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“Please, it will be twomillionninehundredandeightymillion cedis”.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
She sounds annoyed and this time speaks slowly two…..million……nine-hundred…..and eighty…..million cedis”. The number feels clumsy in my brain, as if I’m having to make space for it and can’t seem to fit it all in all at once.
It is Monday afternoon and I am at the Ghana Electric office paying our electric bill. Actually, I’m prepaying it. One of the things about a cash economy is that there is no credit, and so things must be prepaid…in cash, or course. For us this has meant learning a whole new set of numbers, really large numbers. The kind of numbers you only hear of in terms of the federal budget deficits, and rarely have any personal dealings with. Two million nine-hundred and eighty million cedis. I remember that the average person is over 30 years old before they have a million seconds in their life but still, I can’t fit that whole number in my brain, so I break it down.
Part of the trouble is that the largest bill in Ghana is the 20,000 cedi, and so to make two million, its going to take 100 of them. Fortunately the bank gives out two-million cedi ‘bricks” which are electronically counted and bundled into “bricks.” I dig in my bag and hand her one of the bricks. “900,000 thousand, “ I think, dividing by two, that is 45 twenty-thousand notes, and so I break one of the bricks and count it out. 80,000 is just four twenty thousand notes and finally I have prepayed our electric bill and they encode this information on a smart card.
On the side of our house is an electronic meter which accepts smart cards. It looks like the pay at the pump card readers at a gas station except there is only a red LED to display the number of units left.
On Sunday afternoon, this number hit 50 and the power went off. At first we thought that it was a power failure as we had experienced the week before. So, we got out the candles, banned opening the fridge for anything but the most necessary, and listened for the sound of our neighbor’s generator to start up. They didn’t. When it got dark, we noticed that everyone else had power, or “light” as it is called here. Grace’s friend Olivia had come home after church to help take out Grace’s braids and says we should call it in, and report it. Finally, she offers to call and interestingly has the number memorized.
Olivia has lived almost her whole life in Ghana, the daughter of Jeff and Lori, our missionary friends. You wouldn’t know it, her English is perfect, the product of home schooling, and parents from North Dakota and Minnesota. On the phone she sounds completely different: “The light is off. It is no good, always, always, always the light is off, it is no good.” This is bush English. We are awestruck hearing this strange voice come out of here. “Where did that come from?”
Later, I’ve gone to taxi Olivia to the hotel where her father Jeff has gone swimming with her two younger siblings. Again I am awed as Olivia negotiates a rate that is a quarter of the rate I could have gotten. Obrunie, price. Obrunie means “white-person” and as you’re walking through the market, the little kids will shout “Hello ‘brunnie, how are you?” It is not an insult, but more of a game they play as they peak out behind a chair, smiling at you. “Fine,” I say “how are you?” They laugh and laugh.
We are taking the taxi to the hotel so that Olivia can go home. Jeff would have picked her up, but he is without his cell phone. We find Jeff walking out of the hotel as we are dropped off and now driving back, he offers to show us their house and meet the teachers living there, so we take a trip to East Legon, the part of the city that is north of us and the area I lived in the late 60s when it was just Legon. It looks nothing like I remember. While we’re driving there a plot is hatched that involves ice cream, and I say, we have a box of it melting in our freezer because “the light is off.” I love this expression. It means there is a power outage, and so when we say it, we add a heavy accent, and speak each word with equal, strong emphasis “the light is off”.
An hour later we are back at our house walking into candle lit living room with Lori and Jeff and their three kids, and our five, and it is hot. We’ve come with a task right out of the movie Jurassic Park after the dinosaurs have escaped, and “the light is off”. The developer and his grandchildren are sitting at this huge table of food eating ice cream before it melts. “I spared no expense” he tells them before going into his flee circus story of how he got started.
Suzanne tells us “the light is off” because we’ve run out of prepaid units, but the meter is still showing 50 units. Lori remembers that the prepaid meters click off at 50 units to warn you that you are about to run out of units. She tells us that by reinserting the card, we can access those last 50 units and so the men go out with the smart card, which, the landlord just happened to give us on Friday afternoon. That’s when we learned we were responsible for the “lights” It takes three men to restore power. One to open the wooden box protecting the meter, one to insert the card, and one to turn the big red switch to ON.
Inside the lights click on, the mood is festive and the table is filled with soft ice cream, and many toppings, and the goal is still to finish it all off, even though “the light is on” and we could have put it back, but now it is a celebration, like the parable of the lost coin, where the woman finds it and invites her friends over to celebrate. In my more cynical moods I wonder if the celebration didn’t cost more than the value of coin that was found, but there is none of that in this room. Everyone is happy.
Suzanne and I have a delightful evening with Jeff and Lori and together we share our stories and I am so thankful. Jeff had been the preacher that Sunday and he has an amazing gift of being able to deliver a complete well organized and thought out 30 minute sermon without notes of any kinds. One minute he is welcoming you to worship, or praying for the children and the next he has seamlessly slid into the sermon and you’re not sure where one began and the other ended. This morning he has spoken about living a life that makes God happy, and wonders what it would be like if we could just say at the end of it “I was just doing what I wanted to do.” There is a refreshing consistency between what he spoke about this morning and my impression of the life they live. It is one centered around making God happy and in the end making God happy, makes us feel happy and satisfied and living with purpose, and wouldn’t it be cool if we were just doing what we wanted to do all along.
As I fall asleep that night, I think about the grand chain of events that began that day with walking to church, and ended sharing eating ice cream and conversation with new friends who helped us with “the light is on”. I would like to think it all brought a smile to God’s face, because at the time it seemed like we were just doing what we needed and wanted to do.