Thursday August 14, 2003. Most people in Toronto – and most of Ontario for that matter – still have a vivid memory of that day. My recollection starts around 4pm on that sweltering summer afternoon. I was sitting in front of my computer editing my design portfolio in preparation for a job interview. I briefly stood up to stretch out my legs and just as I was sitting back down, the screen suddenly went blank. I thought I might have mistakenly kicked the extension cord underneath my cramped desk. I kissed my teeth thinking of all the unsaved edits I would have to recreate from scratch. I crouched down underneath the desk, pushed the plugs into the power bar and flicked the power switch a few times but the computer still wouldn’t come on. I looked over at the boxed fan in the corner and noticed that its spinning blades were gradually slowing down to a halt. It took a few more switch flicks and a trip to the circuit breaker to confirm what I had once concieved impossible – there was a power outage. As we say in Nigeria, they have taken light in Toronto!
Outside on the street, the scene felt vaguely apocalyptic. The unresponsive traffic lights created a noisy chaotic mess of car horns honking and screeching breaks. Initially, long queues of people looking for any drink or snack to keep them cool, formed outside convenient stores. A few hours later those same shops were practically giving away tubs of ice creams as they melted down to liquid sludge. By night fall, the mood had turned from restless to festive (or at least resigned). Barbecues were popping up everywhere as people resolved to rescue their meats by eating or sharing as much as possible. Phone lines were down so we roamed the streets paying unscheduled visits to anybody we knew along the way. That night, in pitch darkness, I lay on a mattress in a friend’s backyard and looked up at the sky. It was the first time I had seen so many stars so clearly in the city. For Toronto, the power outage had turned into a big adventure. By the time the problem was fixed the next day, quite a few people were disappointed it had not lasted longer. When the anniversary of “The Blackout” came around, there were even jokes about reenacting it.
In the developing world where more than 1 billion people currently live without electricity, nobody wishes for a power outage. It’s not an adventure, it’s a frustrating nightmare. Throughout my childhood and my frequents visits back to Nigeria, few things have been more constant and disappointing than the electricity issue. We find ways to work around it but we should not have to: Nigeria has one of the world’s largest gas reserves and is Africa’s top energy producer. So why is electricity often limited to a few hours a day to the less than 50% of Nigerians that even have access to electricity? In her new documentary, “Take Light”, opening soon at Hot Docs Festival, Director Shasha Nakhai, explores the Nigerian electricity issue (and it’s many consequences) through the stories of everyday people connected by the grid.
Your new documentary takes an unflinching look at the electricity crisis that has plagued Nigeria for decades. What is your connection with Nigeria and why did you choose to make this documentary?
Shasha Nekhai: I grew up in Nigeria. I lived there for the first 15 years of my life and my family has been there for about 40 years. Growing up my entire childhood has been framed by the power issues in the country. Almost all of my childhood memories have something to do with NEPA*. I remember some nights my parents would fan me to sleep because there was “no light” and it was too hot and I couldn’t fall asleep. When I came to Canada at 15 and started moving between Canada and Nigeria, it was only then that I realized how absurd the situation was and I think coming up with the idea for the film is rooted in moving between the two worlds.