“On the Grid”: When Electricity (and Other Things) Came to the Countryside

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“Come in and look,” Quintín urged me, as he disappeared with a shuffle through the low doorway in his adobe house.  I got up from the wooden bench on which I had been sitting on his small patio, and followed him inside.  It was quite dark compared to the bright Andean sunlight outside.  As my eyes adjusted, the first I saw of the room hardly surprised me.  There were stacks of papers on shelves in most directions, and books lying about on the table.  Quintín had always been a voracious reader, and more intellectually curious than even the other rural schoolteachers I had met over the years.

I sat down on one of his chairs and watched as he proudly lifted a cloth off what turned out to be a television set.  He switched it on and a fairly typical Peruvian news programme started resounding through his humble dwelling.  It only got one channel, he noted, and he was not quite sure which way the signal managed to get through the mountains that blocked everything else.  But he was obviously enthusiastic about the new technology and the daily glimpses of life in the outside world that it was giving him.

The scene would have been impossible not long ago.  This village, Pomatambo, had only had electricity for a few months.  Other friends with ties to the village had told me before this visit of the arrival of electricity, and I had been curious to find out what effect it was having.  My conversation with Quintín that morning had touched on many things.  As soon as it turned to electricity, he had immediately thought of his television as one of the most obvious uses for it.  As we sat and watched the news report, I asked him how many households had televisions already.  He said only about three or four, which out of a community of two hundred or so residents was not many.  But it would probably not be long before others joined him.  Even in very poor communities like this one, after electricity the televisions follow closely behind, usually cheap or secondhand models paid for by migrant worker earnings and the like.  And Pomatambo was obviously equipped.  Electricity poles dotted the village streets, with wires leading down to boxes set into the adobe walls of houses, many of which were only occupied part of each year and had yet to be wired inside.

On one level, some of this was heartening.  The usual story for Pomatambo over the last few decades has been one of neglect by the state.  The last time I was here a couple of years earlier, there had been high tension electricity lines running along the hilltops within sight, a testament to the profitable flow of electricity from one region of the country to another—and, since no one had thought to run lines into the nearby villages, equally a testament to the state’s priorities.  So to see that someone had finally budgeted enough to put in the local infrastructure was encouraging.  The people of Pomatambo and nearby communities had been asking for it for years.

But it also raised other issues.  I had written in my book on Pomatambo, A Path of Our Own, that whenever electricity did come to this village, it would be the biggest agent of change in some decades—as important as the first village primary school or the first movements of migrant workers to the cities in the 1940s and 1950s.  Television would undoubtedly be one of the chief ways electricity would work its magic.  I asked Quintín himself, a couple of years ago, what he thought television might do here.  It bears noting that, even without electricity, he had had some access to broadcast media and was probably better informed about the world than many owners of plasma screen televisions with all the bells and whistles. He often listened to international news on a shortwave radio, and had watched the Peruvian presidential debate in 2006 on a small battery-powered television, until the batteries gave out in the middle to his exasperation.  Obviously he wanted more regular access to current affairs.  But being a primary schoolteacher, he also said he was worried about the effects on children of some kinds of television programming—salacious “false propaganda,” as he called it with a stern look.  Sitting in his house and looking at the new television, I revisited his earlier comment.  He said that that could still happen.  Since the one channel that they could get now was a state-funded broadcaster that mostly had news and avoided scraping the bottom of the barrel, however, the problem had not really materialised yet.

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