Our Readers' Opinions
August 28, 2012
Electricity – Chapter 9

Tue, Aug 28, 2012

by Oswald Ferreira
[email protected]

Today, we all live with the convenience of electricity. But, there was life before electricity and without electricity there was a set of social norms and customs by which we lived. If we had a stove, it was powered by kerosene. Most cooking was done on a wood fire in a detached kitchen or on a coal pot.{{more}} It meant cutting firewood on a regular basis or collecting coconut shells, so that there was fuel. When the wood was dry, it burned well; when it was green, it would smoke more than burn and we would have to “fan” the fire with breadfruit leaves, our eyes watering from the smoke. We often shared the fire – many a neighbour would come with a coconut shell and take a piece of the fire from a fireside and take it home quickly to start their fire. Necessity made us cooperate and with that came social interaction.

Our villages were dark at night, but sometimes the moon shone so bright! We got around at night by moonlight or by flambeau – a bottle filled with kerosene and plugged with cloth. Richer folk had flashlights or a kerosene lantern. Our homes were lit by kerosene lamps or candles and the shops had gas lamps. We studied by the light of candles or kerosene lamps, so I guess that was the origin of the phrase “burning the midnight oil”.

And burning the midnight oil had consequences. Those lamp shades became covered in soot, so they had to be washed with soap. The shades were very fragile and with soapy hands they were often dropped and were sure to break. With no shade there will be no light until a new shade could be purchased in Kingstown. I dreaded washing the lamp shades. I could remember always getting up early before the buses left for Kingstown to wash the shades, so that if one broke, my mother could ask someone to buy her a lamp shade.

Our clothes were ironed using flat irons and it was quite a process. The flat irons were set out on the coal pot to be heated. As they became hot, they had to be wiped off on dried banana leaves, then on some pieces of cloth before they could be used on the clothes. They were hot, so they had to be handled with a cloth pad. As they became cool, they were put back on the fire and a new hot iron was prepared and so on until all the clothes were ironed, usually an all day process. Then, as the irons cooled, they were rubbed with “soft grease” so that they would not rust and left until next ironing day. There was no picking up an iron and ironing at will, so clothes had to be ironed well in advance of when they were needed.

Village life became active at dusk as it was suppertime; yard chores were completed, the animals were secured for the night, water was fetched for the morrow, and children were prepared for bed – then it became dark. In periods when the moon was bright, we sometimes had ring games and the adults would often join in but mostly, by the time the shops closed, the village was silent, except for barking dogs.

Then something happened – engineers were building a dam on our river, laying pipes, constructing a power station, and erecting poles in our villages – we were to get hydroelectric power and what a series of social change it brought!

One of the first changes was the social gatherings at the rum shops. As the shops were some of the first buildings to be connected to electricity, they were also the first to get radios. People would congregate at the shops in the evenings to listen to the news and the request program, in those days from WIBS in Grenada, and then they would depart to their homes when the shops closed for the night. If you ever needed to see someone, it was highly likely that they would be found at one of the village shops on an evening. The village shops were like mini community centres.

In order for homes to be connected to the power grid, they had to have at least a galvanized roof. Therefore, the thatched, wattle-and-daub homes could not be connected, so a revolution started. The wattle-and-daub homes were doomed and passed on into history to be replaced over time by wooden homes with galvanized roofs, all connected to the electric grid. People could now have electric irons, so the flat irons were all discarded.

They had radios, so there was no longer a need to gather at the village shops to listen to the evening news. They could now have stoves in their kitchens, so the outside thatched kitchens gradually disappeared and the daily task of gathering firewood was no more – except for roasting breadfruit. Students no longer had to study by candle light or kerosene lamp; no more washing and breaking those lamp shades or heating those flat irons on coals. As with the coming of running water in our homes, electricity would transform village life; social norms were erased and we were again left to develop new ways to relate to each other.