Being in the dark may help us see the light

September 15, 2003

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Among the more interesting reactions over this summer’s so-called great blackout came via the car radio when my wife and I were driving in the Muskokas, learning how the outside world was faring in the darkness.

One caller, a young woman, complained bitterly to the CBC, lamenting that she had to sit in the dark, while just over Toronto’s waterfront stood a sea of office buildings, fully lit. And empty.

Jean and I couldn’t help but laugh, sadly, and see an all-too-apt metaphor of Earth’s haves and have-nots, a picture of those who sit in towers of plenty and those who see them from across the water.

I wonder if the caller felt a little like Sarah Muwafaq, a young Iraqi woman who said she was actually “thrilled” the lights went out for 50 million North Americans.

“We want them to know what hot means for us,” she said. “We want them to feel it for one day.”

Folks from other countries were more relaxed about the woes of so many Canadians and Americans, but they wondered what all the fuss was about. Unal Karatas, a pretzel vendor from Ankara, a city in a fairly progressive place like Turkey, summed it up for millions when he said, “Blackouts are part of our daily life.”

My first experience with limited electricity actually unfolded earlier this spring, when Jean and I were in Congo with some of that country’s thousands of war refugees. Many are bright, articulate professionals, yet, with no homes, they are left with the most rudimentary of life’s tools.

Their new homes are simple tarp and thatch structures. Food, a pasty millet, is cooked over an open fire. A rubber tire for a toy means a kid is lucky. Electricity, I’m afraid, isn’t even on the map for most.

You can imagine the type of infections and sickness that visit. More enlightening was how these people gave us sincere and warm smiles. I doubt many North Americans could do the same.

Sure, Blackout 2003 led to some true experiences of community. But, really, our ice-cream melted for a couple of days and now we think we have great stories of survival to tell our grandchildren.

Don’t get me wrong. Some poorer countries live in darkness because of their own doing. Also, I very much enjoy the lights in my Ontario home. Even in our other home, in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, the power usually works. Our flat also has running water.

We even have a flush toilet. But did you know three-billion humans, half the world’s populace, do not have such a pot to call their own? That’s a perspective rich westerners often don’t have, and, sometimes, don’t want to have.

Take Congo’s chaos. It’s caused in part by outsiders mining its vast resources. Al-Qaida has been into Congo’s $1 million-a-day, blood diamond trade, selling to European merchants to bankroll terrorist hits. And North Americans also benefit from Congo’s coltan, a key raw material in computer chips and cellphones.

That’s not to say all westerners are cruel robber barons who turn their backs on the orphans of the world. Historically, the West has also been a key provider of aid.

But Blackout 2003 should be more than a wake-up call to improve Ont-ario’s faulty power grids. It should be an alert to our culture about what’s on the other side of the water.

Taking notice will not only help us turn off our lights. It will help us develop more simplicity and thanksgiving, things that, in the end, are more satisfying than amusing ourselves with today’s flashy toys.

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September 15, 2003 • Posted in ,
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