The first time I crossed the equator, I stopped for a photo. People usually do. I had come to work in a small clinic in a coffee-farming village in southwestern Uganda, just to the south of the world’s belt. I grew up in the midlatitudes: long summer days and long winter nights, the swing of light and dark like a rocking hammock. I thought of the equator as a human idea—a line on a spinning globe. Its tyranny was a shock. The image of equatorial countries is always hot and tropical, and that means sun: bright, constant sun. Uganda is hot sometimes and the sun beats straight down, because it is straight up. There is no change of seasons. There is only wet and dry, day and night. The sun is always perpendicular and the equation never changes: twelve hours of daylight, every day. Which means twelve hours of night. Half of life in the dark.
My plane had landed in Entebbe during a rolling blackout. We passed through the dense, humid city in a darkness broken only by the shivering glow of charcoal and fires in barrels beside the road. People walked along the road, shopping and talking and waiting, passing in and out of sight. The haze of smoke crawled along the ground like a spirit, but the darkness was a physical thing. It felt thick as syrup. When the power came back on, the city’s low-voltage light was sulfurous and dim, the whole of Kampala a collection of small pools of yellow and long brown shadow.
The village, Ddegeya, was hours to the south along a two-lane highway passing through farmland and small towns. The clinic complex, next to the road, was the only part of the village with electricity. Except for headlamps along the highway and a few huts with kerosene lamps, this was the only illumination for miles. The electricity came from a scary pile of old car batteries. Everything flickered. We learned to carry headlamps in our pockets, never knowing when a meal or a meeting would go dark. On rainy days, the unlit exam rooms were too dim for work, so we played Bananagrams by lantern light until the clouds faded.
When is it dark? How do we know? For most of human history, people couldn’t quit working until the light was gone. Every culture had a definition. Japanese monks say it is dark when you can no longer see the line in your palm. In Paris, it was dark when you couldn’t distinguish a small coin of one region from that of another. Medieval Europe eventually had definitions for natural night and legal night and church night and merchant night. In Scandinavia and Iceland, the sun sets obliquely and slowly, when it sets at all. The time between the sun going down and full dark is long. Some call it twilight rest, a welcome time when it is too dark for work but too bright to justify a lamp. A time for rest and prayer and talk.
There is no such thing at the equator. In Uganda, time is traditionally told as two sets of twelve rather than twenty-four hours: hour one to hour twelve, and repeat. Dawn is always at seven. Sunset is always at seven. Day closes with a snap; the earth spins away so abruptly that you can be caught halfway across a yard. Early in my stay, I was visiting a woman and her children in their small clay hut late in the afternoon when the room abruptly collapsed into black. She kept talking as though nothing had changed, and for a moment I was annoyed. I waited for her to turn the light on, and then I remembered.
The night is longer than sleep. In the evenings we played Hearts at the table outside, under a quivering light bulb, or by lantern. Geckos darted up and down the stucco wall beside us. Then I’d lie behind the mosquito net in my bunk and read by headlamp for a long time. Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night to go to the latrine. I could hear voices in the dark, see the glow of coals—a family around the fire. Shadowed faces, the waver of a charcoal brazier, the dim, shaky light of kerosene. People were awake, of course. I walked to the latrine behind my bright headlamp, hearing faint laughter, a baby’s cry, a song. A moan of pleasure, the click of tools. Voices murmuring together where nothing could be seen.
I began to leave the headlamp behind. I found that I could easily walk by moonlight. On clear nights, the starlight, frothy as snow, was enough. The atmosphere itself shines, a photochemical transformation called airglow; one never sees it when the lights are on. During thunderstorms in the rainy season, the explosions of noise and light were like bombs bursting overhead, a white phosphorescent so bright it left afterimages. I thought darkness had no color, but I was quite wrong about that. Darkness is silver, brown, green, white and black and gray in every shade.
I would sit on the porch alone in the middle of the night. The starlight alone could bring me outside; I never got enough of it. I would read and sometimes write, and then gaze over the long valley. The only artificial light I could see was a single bulb at the Catholic church three miles away. But I could see: low rolling hills, fretted fields, winding paths, mist snaking between trees. Across the clay road, I heard sibilant talk from the pitch-dark huts and knew that I had company in the dark.
I still live near the forty-fifth parallel, a few hundred miles from where I was born. I have a cabin in the woods. By late afternoon, even in summer, the trees are darkly shadowed, and the dark is saturated and close. In Europe, the Catholic Church resisted artificial lighting for a long time. Rousseau said, “God does not agree with the use of lanterns.” Night was sacred, a place where you could meet God, who dwells in the darkness of the infinite, the unknowable. Divine night. Sometimes when I am at the cabin, I turn off all the lights but one and walk out. Black envelops me; I follow the little wavering pool of the flashlight, careful of roots. I listen to the comforting, peculiar sound of rain falling on the pines and the noisy breath of the river. The stars seen in the small windows between the black branches are like writing I can’t decode—encrypted words written on the sky. Then I turn the flashlight off. When I turn around, there is the cabin only a short distance away, an islet of yellow light in the distance. I imagine that I can hear a whispering chorus pressing gently against the lonely night.
It can be so easy to romanticize the lives of others. We like to imagine what could be gained by giving up what we have, by becoming something completely different. Living in the village was dangerous that way, because I was often quite happy there. I wasn’t foolish about the hardship, the suffering both physical and psychic, the boredom and discomfort and pain. I did not want to be an illiterate coffee farmer. But I wondered about the intangibles. The villagers laughed easily, touched each other often, adored their children, and cared for their elders. They were together. What little we know about what makes people genuinely happy is that it comes in part from intimacy and purpose. The villagers had an abundance of those things. So I had to guard against fantasy. I had to guard against impulsive decisions. I was disoriented in the first few days after returning to the United States and the strange, noisy world of supermarkets and privacy and the light switch.
Especially, the light switch. Artificial light has always been rare and expensive; only the rich and royal can waste it. Before electricity was mastered, there was no greater spectacle than a party with a thousand candles, a procession down a torchlit avenue. And now electricity is mastered, and this is still true: a party filled with pretty lights, a procession down a brightly lit avenue, the darkness at bay. A quarter of the world’s electricity consumption is spent on light, but more than a billion people don’t have it.
When I wake in the night now, I am alone. I don’t go outside. I sit up and I turn on the lamp and reach for a book. I think about those twelve hours and all the people sitting together in the night and all the schoolwork not done and all the books not read and all the sewing and repairs and art never started and all the lost time, left behind in the dark.
Sometime after my last stay, the village school installed solar panels. It was a project of several years’ effort, and everyone came to see. For days the lights burned like a star that had come to earth. They left the lights on all the time, because no one was willing to turn them off and let night back in.