Things Fall Apart

Yeats’ The Second Coming” has been much on my mind of late. Partly this comes from reading Things Fall Apart and its later companion No Longer at Ease by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, the former of which draws its name from the Yeats. The books taken together bridge the colonial era in Nigeria and by extension Africa. The first of the two is set at the dawn of colonization in that country, the second at its set. The picture they jointly paint of the prospects of post-colonial Africa is provocative, and not a hopeful one. Fifty years after the setting of No Longer at Ease, after independence from colonial rule, it is easy to see that the unsettling conclusions the novels force the reader to draw regarding governments, corruption, and tenuous political situations have played out, and continue to play out, to the detriment of societies all across the continent.

Having made such sweeping generalizations, and having foregone a degree in literature for one in biology, this is the extent of my literary analysis. If you have managed to read the above paragraph without wincing, turning away, or putting this blog on your list of blocked sites, know that I greatly respect your commitment.

William Butler Yeats is a favorite poet of mine. The complete text of “The Second Coming” can be found here.

*         *        *        *        *

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,…

Things feel tenuous of late. A confluence of unresolved situations, on levels both personal and societal, combined with the residual unsettled feeling from my recent reading material, have brought such an atmosphere to my mind. It feels as though something must change. If each new event is a drop in the bucket, I feel as though I am waiting for the bucket to overflow.

Much, perhaps most, of this irresolution traces back to confusion in the realms of power – electrical power, vehicular power, political power. . .

… the falcon cannot hear the falconer…

The people are not happy. Too many things are unpredictable, stressors pile on top of stressors. The government seems oblivious to the needs of the people, ignoring the provision of basic necessities in favor of filling the pockets of those in power. There is anger just below the surface, breaking out at the slightest provocation, as with the riots two weeks ago. Paraphrasing what someone told me, people will only put up with this bull**** for so long.

…Things fall apart; the center cannot hold…

Shortages of fuel and electricity are major causes for frustration in town. Electrical power is the most immediate of the two to me, as I sit writing with my laptop on battery because we have no electricity at the moment.

Zambia relies on hydroelectricity from the Zambezi River for the national electric grid. As much as I am wont to view the country’s reliance on renewable energy as a good thing, contrasting with America’s terrible dependence on fossil fuels, hydroelectricity has its shortcomings.

Like much of the southern half of the world, southern Africa’s seasons are dry, loosely from late May to mid-November, and rainy in the remaining months. But in recent years, Zambia has been victim to changing climate. This year, the rains didn’t come and the country is in a major drought. Which means the river is lower than it should be this time of year. Which means the hydro plants, designed to handle the river’s rainy season flow rate, as much as 50 times greater than during the dry season, are not producing at anything approaching capacity. Which means there is not enough electricity to fill the demand. The word on the streets is that decreased production is compounded by the government’s tendency to sell utilities abroad to cover its debt.

In response to the lack of supply, the power company, Zesco, implements loadshedding, a procedure where they cut electricity to different districts on a daily rotation. Technically there’s a schedule, so we theoretically know when we won’t have electricity, and it is usually more or less adhered to. But not always. some days they reset the schedule and cut power for six or eight hours instead of five, or cut it at a different time. And there’s always the threat of increased shedding as the dry season gets hotter and drier.

The loadshedding affects the Turners’ ability to effectively run Partners in Development. So while I may not mind overmuch if we go without electricity for 8 hours at a stretch, they definitely do. The Turners have both warned me repeatedly that if loadshedding gets any worse, they will be returning to Cape Town. Without hosts, transportation, and organizational support, I will not be staying on in Zambia. I don’t know what I will do in that case – probably go to South Africa.

… Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

Fuel shortages, petrol and diesel, are not directly related to power cuts, but metaphorically fuel the sense of unease. Some of the shortage stems from demand simply outstripping production. Whenever a station gets a truckload of diesel or petrol, cars line up, haphazardly filling the lot and often spilling into the roadway. Taxis shove past each other and lines of cars stretch beyond whichever station happens to have gas. The government compounds the problem by occasionally messing up fuel orders, as in recent weeks when the government were supplied with contaminated crude; no-one realized the error until it was too late.

Diesel especially has been difficult to come by and expensive when it comes, as much as $2 a liter – $8 a gallon. With the electricity cuts, many businesses require diesel generators to stay open, and the high fuel prices affect their ability to function.

Diesel shortages affect the Turners too, and by extension, me. At 65km to the village, fuel is a major expense for Partners in Development, driving as they do a 4×4 Toyota pickup with terrible gas mileage. And with me commuting to the village every day to teach . . .

…the ceremony of innocence is drowned…

Even in the villages, which lack infrastructure of even the most basic variety (think roads and electricity), the shortages have an effect. More than perhaps anyone else, drought affects subsistence farmers, resulting in widespread famine when crops fail. Increased fuel prices cause increases in the price of mealie-meal, the ground corn which is the regional dietary staple. For people who struggle to feed their too many children at the best of times, rising food prices are disastrous.

…The best lack all conviction…

For me personally, things are not nearly so stressed. After all, I have a roof over my head that does not require rethatching before the rains come. Thanks to the exchange rate, I am incredibly wealthy by Zambian standards; I do not have to worry about feeding myself.

But my one-month visa expires next week, and I have to go to immigration to renew it. And they don’t always accept renewal requests. If they deny my request, I have 24 hours to leave the country. So that’s something.

And I question every day whether I’m doing any good here. I know that the children in my preschool will do better for learning their alphabet, and the women will do better for learning a few more English words. But I can’t help thinking it would be more effective if I gave the organization a few dollars a week to pay for a real schoolteacher, instead of me bluffing my way through something I do not consider myself qualified to do. Coming here and volunteering is a largely selfish pursuit, where I get much more than I give. I have perhaps affected the lives of a couple people, but is it enough?

…Surely some revelation is at hand….

I know I sometimes write an excessively negative picture, one of doubt, drought, and greed. I have a tendency to imagine my life as a storybook and to rewrite in my own head the parts that don’t follow the narrative, to add drama or suspense where there is none. I also have a tendency to spend too much time in the dark corners of my own mind. But to say there is no suspense here, that everything is hunky dory and nothing is wrong, would be a lie. There is a feeling of waiting, of something inevitably approaching, its hour come round at last. What that thing is, I cannot say, only that I cannot see it being good.

While the feeling of unease sits heavy on my mind, there is obviously much that is good here. The preschoolers are noisily excited to come to school, the women quietly excited to learn. Whenever the power returns, I can sit with a cup of strong British tea on the verandah of the ridiculously colonial house where I am staying with the Turners. Whenever the Turners cannot drive to the village for lack of fuel, they hire their cabbie friend to take me; he is a joyous soul and after some eight hours in the car together, we are friends. And every morning, especially those without the light pollution inevitable when the power is on, I wake up early and watch the blazing sun rise in the glorious Zambian sky.

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