In January 2013 my partner and I returned to Wakaisor, a tiny Girawaspeaking hamlet in the Begasin Hills on the north coast of Papua New Guinea. A pig had been killed to mark our arrival and, as we waited for the meat to be distributed between each of the hamlet’s nineteen households and their seventy inhabitants, the sun went down. Like most of rural Papua New Guinea, the Wakaisor hamlet has never

been electrified. The nearest electricity grid ends fifty kilometres away, at the edge of Madang town. A line of high voltage transmission cables carries electricity to the town from the Yonki hydro-electric dam in the Papua New Guinea highlands, the pylons following the route of a national highway. At night, from a Begasin hilltop, you can see light from the town on the skyline. The bush is dark. In the dusk we sat on a tree trunk around an open fire. When the time

came for us to eat, we sat cross-legged beside the home of our hosts Benok and Mary. As the food was dished out, battery-powered LED lanterns were produced to illuminate the feast, one of them placed carefully on a workbench, another held aloft. Until recently most people had sought to meet their desires for modern, artificial sources of illumination by burning kerosene. Now almost every household had a Chinese-manufactured batterypowered LED lamp and travellers to town frequently returned with a carton of D-size Panasonic batteries, the country’s best-selling brand, to use, sell or give away as gifts. Forty minutes walk down river from the Wakaisor hamlet, the Manipur

health center has had the capacity to generate electricity for at least thirty years. There have been solar-powered lighting systems in the outpatients building, the ward and the homes of resident health workers since 1982, when they were installed by the Lutheran Development Service. In 1992, when a local Madang-based businessman and politician was serving as the national health minister, the health center was fitted with a solar-powered shortwave radio system, paid for by the Australian government’s aid and international development agency, and a solar-powered vaccine refrigerator, paid for by the Japanese government’s international development agency. In 2013, however, these four solar-powered systems – lighting, radio, refrigeration and water

pump – existed in various stages of disrepair. The radio could receive signals but not send them out. The vaccine refrigerator could be switched on but its temperature could not be monitored or adjusted. Some of the lights had blown and none of the systems had received any checks or maintenance in at least three years. Life off the grid here is a historic condition and a future predicament.