The town of Keleya has power for exactly four hours every night. It kicks on at seven, just as darkness falls, and it goes off at eleven, when most of the respectable citizens of Keleya are already in bed. Most families use it to power a fluorescent light or two, to charge their cell phones, and to watch the eerily ubiquitous Brazilian soap opera through a black and white snow.
Just for background: most Malians have never seen a microwave. I have seen one refrigerator in Keleya, and suspect that a second may exist. If you want power during the day, you have to run it off a car battery. When it rains, the power usually goes out.
Needless to say, it came as no surprise when the power didn't come on one night during a rainstorm. I was a little more surprised when the power didn't come on the following night under a clear sky. By the third night, I was laboring to formulate questions in Bambara to understand what was causing this (and when/how I might charge my dying phone).
My host dad told me that the power company is run by the local government (Mali has decentralized almost all its services to better serve its people, so almost all relevant government is local). As the price of gas has gone up, the government has been unwilling to change the price it charges for power. Apparently the power company ran out of money to buy gas. I related to my host dad that the same thing happens with our power regulators in America (though they never run out of money). He got a kick out of that.
Further digging revealed that the actual cause of the outage was a little more complex. It's the rainy season right now. Everyone's time is being devoted to farming, which is an with a "hopeful" payoff in the future. All other economic activity basically ceases so people can feed themselves, so people simply don't have any money. Paying for power that they have already consumed is, frankly, not a priority. On top of that, the government has never cut power to any individual customer. There are a number of people in the village who are three months or more behind on payments. The government continued to run the generator until it had no more gas and no more money with which to buy gas.
Last Friday, many of Keleya's men met at the schoolhouse to discuss the problem with the mayor and the power commission. They decided not to buy any more gas until people's accounts were caught up. My host dad said that should take a few days, now that the urgency was apparent.
It turns out that there are workarounds for pretty much all their power needs. There are a couple families with other access (small generators or car batteries), and they are currently charging about a dollar each to charge cell phones. At night everyone uses oil lamps.
Taking host dad's word for it, I assumed the power would be back on shortly, so I let my phone's battery run down. The night before I left about a week later, we were still using the oil lamps. For now, the village of Keleya sits in the dark as a minority of families uncomfortably continue to hold the village's power system hostage. Everything else is just as before.
As for me, I was irked to be without a phone for a few days, but I couldn't help being glad for some more starry nights.
It turns out that the great power crisis of 2008 isn't that great a crisis after all.