Uganda throws off my instincts. When I see bright lights glowing over the horizon, my first thought is “high school football!” But in Uganda, bright lights on the horizon mean “businessmen catching grasshoppers in giant trash cans.” (The grasshoppers are attracted to the lights, but then bump into corrugated metal chutes and fall into the trash cans, doomed to be sold for food on the streets of Kampala.)
Similarly, when I see a dark landscape, I think, “wow, I’m really in the wilderness!” In reality, there are probably 5,000 people in my range of vision – they just don’t have electricity to light their homes.
That was exactly my reaction spending my first night in the African village, holed up at the living quarters for volunteers serving at a rural school. I walked outside and stared out at the black countryside – no lights as far as the eye could see, dark hills silhouetted against the brighter sky by the myriad stars. I thought, it’s so nice to be out in the country away from people.
And then it hit me: these hills were actually full of people. After all, I had just taken a twilight stroll through the village past small farms and quiet houses, meeting a few people out cooking their dinner in the fading light. “No light” didn’t equal “no people.”
Development means many things. Health, education, roads. But at the end of the day, the most visible symbol of development is where there is light, and where there is not.
When someone wants to show how communism retards development, they point to the famous image of the two Koreas: North Korea is dark, South Korea is bright.
In the same way, perhaps no image shows African poverty more starkly than the one that leads this blog post. Europe’s living standards shine into outer space, while Africa lives up to its name as “the dark continent.”
In the past, the development community has overlooked energy as something to be addressed “down the road” once more pressing problems had been tackled. But today, people are waking up to the fact that almost all aspects of development—education, health care, food, clean water—depend in some way on having the energy and light to do these activities in the first place. Investing in hospitals is nice, but they can’t do much good when there is no electricity for equipment and nurses have to deliver babies by candlelight. (Not to mention that fewer people would need to go to the hospital in the first place if they have a clean solar lamp instead of breathing in 40 cigarettes worth of kerosene smoke each night).