senegal, having become accustomed to the conveniences of Manhattan. By the evening of the second day, I desperately missed all that I loved about the Big Apple. I wanted to take the subway somewhere - anywhere - outside of our neighborhood, and I wanted fresh groceries delivered to our door. Most of all, I wanted to eat dinner at a fancy, air-conditioned restaurant. After all, it was our fifth-year anniversary, and I was in the last days of my first pregnancy. Didn't we deserve to have our normal life back?

Twenty-nine hours after the blackout began, I got my wish. Other than losing one day of work and a refrigerator's worth of food, we'd suffered no real harm; and we even celebrated our anniversary the next night at a fancy restaurant. By then I'd grown newly grateful for all the amenities of modern urban life. I also felt chastened, for I knew that my friends in Senegal would shake their heads at me, the soft American teacher who'd forgotten how much of the world lives. But although I may have changed since we lived in that sand-swept country, I haven't completely forgotten. I'm still holding onto my headlamp and short-wave radio, just in case.


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