Power to the People (pretty please!)

February 1995

The power has been off for three and a half days now and I am at the end of my tether. I thought I’d become more patient, but obviously I haven’t! I’m thinking of packing up and returning to the Emerald Isle if this continues much longer. The Uganda Electricity Board (UEB to the initiated) lost a whole line of poles to our place on a back road somewhere down in the valley due to lack of maintenance over the past twenty years. The Man has, quite conveniently, been off somewhere exotic for the past two weeks and has missed this unkind episode. So every evening I haul out the small two-ring gas cooker and try to cook up something tasty from a freezer that is now just about functioning as a fridge. Yesterday, I decided to annoy the UEB people until they gave me an answer about our re-connection date, and in the end they did. Tomorrow before lunch, they said, so I went down to have a look at the state of the ongoing works. Let me tell you what I saw. There were about thirty or so men all hard at work and rest because they all have different jobs. You know the old joke about the number of Irishmen it takes to change a light bulb? Well, it’s not a joke when applied to men and tropical electricity poles. Some men are responsible for chopping down the old rotting pole before others dig it out of the ground. Then there is a group who mix and pour the concrete to house the new pole. Another lot is in charge of “planting” the new pole, while the last crew gets to climb up and connect the electricity wires.

In fact that’s exactly the same thing that happens in government offices in Kampala if you want an official document. A reception person generally greets you and sends you to the correct office (nine times out of ten it’s not the correct office, but there you are). Another person then takes your completed form for whatever and promptly sends you to an official sitting at a window down the room. This person first determines your reason for being there and then tells you where to go to pay. Another windowed person quickly takes your cash and then directs you to the place where you get your receipt. Finally, you get to go to yet another window where your receipt is checked and your form duly stamped. The last window person generally tells you to come back next week to collect the item you want and the whole thing more or less starts all over again!

But back to electricity poles and the lack of power. This morning, having witnessed the rather fast defrosting of a pretty full freezer, I decided that since many things were still cold, I would cook and then re-freeze all the stuff so that I didn’t have to throw away too much food. That’s what I spent the morning doing before phoning the UEB to check that the re-connection was still on schedule. Waah! Some of the new poles fell out of their holes and they’ll maybe be able to get us back on power in two days time. “Sorry, Madam, thank you for calling, madam”. But what about my ready cooked meals? What about them: they’re now distributed all over campus to various takers, leaving me without any back up grub in the freezer. Later, I went back to have another look at the pole planting exercise and was totally dismayed. They needed new poles from Masaka, and since their lorry had no fuel, would we be kind enough to provide the fuel so that they could go and bring back our new poles. Of course; we would, I assured them (at that stage I would have sold a kidney just to get back onto the national grid because dark evenings playing solitaire by candlelight are beginning to get right up my nose).

Having shelled out a goodly number of Shillings for UEB fuel, I am now waiting for the call that will send my heart soaring and lift my fallen spirits. When The Man comes back I am going to whisper into his shell-like that a generator might be a bloody good idea. Imagine not being able to switch on your computer for a full working week! It might sound ok for a bit, but enforced idleness is wearing on the nerves when you’re used to the benefits of modern technology. Not only that, but the phones aren’t working either because the batteries that provide emergency power to the system have long ago lost any juice they had managed to build up.

This kind of situation makes you think: whatever did our grandparents do without power. How did they keep the butter and meat fresh enough to eat a couple of days after purchase? How on earth did they fill their shadowy evenings lit by paraffin lamps? I suppose that’s why demographers were busier in first part of this century. In South Africa Nelson Mandela was wise enough to realize that connecting houses in shanty towns to the national grid would lower the birth rate. So he planted some poles and connected some wires and found that he was right. God, I hope power outages are on the decrease otherwise the population will be set for a massive increase.

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