I haven’t learned any real Swahili swear words yet. Unsurprisingly, my Swahili teacher has been less than forthcoming with this information, choosing instead to concentrate on the eighteen different noun classes and their associated grammatical rules. So I’ve made up my own: umeme.
Umeme means electricity in Swahili and, given the frequent blackouts in Dar, it is a word that I’ve come to associate with frustration, anger, and despair. And it rolls off the tongue in a satisfying kind of way to convey irritation in a variety of different contexts.
Umeme it’s hot today!
Or, shouted loudly to the guy who follows me around Mwenge Market, asking repeatedly if I am married. Umeme!
And, to the taxi driver who speeds up to kill me when I try to cross the road – umeme umeme umeme!
Yesterday was hot. Unbearably hot. The kind of hot that makes you want to take a shower every three minutes, plan a trip to the North Pole, and climb into the freezer. All at once.
So its not surprising that at about 4 pm, just as I was trying to decide whether I still had the will to live, the electricity went out and my ceiling fan squeaked to a stop.
The temperatures in my apartment quickly ascended from uncomfortable to intolerable. I began to hunt for the generator key.
I have a small generator that I use very infrequently. I think I’ve only spent about $6 on petrol in the last five months. This is because turning the generator on is usually more effort that it is worth, and the machine is not big enough to power a fridge or even all the lights in my apartment. It can, however, keep my fan rotating if I turn off my lights and unplug all of my appliances.
At 11 pm last night the temperature was still well over 30 degrees Celsius and I knew any attempt to sleep without the fan would be futile. So I coaxed the generator on and fell asleep to its steady hum.
It ran out of petrol at 1 am. I woke up as soon as the fan stopped spinning, immediately covered in a thick layer of sweat.
It was a long and sleepless night. I passed the time by counting down the days until the rainy season and by researching the temperatures in Madagascar, where I plan to travel in April. At one point, I tried to sleep on the floor, where the tiles are cool, but it was too uncomfortable. And I was worried about a nighttime encounter with a cockroach. I turned on my shower, drenched my bed sheet in cold water, and wrapped myself up in it.
This morning I staggered around the apartment and wondered if I was dizzy from the heat or the lack of sleep. I cursed TANESCO, the generator, and the empty petrol container.
The electricity was still out when I got home from work. Not wanting to endure another hot and sleepless night, I decided that I would brave the rush hour and catch a bajaj to the nearest gas station so that I could buy some petrol. As often happens in Dar, what should have been a simple trip to the corner gas station became an exhausting odyssey.
When I got to the BP station, all the lights were off and the workers were sitting in a circle, laughing and playing Tanzanian checkers. They explained to me that they were all out of petrol, and suggested that I try another gas station a bit further down the road. They were out of petrol too. So was the next gas station I visited.
An hour and a small fortune in cab fare later, I was hot, sweaty, and irritated. But I had a small plastic container with enough petrol to last the night. I felt mildly victorious.
The electricity came back on as soon as I opened the front door to my apartment.
Umeme umeme umeme!
I woke up immediately on Monday night when the electricity went out. The fan stopped spinning, the breeze in my room died, and I started sweating. It was a long night.
On Tuesday morning I turned the taps in my bathroom sink and discovered that there was no running water. This has been an ongoing problem because the plumbing was not installed correctly in our apartment. We typically have water for two to three days before the pipes go dry and our landlord calls a plumber. I showered with what was left of my 750 ml bottle of Uhai mineral drinking water and left for work and the promise of AC.
There was no power at work either. As there had been a scheduled electrical outage in the neighbourhood on Monday, the inverter had not been charged and none of the computers were functioning. I packed up my belongings and headed to a coffee shop at Shoppers Plaza to plug in my laptop and get some work done. The whole shopping complex is powered by a generator so there is electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
I was not the only one who tried to set up an office in the coffee shop. Within twenty minutes, the place was packed and people were fighting over the limited number of plug- ins. One-by-one all of the lamps in the restaurant were unplugged as customers began recharging their laptops and cell phones. Long cords snaked into the adjacent computer store, which had a few free plug-ins along a wall.
I stayed at the coffee shop until late afternoon, hoping that by the time I returned home both the electricity and the water would be functional. No such luck. Somewhat ironically, though, there had been a rain storm and large, deep pools of water covered the streets. Deep enough to bathe in. On a quiet strip of Old Bagamoyo, a small corner store was an island in a sea of rainwater. The shopkeeper stood on the front steps, resigned to the water that swirled around him. Another store owner had set up four small tables between the road and his shop to make a small bridge over the flooded parking lot, and was leading people to his store entrance by having them hop from table to table. An SUV raced down the road, spraying and drenching all of the pedestrians.
I discussed the plumbing situation with the landlord, who was supposed to arrange for a plumber to come during the day. She didn’t call the plumber. By way of explanation, she simply shrugged and said, this is Africa. This is one of her favourite sayings and one which I find infuriating. It doesn’t seem fair to blame the entire continent for plumbing problems, especially when the problem could have easily been resolved by calling the plumber. I noted, as well, that our landlord still had running water so the problem could not have been endemic to the whole continent.
The next day there were rumours that one of TANESCO’s transformers had caught on fire and that this was responsible for the extended power outage across the city. Our landlord told us that the plumbing issue in our apartment could not be fixed until the power came back on. Another shower with a bottle of water. Another day working in the coffee shop.
On Thursday morning there was another thunderstorm and I tumbled down the flight of stairs leading to my apartment. The gutter releases the rainwater from the roof straight onto our front steps, transforming them into a death trap in the rain. I limped, bruised and bloody, to work and, confirming that there was no power, on to the coffee shop. Another set of stairs slick with the rain. Another fall.
The power and the water came back on Thursday evening and lasted until Friday morning when I left for work. It is now lunchtime on Friday and the power at work has gone out again. I hope against hope that this doesn’t mean the power will be out at home.
At least it is Friday. And if the plumbing goes out again this weekend I can go for a swim in the Indian Ocean.
Electricity is a serious problem in Tanzania. TANESCO, the governmental organization responsible for the generation, distribution, and sale of electricity, officially imposed electricity rationing throughout the country in early 2011. Although power cuts are supposed to be rotate around the city in blocks of time no longer than four hours, different neighbourhoods have been affected disproportionately and some face constant power outages that last for as long as 12 hours. In Mikocheni, where I live, the power cuts are usually for short periods of time in the morning or the early evening. In Kinondoni, where I work, power cuts occur every other day and stretch from mid-morning until the end of the working day. There is widespread frustration that the neighbourhoods where government officials and the wealthy live have less frequent power cuts than the poorer neighbourhoods.
The government’s position is that the current power crisis is a direct result of the drought in East Africa. Tanzania relies heavily on hydropower and the water levels in Tanzania’s hydro-electric dams are currently very low.
The Tanzanians that I have spoken to, however, blame the power cuts on government corruption, the mismanagement of government resources, and the failure of the government to adequately prepare for the drought. Power outages are often referred to as “a Negeleja”, after William Negeleja who is the Minister of Energy and Minerals.
The power cuts are a source of anger and embarrassment for my coworkers. As in Canada, the lawyers in the legal aid centre where I work rely on computers for their everyday tasks. Everything grinds to a halt when there is no power.
Last week, the legal aid centre used some of its funding to purchase an inverter to help insulate us from the frequent electricity cuts. An inverter is much less expensive than a generator and runs on battery power. It can’t be used to power an air conditioner or light the whole office, but it can be used for smaller appliances and computers.
This morning I was working on a grant proposal when I heard an explosion followed by screaming. The inverter had exploded into a ball of flames. Everyone ran outside to escape the building. Thankfully, nobody was hurt and the damage was minimal.
The smell of burnt rubber and melted plastic lingers in the air. We are all packing it in early and heading home to get some work done. That is, if the power is functioning in our respective neighbourhoods.