Sunday, July 5, 2009

Generator Wars

Despite my proclivity for exaggeration, I kid you not when I say we are now into the third month of a dismal, dismal electricity situation. At best I can remember a couple of days since April where the power has been on uninterrupted for more than 24 hours. A more usual situation is the power is off all day and then comes back at 2am for about five hours, until dawn. And then goes off again.

At first it was funny. One of those things you expect as part of the African experience. We naively thought it was random, a sudden surge in demand due to the arrival of the hot season. If everyone was out of the house during the day, the constant outages meant the temperature inside the fridge got to 35C. Food went putrid, the fridge stank; last to get unceremoniously dumped in the bin was prize cheddar, lovingly passed through x-ray machines and three airports on its way back from Europe. Iced water in the 48C heat was impossible. The water pump couldn’t re-fill the tank on the roof, so we had no shower.

Things began to be less funny when the heat got too much and I bought an air-conditioning unit. With the prospect of a room that could be slightly cooled off at night, there seemed a reason to live. But my joy was cruelly shattered when one night I turned on the light, the air-con and my computer at the same time, and the wiring in my room blew with a pusillanimous puff and a small blue spark. The victim least able to be resurrected was my laptop battery which (thankfully) took most of the blast, collapsed and died on the spot. (I could tell you how I’d just ordered that battery on my last trip to UK, and how I’d had to get the keys for my old house and go and await the delivery the morning of my flight back to Chad. Or I could tell you that I have been trying since mid-April to get that battery replaced, but due to issues of it being apparently eaten alive or thrown out of a plane window by some cantankerous creature living in the bowels of the US diplomatic pouch system, at the time of writing I still have to have constant power to be able to use my laptop (and thus work). But that would just be whingeing).

Finally, after several weeks of interrupted work and sweaty sleep, we accepted that the power just wasn’t coming back and we succumbed to the evil allure of the superficially liberating generator. Stumbling about in the dark, I had to use the light on my nokia phone to figure out how to turn on the one-tonne ‘Lifting Eye’ generator (manufactured in the UK but not adhering even to US standards on CO2 emissions).

But it comes at a cost. And I’m not even talking about the on average 100 litres a week of diesel fuel we’re igniting. It’s the noise. As soon as the beast is kicked into action, coughing and spluttering, as a black cloud pumps merrily out of the erect exhaust pipe that resembles the furnace of a 19th century steam train, the walls begin to shudder. Doors which aren’t closed properly rattle as if an Antonov is passing overhead. Nina the cat darts for cover.

Under the gentle burr of the air-conditioning and ear-plugs, I can just about block it out enough to doze off. But then I get cold and wake up to turn off the air-con. From then on, all hopes of sleep are frustrated as my brain begins to rattle inside my skull with the vibrations from the voracious monster, scoffing and hiccuping not ten metres from my bedroom window. All I can think about is how much fuel we’re using, tantamount to leaving the car running all night, and hypnotically my mind begins to follow the rise and fall of the interminable rumbling towards apocalyptic visions of melting ice-caps.

We tried democracy. One of us is super-human and can sleep at 9pm with no fan, lights or air-conditioning. The rest of us have varying indifference curves measuring cool rooms versus sensitivity to the racket and/or destruction of the planet. One room is conveniently located at the back of the house and therefore is somewhat insulated.

After several frantic weeks of night-time wanderings, tepid showers, insomnia, madness, generators being turned on and off, screaming matches and hapless guards caught in the cross-fire, we have been brought to the conclusion that we cannot sort this out. We’re all looking for new houses, with the massive self-deception that in a different neighbourhood there may not be so many power cuts.

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