When I signed up for this gig, at first I was kind of apprehensive about housing because most Malians live in mud huts that collapse every rainy season. But my mud hut is awesome! A nice Christian NGO which once operated in Sanadougou built this structure for their employees, and so I have a bedroom, a kitchen, a mud room, a walk-in closet, and a completely empty room reserved for silent meditation. It is the perfect place for me to slowly lose my marbles over the next two years.
For the first time in my life, I think I should thank Jesus.
Just as Jesus gave me a home, he also gave me a tropical fruit and vegetable garden. As I gradually integrate into this community of subsistence agriculture I am learning to take care of my own plot of millet, corn, beans, okra, sweet potatoes, hot peppers, oranges, bananas, papayas and guavas which the Son of God gave me as a house-warming present. It is my own little plot of organic paradise. God has bestowed unto me water and firmament which brings forth grass and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind. And it is good.
Nevertheless, my homeboy upstairs was quite erratic when it came to bringing forth light. Between the hours of 10:00 in the morning and 2:00 in the afternoon the blistering African Sun is so strong that even the Malians do not dare leave the shade of their gwa – which is an overhang made out of sticks and millet stalks and palm fronds. I presume as punishment for all of those things I said about Him not existing and all back in my bar mitzvah sermon, God has punished me by leaving my yard completely bereft of shade. So I told God to go screw Himself and I built my own gwa and I tied a hammock underneath so I can hide from the noonday sun and read the works of Nietzsche just to spite the vindictive son of a bitch.
Just as He is overly generous with the Sun’s rays when they are needed least, God is rather stingy about letting there be light when I most need it – like when I wake up in the middle of the night and realize there’s a chameleon crawling on my mattress. I was able to go for months without direct current, and I have a headlamp so it’s not so bad. But the second time my semi-naked self woke up to a chameleon which somehow got inside of my mosquito net and had to catch it under my sheets in pitch blackness I decided that enough is enough. I want electricity.
One problem: the rural Malian village of Sanadougou is not yet connected to anything resembling a power grid. Many people have televisions to watch the god-awful Brazilian soap opera which dominates all cultural life between 7:00 and 7:30 P.M., and there is an interesting system going on here where people power their televisions with car batteries. There are a total of 3 cars in a village of 4,428 persons, but everyone seems to have a car battery.
So I went to the market and bought my own car battery, some wires, alligator clips and with the help of my friend who happens to moonlight as an electrician I set up a functioning circuit for a fluorescent light bulb. And I had light to read at night for about a week. And then my battery died. I was told there were two means readily available in town to recharge it:
Option 1: I could pay someone a day’s worth of food money to rev up their gasoline generator. I ruled out this option because I am earnestly trying to divorce myself from the fossil fuel economy which is a primary cause of America’s stagnation, funding terrorism, causing the aquatic genocide of the coral atoll nations of Kiribati and the Maldives, and driving the polar bear to extinction. Also, I would prefer to eat for a day.
Option 2: I could become a member of the church which has a solar array on the roof to power their loudspeakers with which they let the congregants charge their batteries on off-days. This option is completely renewable and environmentally friendly, so I actually considered it. But as grateful as I am to Jesus for my tropical fruit garden, Hell is going to freeze over before Zac Mason becomes a member of a church.
In so many words, I was told that if I wanted to charge my car battery, I would have to accept either Jesus or Petroleum into my life. Though as much as I want electricity, I do not value a charged battery more than my spiritual independence.
This was on the back of my mind one noon as I was sitting under my millet stalk gwa perusing through the Book of Exodus and reading about the Hebrews’ construction of the Pyramids to satisfy the vanity of a single earthly man. As I pondered Pharaoh’s enslavement of my people to labor in the sweltering Sun, I remembered that even though the Egyptian potentates thought themselves to be gods among men, even they believed that there was one deity in their pantheon supreme above all: Ra, the god of the Sun. I thought that maybe if I want to take ten steps forward to spiritual freedom, maybe I have to take a step back to Bronze Age polytheism. And that is how I decided to become a Sun worshipper.
So I went to the hardware store in the big city and bought my own 50-watt photovoltaic solar panel. Never before have I possessed an electrical appliance of such spiritual and political import. Before I had a little Solio which is fine for things you might bring on an extended camping trip like a cell phone, an iPod, a GPS locator. But this 50-watt solar panel is the real thing; I can use it to charge batteries, to power up fluorescent light bulbs, to power my computer – I could even blast a fan if I so desired. There isn’t a single comfort of the Electric Age that I could realistically want that I can’t power with my solar panel. In honor of my favorite advocate of renewable energy, I call him “Al”.
Now one of the first things that this born-again heliotheist does every morning is place my buddy Al in front of the powerful, direct radiation of the early morning Sun. I kneel before Ra in supplication of his dominion over my electrical consumption and also photosynthesis for Jesus’ papaya patch. And as I go about the day I adjust its angle ever so slightly to compensate for the rotation of the Earth. O Ra, bless me with sustenance! O powerful Ra, bestow unto me energy!
The next time a chameleon finds its way into my sleeping place, I can flick a switch and say “Let there be Light!” and squash it much easier. What is more, not one penny of my money ever has to line the palaces of the House of Saud ever again.
Back in the U.S.A., so-called “realistic” businesspeople tend to pooh-pooh the potential of solar energy as a silly gimmick and that the best we can hope for change in the energy market is find more oil in America. Such “realistic” individuals also told me that instead of joining the Peace Corps I should get a real job for a serious company like Lehman Brothers. Just to prove all of those naysayers wrong, from now on I am going to avoid at all costs charging my car battery, my light bulbs, my computer, my iPod or any other appliance with even a single electron released from the breakdown of fossil fuels. Even this blog is now powered with solar energy. From this point in time until the year Infinite I shall derive my electrical sustenance from the daily supplication of the Sun god Ra.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can suck on my photovoltaic generator.
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