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.

Make my day

I spent a chilly morning at the over-air conditioned offices of the National Water Commission offices in an attempt to get my latest bill reviewed.

It was for 22,000 dollars.

It was partly my own fault. Three months in, I noticed our consumption rate had never moved from zero. I had paid each monthly bill, but that was only for the fixed service charge. As a model citizen, I called the Water Commission to alert them to the problem and they promptly came round and changed the water meter. Now, call me stupid, but I didn’t think they’d have the nerve to give me a high estimate for those three months.

OK. I am stupid.

Pay bills or die tryingWhile waiting at the NWC office, we were entertained by a large angry woman in a tight open-backed top. She was more pumped than 50 Cent, although she probably built up her muscles by carrying food, water and children. She was an unstoppable force, striding up and down brandishing her note of final warning and shouting at the security,

Ya cyaah do nutten!
Ya cyaah do nutten!
Ya cyaah do nutten!

Elderly ladies in faded flowery dresses and pillbox hats pushed up their glasses, nodding and muttering,

Is true. Dem tief dem.

I felt I had scored a small victory against the all-powerful utility companies when I walked out two hours later with a new bill … for 319 dollars (US$5).