– By Rebecca Kulik –
How often do you think about your street lamps? Not just the ones on the roadside—the lampposts in every suburban front yard. How often do you think about it? The answer is probably “when the bulb goes out.” We don’t notice things like the nighttime lights until they’re gone.
Well, the first time I went home at night in Gorontalo was the moment I became eternally thankful for American street lights. It was intensely dark, the moon hidden behind clouds and only tiny light bulbs on porches to illuminate the ground I was walking on. Which was crawling with lizards, frogs, and cockroaches. Not to mention the semi-stray dogs and cats in my neighborhood. My first night here, I was instructed to turn on all the porch lights, and in every neighborhood you go to in Gorontalo the porch lights are on all night except during rolling blackouts. At that point, you discover how bright the moon can be.
When you look at a map of the world by night, you assume that the places where the lights are brighter are the places where people are richer and more “developed” areas. But that’s only half the story, because plenty of those lights (perhaps even most of them) are all-night gifts of municipal governments to all residents. They make it safer to walk or drive at night. They let emergency workers find houses. They let animals hide from passing cars. They keep crimes from occurring. And in many parts of the world, these lights don’t exist.
In Gorontalo, there are municipal street lights on the main roads. Whether those lights actually work depends on the road and on chance. Some roads are very well-maintained, such as the road to the airport. Other roads, like the neighborhood artery linking the city proper to Telaga, a major outlying neighborhood, have about half of the lights working at any given time. Other than that, while driving you rely on your own headlights and whatever light the shops and homes cast on the road.
Light isn’t the only thing by which to measure how well a city government works. Water, is another example. I live in a fairly big suburban area, near the center of my neighborhood—but my water doesn’t come from a municipal water supply, like it would in America. It comes from a well, pumped to the surface by a very finicky piece of machinery. Obviously I can’t drink it, but there’s the more pressing question of how to rinse out my eyes. Sometimes when I take a shower the water burns my eyes, and I’m blinded by god-know-what chemical for a few minutes. I can’t rinse my eyes if the water is the problem.
We take decent roads for granted and curse potholes in America. Road crews are common sites in my Ohio neighborhood, fixing any potholes that have managed to crop up, or paving roads that have become a bit worn. Here, a single road has been paved in my time in Gorontalo. That was the road by the mall as they paved two-thirds of it, let it sit for a month or so (with a nice one foot difference between old and new road layers, which is a serious hazard when there are more motorbikes than cars on the roads), then finished the job a few days before the President of Indonesia used it to get to his hotel from the airport.
Then there are sidewalks. In a lot of suburban America there are no sidewalks and when you get further into the countryside, sometimes even roads aren’t safe to walk on. But in Gorontalo, I have walked on one real sidewalk in five months. There are sewer covers that sometimes double as sidewalks, but these are imperfect at best. The most popular location in Gorontalo, the mall, has no pedestrian entrance to the surrounding parking lot. You have to squeeze around the sides of the car and motorbike entrances.
The poverty that has affected Gorontalo infrastructure is apparent without even having to go all the way to America for a contrast. About a half an hour from the city of Gorontalo is the “village” Limboto, which is the seat of the regional, or kabupaten government. In Limboto, there are wide sidewalks. There are ornate black street lights running down the middle of the main road, and they always have working light bulbs. There are not one, not two, but three parks, green spaces with benches and the occasional food vendor. There’s even a playground!
It’s not as though these issues are unique to Indonesia. My Ohio suburban neighborhood is not a haven of the 1%, but it is a predominantly white area in a fairly well-off city. There certainly are not as many parks or road crews in the downtown area, where the population is mostly minorities and people are certainly poorer. It just goes to show that the inequality of infrastructure is not merely a matter of poor countries versus rich countries, tax rates or geography. It’s better for everyone, everywhere, if the government is tasked with turning lights on when it gets dark. It’s a measure of inequality that, in some places, you have to hope your neighbor left a light on—or struggle home.
About the author: Rebecca Kulik is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Telaga, Gorontalo. She graduated from Grinnell College in 2014 with a degree in history.