Jeff Lahl is project manager for the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a nonprofit that works to bring solar electricity to developing countries.

Monday, 2 Jun 2003

KANO, Nigeria

As of last night, I’ve been in Kano, Nigeria, for a solid month now, but it seems like much, much longer. I thought I’d be here in the city for a week or so helping our Nigerian partners prepare for the installation of solar-electric (photovoltaic, or PV) systems in three northern Nigerian villages. But a lot of things haven’t happened, and those that have, have happened very slowly.

I’m here as project manager for the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) on a mission to install a comprehensive set of PV systems in these villages including systems for homes, streetlights, mosques, schools, clinics, micro-enterprise, and farmers, plus a central solar water pump for each village. SELF’s role is to lead in project design and management and to supply the PV systems.

This village water hole in Nigeria could benefit from a solar pump.

Our Nigerian partner, the Jigawa Alternative Energy Fund (JAEF), was supposed to have local materials ready, the well boreholes prepared, and some other structures built, but upon arrival I discovered that due to understaffing and having to do some other projects mandated by local politics, very little of this work had been done. So, much of the last month has been spent helping them prepare — with a daily routine of getting up early and then waiting as my JAEF counterpart shows up anywhere from one to four hours “late.” “Late” isn’t even a useful concept here because its defining opposite, “on time,” doesn’t exist. From my Peace Corps years and from other experiences, I know to expect this different treatment of time, and yet it is still a daily source of frustration because I am a typical time-obsessed American with lots to do and I’ve been given a finite amount of time in which to do it.

Eventually, once the coolest part of the day is long past, we venture out into the heat, which ranges from 105 to 115 degrees every day. As we drive along in our un-air-conditioned car, we demonstrate the principles of solar cooking as the temperature inside rises well above ambient. The worst heat is experienced when we get on the highway where the choice is rolling up the windows and suffocating or leaving them open to allow in blowtorch winds that upgrade our rolling solar cooker into a convection oven. I wonder how hot it needs to be before exposed flesh such as my ears begin to actually cook?

At first glance, or even at 100th glance, Kano hasn’t much to say for itself. Rank trash and open sewers everywhere, people defecating virtually anywhere, maimed and deformed beggars on many street corners, absolutely lawless homicidal traffic with horns used constantly for warning and intimidation (I witnessed a young boy being run over; he lived), and, worst of all, tens of thousands of two-cycle motorbikes that spew an oil-rich haze of smoke everywhere. I’ve spent so much time riding around this city in the last month that I’ve learned to automatically suspend breathing through my nose when passing certain extra-ripe areas, I no longer flinch when we miss hitting motorcycles by inches, and I know from sad experience that if I get out of the car or leave my window open while at the post office, I’ll literally be mugged by the resident beggars who one day wouldn’t quit grabbing at me until they saw that I had given away all of my pocket money.

But as I get used to this assault on my senses, I begin to really notice people and how they are all busily hustling to make a living, most well and colorfully dressed, cheerfully going about their business with dignity, and not letting their environment get them down. As I get to know more people here, I’m coming to see these northern Nigerians as tough, industrious survivors who are at the same time mild-mannered, polite, and fun to be around. Now I can’t see Kano without seeing the people and the city is looking better and much more interesting. I realize that I have a choice to focus on the ugliness, filth, and crushing poverty, or I can focus on the humanity and spirit that seems to thrive in spite of it all.

The object of being out in this city is to visit markets scattered throughout the city so that we can collect all the local materials we need for the village installations. The markets are interesting places with hundreds of little stands or cubbyholes packed to the rafters with both new and used goods. At first I thought we would never be able to get what we needed in these seemingly limited places, but I soon found that if one shop didn’t have what we needed, they’d send a boy with us across town to take us to another little shop that did, or, alternatively, someone would run off and have what we needed made at some other shop. Micro-enterprise thrives here — the market seems like some kind of large organic network that is much more than the sum of its individual shops.

The other challenge and delay we’re experiencing is getting our hands on our PV equipment, purchased from Kyocera Solar, that arrived from the U.S. two and a half weeks ago and is sitting, untouchable, in the customs shed. But that’s a story for another day.