Africa smells like woodfires. It’s a smell that I caught the first evening I was in Lilongwe, alone in the front yard of the Circumcision House, and it jumped me back seven years to the time I spent in Arusha. Burning things – sometimes trash, wood or paraffin. Nearly all Malawians burn plant matter (wood, sometimes charcoal) to heat their food, and nine in every ten still see at night by setting something on fire: wood, or more commonly kerosene (a.k.a. paraffin in Malawian English).
As a result, Malawi is dark. When the sun goes down, people try to stay indoors: you can’t see outside, and it can be very dangerous. I’m writing this on my last night here before heading back to the US, and we have been blessed with electricity all night. That’s not standard – blackouts are common, and back in Zomba we had “load shedding” (planned outages) about every other night during mealtime. Most businesses don’t even bother trying to operate after 5:30 PM – no one is home, the streets are dark, and there’s no power for lights. This situation isn’t unique to Malawi – it’s true across Africa:
The title of this post is based on William Manchester’s popularized history of the middle ages, *A World Lit Only by Fire*. It’s fairly sensationalized – the reviews are so bad that I haven’t picked it up – but the title is a wonderfully evocative statement of what development, and the lack thereof, means in practical terms. It means the nights are long and dark and sometimes frightening, because you burn things in order to see and sometimes you can’t even afford things to burn. By day it’s easier to trivialize the gulf between rich-country living standards and those in sub-Saharan Africa, or ascribe them to cultural differences. When the sun goes down the difference is as plain as night.