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Reading in the Dark – Part 1

Kids across the neighbourhood shriek when the electricity trips in and the lights turn on. An incandescent bulb here. Another there.

It does not last. The night rushes in through the mosquito nets, but no one skips a beat in their conversations. Someone reaches for their phone, turns on the torch and points it at the ceiling. In another room a rechargeable LED lamp from China casts a blueish light.

I was halfway through the first chapter of In the Light of What We Know when the distribution company took the power. They hadn’t lent it to us long enough for my phone to charge, so I reached for the stub of last night’s candle, lit it and squinted at the page.

Each sentence is a shadow against the murky orange paper which I decipher slowly in the half-dark.

The candle gutters and disappears into its own smoke. I remain still for a moment as the after-image of the page fades. Alexandre’s little face, asleep, pushes through the grey. I hear, then see, my mother at the table in the other corner of the room humming to herself. I sit up, stand up, shuffle to the window and light the kerosene lamp. I put it on the table for my mother and take three steps to the door, holding the book with my middle finger marking my place.

The flames from the old oil drums used as fish smokeries give off some light. I move towards them and look for a nearby perch. I hold the book open towards the flame and read.

Children are still playing outside on the sawdust-strewn ground by the hanging toilet. Hopping, drumming on tins, kicking about a ball made from crushed plastic bags wrapped in tape.

Then the wind turns. The smoke gathers the firelight in itself and pushes towards me. Everyone and everything here, clothes hung on the lines, fabric on furniture, carries the dried fish smoke in its grain. This close and this thick it smarts and tears the eyes. I close my book, stand up from my perch, push past the kids and head back home in the dark.

Two rooms; five people; an unfinished book. On the Tiger battery-powered radio in the crowded dark, some commissioner or other is speaking of social distancing.

This is the first in a series of image and text pieces exploring urban cultures and spaces through everyday practices – writing and reading; making and eating food; drinking and washing; walking and driving.

Researchers, activists, rappers, mappers, actors, audio engineers, writers, readers, reporters, filmmakers, singers, students, teachers, urban farmers, makers of the city yet to come.