Let there be light! Electricity in Haiti is like manna from heaven

Meet our loudest and hungriest resident: the generator.
Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom

December 16, 2021

Welcome to next installment of “Life at the Orphanage!” Looking forward to hearing what you think in the comments.

Today I’m going to detail an ongoing battle at the orphanage, one that has not settled in nearly 12 years, and is, unfortunately, not likely to settle in the near future. Our opponent is powerful, anonymous, without shape or form. And it has us, literally, over a barrel.

I am talking about electricity.

Since the day I arrived in Haiti back in 2010, electricity has been like manna from heaven. You love it when you have it, but every day you look to the sky and wonder if it will return.

Understand that, on average, three out of every four Haitians don’t have access to electricity. They use wood, charcoal or kerosene for light, heat and energy.

The “lucky” 25 percent get their power from Électricité D’Haïti, a poorly run government company known better as EDH, which could well stand for “Endless Dark Hours.”

EDH is underfunded, relies on subsidies, uses outdated equipment, and runs a too-small, inefficient power grid. There is no rhyme or reason to when power is provided and when it is gone. Fuel shortages, which are commonplace, make things even worse. And it’s very common for neighbors who don’t pay for electricity to shimmy up poles and hook a wire onto your existing electrical current, so you don’t even know what you’re paying for, or if you’re paying for your own lights or the lights of someone down the street.

All this results in the daily battle: you never know when you are getting electricity or for how long.

For years, we have relied on two small light bulbs near the front gate. When the bulbs are on, it means we have power from EDH.

When they’re off, we don’t.

Which brings us to the generators.

The loudest resident

Generators are part of everyday life in Port-au-Prince. Businesses, NGOs, schools, government offices, all rely on generators, ranging from small but heavy portable units to massive, dumpster looking monstrosities painted royal blue.

You always know when the generator is on. It’s when you have to yell to be heard in a normal conversation. Or when your room starts to rumble late at night. Generators are not quiet inventions, and the roar when they start up will grab your attention.

To be honest, the generator is part of an audible comedy. You’ll be lying in bed at night, trying to sleep to the steady hum of a large fan. Suddenly, that fan noise will halt. It’ll be dead silent and pitch black. A minute later, you’ll hear someone yell “Dal!” (for Mr. Dal, a valued staff member who oversees the generators.)

“Dal!”

A minute after that, you’ll hear Mr. Dal turning a key as if starting up a gas-guzzling Cadillac. Suddenly, a deafening roar will sound, and your fan pops back on, and you drop back in your pillow and try to return to sleep.

This often happens in the middle of the night. But it can also happen in the middle of the school day. It can happen at 4:00 in the afternoon. Then the power can come back on at 4:30. Then it can go off at 5:15.

Honestly, if you didn’t know better you’d think there was a laughing baby throwing the switch at EDH headquarters.

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Mr. Dal shows the generator to some of our oldest // Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti

A jolt to the system

Of course, this wreaks havoc with appliances like refrigerators or desktop computers, because the power is constantly going on and off, jolting their electrical systems.

As bad as it is for the gear, a bigger worry is the fuel. It takes diesel fuel to run the generator. Lots of it. Hundreds of gallons a week. The problem is, you can’t always find it. Or the fuel trucks won’t deliver because they are being menaced by gangs who stop them, rob them, even kidnap them.

A few weeks back, the situation got so bad that Port-au-Price had to effectively shut down, because gangs weren’t letting the fuel trucks through. No fuel, no generator. No generator, no power. No power, no lights, fans, freezers, etc.

What’s comforting is how adjusted our children are to these power outages. They’ll be in the middle of singing their devotions and the lights will go dark, and they just keep singing. Or they’ll be doing their homework and have to shift from overhead lights to flashlights. Slipping into darkness carries little fear inside our gazebo.

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Partying in the dark // Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti

But it’s a huge problem around the country, and yet another burden that the Haitian people carry on their shoulders. You shouldn’t have to check two little lightbulbs every day to see if you can run the fridge or the office equipment or a lamp. Yet that’s the ongoing battle in our little corner of the world, praying for electrical manna and trying to stay in the light.

Top image: People line up with empty jerry cans at a gas station of Port-au-Prince, Haiti on November 1, 2021. – Those who can afford it rely on pricey generators, which are no help in the face of the severe fuel shortage caused by gangs, who have been blocking access to the country’s oil terminals in the capital and its outskirts, with the government under pressure to ensure security for companies to reach the crucial storage facilities. (Photo by RICHARD PIERRIN/AFP via Getty Images)

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