Managing discontent

The title of this post refers to C. Wright Mills’ unflattering description of the raison d’ĂȘtre of trades union leaders (learn more …). It’s a phrase that has stuck in my head since studying sociology A-level 22 years ago (OMFG!) — I ended the year quoting Prince Kropotkin on the ideal of anarchism as akin to pursuing the sun as it sinks ever out of reach beyond the horizon … oh happy days!

Now of course I have to pay my own electricity bills, which implies less idealism and more hard graft — hell yeah!

In Senegal, the quality of the electricity is very poor: it fluctuates in a most alarming way, sending our fan into a hyperbolic cyclone spin cycle or powering down to a mere whisper of a breeze. In the weirdest situation, the current falls to the point where only one socket works downstairs — from which I run an extension into the kitchen to power the fridge/freezer. Even more bizarrely, the upstairs power at these times is unaffected, allowing us to run two split air conditioners and all the lights we desire.

The quality and reliability of electricity is an issue that plagues many West African states (learn more (in French)). In short, the problem comes down to a lack of planning. The lack of investment in infrastructure for a period of many years means that the transmission is inefficient; yet more basic, the state does not have the foreign exchange to buy the fuel necessary for the power stations.

So what are the consequences? Instead of planning for a gradual upgrade of the electricity grid or preparing a realistic plan for generating foreign exchange, the managers of the electricity company, SENELEC, are forced to cut off sections of the population for several hours at a time in a sequence that has as much to do with psychology as with technical capacity. It would be fascinating to attend the meetings in which the non-provision of a basic service is planned out to carefully take into account the psychological cracking point of each neighbourhood. The question is not how the limited supply can be spread fairly, but how long a given population can be left in the dark before they take to the streets. To complicate matters further, the technicians and managers must make sure never to cut off any important member of the ruling government party, nor any leading member of the opposition, for that matter, for fear of providing motives for rallying anti-government support. And one final point: do not flip the switch during an important football match, or else the mob will come and pull you from your permanently air-conditioned office (read more …).

It’s a real casse-tĂȘte chinois, as they say in French, meaning a tortuously difficult puzzle. One wonders if it wouldn’t be easier to plan to avoid such a situation occurring in the first place; sadly that is one of the major shortcomings of life in Africa: the laissez-faire attitude to problem solving, where the problem will be ignored until it is too late to solve it without calling on resources that are also lacking as a result of poor planning. The short term, quick fix, half-arsed botch job is the norm here. Concrete is made from illegally mined beach sand that contains too much salt, which is then mixed with insufficient quantities of cement, to produce a porous wall that can literally be rubbed away with your hand. And our neighbours wonder why their basement is flooded every time it rains.

Curtis Mayfield’s curious line suddenly makes sense in this context:

Take nothing less,
Than the second best.
Move on up

Enfin, we come back to the word graft, used above to mean hard work, but now in its sense of bribery and corruption. What follows is an illustration of why the electricity supply is not working, and why it is not only due to a lack of government funds.

When we moved into our house on 1 April, I was advised to see Mr F. at SENELEC in order to facilitate the reconnection of power. I gave him 5,000 CFA ($11) and we were back on the grid within 24 hours rather than the typical 3 to 5 working days. Since then we have not received a single electricity bill. Before leaving on holiday in June, I went by the SENELEC offices and queried this situation. It appeared that we had not been put in the computer system, and therefore could not be billed. There was no sign of my contract, and Mr F. was absent that day and no one could follow his paper trail. Oh, I thought, no bills … tempting idea, until the day they catch up with you. We had had a similar experience with gas bills in Rome, where our anticipated usage was consistently underestimated for a whole year. When a meter reading was finally taken, we ended up with such a large bill that I had to pay it back in installments.

The SENELEC people reassured me that I could regularize my situation after I got back from holiday. So last week I went back, and saw Mr F. He did a quick estimate of our usage for the last six months and came up with a figure of over 500,000 CFA ($ lots). I was shocked, but Mr F. leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered, “Don’t worry. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Sure enough he called. (Actually he hung up before I answered because he was out of credit, so I had to call him back.) Here was the deal: Mr F. could arrange for my current meter reading to be entered in the computer as my initial reading of 1 April, thereby making six months’ worth of electricity vanish. The fee for this trick was plain simple: 300,000 CFA in an envelope.

But who ends up paying for the electricity we used? We do! — through the daily power outages due to the lack of money to pay for fuel. We were without power for 15 hours last night and today!

So no, as tempting as it might seem, I’m not playing that game. We’ll eat pasta for a month and pay for what we used. At least that way I know the money is going to the electricity provider in order to continue providing me with power, rather than straight in Mr F.’s pocket.

Maybe I’m as naive as I was 22 years ago.

Addicted to Alice

Last.fm_screenshot_final_cut

I got a chunky translation job last month, 61 pages of sobering and inspiring information about childhood in Senegal: sobering to read that children’s charity X allows a maximum grant of US$5 per month; inspiring when I think of the hundreds of people freely offering their time and experience to help others less fortunate than themselves.

My most immediate concern, however, was finishing the report ahead of schedule. In this business, the deadline has usually already passed by the time you sign the contract, so you have to work double fast just to make up for time lost by someone before you.

My boss in Rome had a much photocopied text tacked to her noticeboard: A lack of planning on your part does not justify an emergency on my part. True, true. But as a freelancer I’m sure I’d get a frosted stare if I repeated that before signing the contract.

In addition to the tight time pressure from outside, I still had a family life to … enjoy. The result was a work day from 9:30 to 11:30, when Baby-J took her morning nap, and from 20:30 onwards, when the other kids went to bed, finishing when I could no longer focus on the words dancing on the screen.

What kept me going? A podcast of some of the best work of Alice Coltrane: Alice in Wonderland compiled and spliced by Bending Corners. I’ve been a fan of Bending Corners for a couple of years, enjoying its eclectic mix of lesser known work from established jazzbo greyheads as well as Nu-jazz young turks, the best of whom are actually Scandinavian. Don’t take my word for it, though; get over to Bending Corners after you’ve finished here.

But back to Alice, Alice Coltrane, wife of John Coltrane, Boss Horn bar none. Somehow she had escaped my attention, despite my owning a nice vinyl collection of cosmic jazzsters from the same galaxy: Pharaoh Sanders, Lonnie Liston Smith, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef, and so on. I liked the unpredictability and dissonance of their music, as well as the sometimes bizarre sounds of African American jazz musicians interpreting Indian classical music, not as cringeworthy as the sitars in 60s pop bands, but still smirkable.

Maybe I thought Alice was cashing in on the Coltrane name and lacked her own voice. I’ve also read of a comparison between Alice and Yoko Ono, both of whom were blamed for breaking up a popular band, in Alice’s case, the “classic” quartet of J.C., McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison.

The judgements are unfair, however; Alice Coltrane made her own beautiful, beautiful music, both intimate and large-scale, sometimes profound, sometimes cheesy. Though even when it was cheesy it was well done. Such is the extract I’ve selected for you below, Om Supreme.

I’ve collected a dozen albums by Alice Coltrane in the last year, but when I needed to work on this job, I couldn’t resist going back to the Bending Corners podcast. There was something about it that gave me the ability to work for hours with great concentration. After a dozen listenings, each section becomes familiar in its own way and marks a break in my work — I shift position, review the previous section, or try to pin down the nuance of a particular technical term — each change determined by the shift in the music, it seems.

After the monumental Galaxy In Satchidananda, with its interlacing of delicate harp and the slow grandeur of the strings (picture elephants performing courtly Indian dance in the Forbidden City), after the free jazz twiddles of Sita Ram, the tension and release pattern continues throughout the podcast, ending with this extract. Every 46 minutes — the time of the podcast set on loop — I’d allow myself to sit back and close my eyes for a few minutes. In the opening, Alice’s powerful stabs on the keyboard get blown out on my puny headphones in a weirdly satisfying way. I also love the strong contrasts between violent dissonance and soft, reassuring melody. And of course I always smile when the singers begin, sounding like a bunch of blond, tanned hippies wearing white robes and beatific perma-smiles. Yes, it’s a load of mystic codswallop they’re chanting (I’ll Om-Supreme-Bhagavan you, matey!) … but it’s a wonderful thing to listen to in the still of a hot summer night in Africa with a cool breeze blowing off the ocean, rustling the palm tree in the garden.

(Click to play)

[audio:Alice Coltrane – Om Supreme.mp3]

Blistering bandwidth!

I signed up with Sonatel last week and got a phone line installed. The broadband services are predictably very expensive, and I chose the cheapest one, which gives us just 512k downspeed … or that’s what I thought. In fact I had already warned the salesperson that, annual tied contract notwithstanding, if I didn’t get the speed I paid for, then I would break the contract. So there I was, squatting on the floor, Mr B’s laptop balancing on a suitcase, primed for high dudgeon. I logged on to speedtest.net, and sighed when I saw the nearest server was in Bamako, Mali; hardly the centre of highspeed telecommunications, I thought.

The ping came out average and I waited for the downspeed test to begin. I blinked. The needle jumped and fell back in a microsecond. I looked at the measurement: over 9 Mbps. While I pondered that freak result, the upspeed test chugged round and clocked in a measly 65 kbps. Still, I tried the test again; again over 9 Mbps.

He-he-he. I thought to myself. I’ve got a fat tube and no one’s checked. I can hardly complain about the upspeed, however.

How long will it last before they realize? Have I got the Internet equivalent of the light bulb that never dies? I mean, the speed is obviously possible, and the reason everyone doesn’t have it is purely commercial, and not technical.

This morning, of course, when I wanted to take a screenshot of the test. The result came in at under 500 kbps. I tested it again immediately and got the following result:

Blistering bandwidth!

So it is obviously very erratic, but I haven’t had any cause to complain about the speed in practice.

Of course, having no electricity for eleven hours (no modem) did slow things down somewhat.