Light Ebaa: What Blackouts in Ghana Taught me about Accessibility and Poverty

When I was younger, I lived with my grandmother, brother, aunts, cousins, and family friends all in a modest home in the quiet fishing town of Tema, Ghana. Having this many family members often triggers memories of mischievous antics between cousins, bellyfuls of laughter and cherished moments of bonding. It being in the late 90s and Ghana being Ghana, we were not exempt to frequent blackouts. In developing countries, blackouts were and are still very common. They are so common that houses often have generators and back-up electrical systems in the case that blackouts, or “dumsor” (“light off” in Twi) as we refer to it, should occur. While our family made a decent living, we didn’t have the luxury of owning a generator. So whenever a blackout happened, we would come outside with our white plastic lawn chairs, arrange ourselves in a circle, and use the moonlight as our lantern as we dazed in the Ghanian heat. My aunt, Sister Dear, would bring her large steel pan, start a fire, and make fresh crepes for the family as we told stories and laughed in our shared misery.

Accra, Ghana (from January 2016)

I went back to Ghana last year to visit family and as we were reminiscing on those nights, we had a blackout. But unlike this one from my childhood memories, I realized that it was a series of power outages we were having as a result of energy shortages throughout the country. The following day it would happen again, and the next day, and the next day.. And soon after I stopped counting and learned to appreciate the sunlight and my grandmother’s air conditioning until we would again be faced with dumsor.

As I read the tired faces of my my aunt, a seamstress who used electrical sewing machines for her booming clothing business, and my uncle, who needed his computer to edit wedding clips for his video production company, I began to reflect. What does energy poverty look like?

Energy poverty is loosely defined as the lack of access to modern energy services. The topic of energy poverty has been up for debate in the international community, as it touches every aspect of development. Expanding energy access is pivotal to the fight for climate justice and sustainable development. But in making progress towards these goals, what are the benchmarks? Often when we talk about poverty in international development, we refer to the “$1.90 a day" as a measure of poverty. But what does it look like when you have to survive on 1,000 watts per day? or even 100 watts per day? Often, when when I find myself in conversations around international affairs and development, we address global poverty as if it’s a 1-dimensional task that we all need to form coalitions, forums, summits and task forces around. But within global poverty, lies many dimensions that fully represent the depth and value of human life. Energy poverty is a major theme in the fight for global and climate justice.

My home roots serve as a reminder of why I engage as an active citizen in this fight for global justice. As I finish my undergraduate degree, I am preparing to enter a field of public policy to engage with stakeholders about the future of financing sustainable options for the future development agenda. Having professional experiences at Department of State, United Nations Volunteers, and having completed urban development research in south India, I have been able to witness and collaborate with others who are just as passionate about this work and the world. To me, this is more than a set of “goals” or a “global agenda”. To me, this means a greater access to a sustainable future to all: From my family in Tema, Ghana to my colleagues here in Washington.

Active citizen. Future speaker of Ted Talks. Lover of all things empowerment and social impact related.