Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Machinist

As everyone knows, LEC (Liberia Electricity Corporation) is not only extremely expensive but also inconsistent. One needs a back up generator to complement the frequent power outages which come and go unannounced, like mood swings. Last night we learned one actually needs back up generator A and back up generator B just in case the first one gives up because LEC outages are getting longer and longer. So, our one and only back up generator stopped working yesterday and, we asked a generator technician to repair it for us. Oliver has often times helped us get the generator working, even come late at night. He started working at 6 the evening and did not finish until 11 PM.

During this time, we came home and because there was no light, we went off to have dinner out at Mama Susu's where I met an extremely fascinating personality and talked with non stop about philosophy, religion, feminism, and politics. It's so nice to meet someone who hates small talk as much as you do and would rather indulge in more interesting talk. My new friend even came over to have a drink on our rooftop because we were sure the generator would have been repaired by then. But it was not repaired even at 10 PM. 

We enjoyed our sitting corner, lit with candles, had a drink and enjoyed the view of the city. Our view has actually become quite obstructed in the past couple of years with newly constructed buildings but we can still spot Ducor Hotel and the Ministry of Finance. Our guest telephoned her husband in Delhi to let him know what she was up to. We talked a bit more on the very limited and ephemeral social scene in Monrovia. It was one of those stream of consciousness conversations where your ideas become even more lucid.

My other good friend called and said he doubted the generator would come back on and, he had put on the AC in the guest room just in case. I thanked him and mentally prepared having to trudge over to his place at night, gathering our clothes and toothbrushes in the dark, in case the generator did not come on. I continued my chat with my new friend. Kavita was pottering around in the rooftop, completely oblivious to the dark, and Haresh was desperately trying to stay awake. It was way past his bed time.

After my friend left, we watched more closely what Oliver was doing. Earlier, we had used an extension cord, borrowing electricity from our neighbours, to give us light up there. Our friendly neighbour decided it was much too generous of him to give us one light bulb's worth of electricity and cut it off. We all cursed him "Wicked man, how can he do that?" That collective complaining entertained us for a bit. Oliver said "All Lebanese are the same!" So, Oliver worked in the dark aided only by the torch light app on two mobile phones and an actual slim torchlight in between his lips. I watched him in fascination as he put all the generator parts back together, in the dark. His hands seemed to know the whole machine so well, as they worked the machine, rolling cables in their place, screwing back nuts, and tapping the battery. I wondered how the heck would this machine-beast start working again, since most of it lay spread all over the concrete floor, its parts, nuts and bolts, like innards spilled out from a gut.  

While we watched Oliver work his craft, this is the genius conversation we had:

Is a generator like a car engine?
A car engine has several cylinders, a generator only has one. A generator is a much simpler machine.
Does a generator have horsepower?
You know what horsepower means, don't you?
When cars first came round, people still drove in horse-drive carriages and an engine's power was measure by horse power. Get it? 

Oliver started putting back the whole machine back together and, I couldn't believe that it was actually going to work. All parts were assembled and put back in place where just now they had lain scattered on the concrete floor. But by all the horsepower of several car engines, Oliver got the machine working again. Smoke was billowing up from the top and, it roared like an engine does. He asked Haresh to go down and switch the power to generator. A few minutes later, the lights on the rooftop came on. Yoo hoo! I was gobsmacked and impressed at having witnessed a technical wonder.

We paid Oliver his fees and gave transportation money to Frank, our office assistant, who had been there the whole evening helping Oliver, mainly by giving him light from a mobile phone. 

It was captivating  to see an expert at work, a craftsman who skillfully repaired a faulty machine in the dark. 

In the morning we learned that neither Frank nor Oliver had managed to get back home and had to sleep on Broad Street. I felt guilty - as I usually do - at the contrasting lives my staff and I lead. 

I wonder if the average person in Liberia, trying to make ends meet, has a voice like that in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia  and loathes richer, snobbier folks like me. 

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