It is next to impossible these days to find paraffin at any filling station in Malawi. Apparently, the commodity has outlived its usefulness. Those who rely on paraffin as a cleaning agent for machines or other gadgets find it hard to get it. The commodity is only available through vendors who bring it in from Mozambique.
What I find intriguing, though, is that each time an announcement is made that fuel prices have been adjusted, the price of paraffin is given. I have no clue which paraffin they refer to.
There was a time that paraffin was a must-have commodity in this country. An improvised lamp made from a discarded can or bottle and a wick made from cloth was a common lighting source for many in the 1960s and 1970s. It was called koloboli. Many people that were serious with their studies in those days resorted to this kind of lamp to enable them to study at night. The secondary school that I went to, Robert Blake, had a missionary headmaster who forbade the use of koloboli in the hostels. Lights used to go off at 10pm, but some overzealous students would continue to study under koloboli light. The headmaster would sometimes check from room to room as the students slept. If he found somebody studying under the light of a koloboli, he would grab it and hurl it out of the window.
In the villages, the koloboli was a ubiquitous source of light. Every trading centre had a tradesperson, perhaps several, who kept some paraffin stock. Paraffin was also extensively used for cooking. A variety of stoves operating on paraffin were available.
The more affluent villagers had what were known as tilley lamps. These were lamps with huge tanks which would get filled with paraffin then the operator would pressurise the fuel by means of a mechanical pump attached to the tank. The pressure caused paraffin jets to gush out and shower a special filament element that glowed white when lit, providing very bright light at night.
When I was a boy, my father bought a paraffin iron. Like a tilley lamp, the paraffin iron had a pressurised tank that drove jets of paraffin into a filament which provided intense heat when lit.
Those were the days when paraffin reigned supreme. Today, paraffin is as rare as the fur of a reptile, to borrow from a Chichewa expression. Is this a good development or bad?
This columnist thinks it is a good development, for two reasons. The first reason is that paraffin is a pollutant. When paraffin is burnt, it produces fumes that are vicious to the environment. For starters, the fumes would have negative health effects on the people within the room where a paraffin gadget is in use.
One of the constituents of the fumes is carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas. All fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burnt. Carbon dioxide is one of the gases that environmentalists call greenhouse gases because they envelope the earth like a blanket and trap any heat that would otherwise be emitted from earth into space. This is a big contributor to causes of global warming.
The other reason is that paraffin is not a renewable resource. It is extracted from the bowels of the earth as crude petroleum, which is subsequently refined into petrol, diesel, paraffin, bitumen and other petroleum products. The origin of petroleum is organic matter that got buried ages ago. By the action of pressure and heat, the organic matter got converted to petroleum. Therefore, petroleum is a finite resource because it takes so long to form and yet it can be depleted in just over a century. Yes, one day there will not be any petroleum anywhere on earth.
By contrast, some sources of energy are renewable. Examples are solar lamps and solar geysers. These get energised by sun energy. You can energise them today and tomorrow and next year and indeed 20 years from now. The sun is not perishing any time soon, and as long as it lasts we can harness it for solar gadgets. Other renewable sources of energy are wind-operated generators, hydro electric plants and geothermal plants.
Recently, I engaged a filling station attendant about the scarcity of paraffin and he told me that the major reason was the proliferation of solar lamps. There probably is more to it than the reason I got, but we need to do a search within ourselves and check what our attitude to solar lamps and other renewable energy sources is. n