This article originally appeared on the Humanitarian Coalition’s Relief to Recovery blog, here.
Human ingenuity knows few boundaries. We’re learning how to print human organs. Self-driving cars are hitting the roads. And recently we landed a spacecraft on the surface of a comet. And yet, for all of these accomplishments, we still live in a world where 1 in 5 people lack access to electric light.
In 2015, the United Nations celebrates the Year of Light, an “observance that aims to raise awareness of the achievements of light science…and its importance to humankind.” Yet, as Pia Vogler writes, “Night time [in and of itself] is scarcely discussed when it comes to the analysis of life in a refugee camp.” Agencies’ access to camps is limited to office hours and curfews. Why? The dark is dangerous, and no one knows it better than those left to live in it after the sun sets and help disappears.
The scarcity of electricity in IDP camps is a complex problem faced by over 50 million people worldwide. Despite the evolution of camp commerce, most residents can neither procure, let alone afford, coveted battery operated lights, kerosene lamps or sometimes even candles. Often the only option is to burn rationed cooking firewood or any other resources they can find – depleting their resources and compromising their health. Simply put, living in the dark wastes time and energy. It wastes opportunities for learning and for livelihoods, and promotes a culture of violence and corruption.
Nightfall ends most activities. It interferes with children’s access to education by barring them from studying in the evening. This is often the only time for schooling, since daytime is spent working, gathering things to sell, babysitting younger children or waiting in long lines for food and other provisions. According to The National, school drop-out rates are significantly lower in camps that provide some form of in-shelter lighting like solar lanterns or battery-operated lights. Girls suffer uniquely; many are deprived of the opportunity to study as they accompany their mothers on long treks to find wood. This puts them at an even further disadvantage by increasing their vulnerability.
During the day, residents’ stresses are compounded by having to prepare for daily life before they lose the sun. In addition to waiting for provisions or health care, they prepare for cooking, do laundry, and organize their livelihoods. In the DRC, over 30% of household income goes to kerosene. This figure can be doubled in countries hosting IDPs, where opportunities to earn even a meager wage are scarce. The evening presents an opportunity to be industrious – residents prepare their wares to sell in the market the next day, or use the time to sell snacks or crafts at their homes. This work is made harder by having to do it in the dark.
Light is a top priority in camp architecture. While safe spaces exist for women, children and youth, these spaces aren’t readily available at night. In larger camps, such spaces are lit for a short time in the evening. Solar-powered streetlights and floodlights are installed at main arteries, and women’s latrines and washing stations are positioned close by if they’re not lit. Lit camp perimeters try to mitigate the porousness of the borders if even a little – which is prime territory for smuggling products, drugs, weapons and people in and out of the camp.
For some, sundown signals an oncoming period of rest. It affords a chance to recuperate from the day’s tasks, to share cultural traditions and connect and commiserate with their neighbors (an understated yet remarkably important mechanism for psychosocial support). And it can occur in a space that is their own, free from the eye of the aid worker who retires at curfew. Night offers over-burdened residents an opportunity to commune; to celebrate cultural and religious festivals, to organize dances, parties and karaoke sessions that help them connect to home, and to keep their traditions alive and their spirits awake, which consequently helps to develop their resiliency and coping skills. The darkness robs residents of their security, their educations and their livelihoods, but it also fosters strength, perseverance and community.
Perhaps in this sense, the dark brings brightness after all.
 Pia Vogler, In the Absence of the Humanitarian Gaze: Refugee Camps after Dark. UNHCR, OXFORD UNIVERSITY. 2006 P. 1