Power cuts are very much a part of life here in Tanzania and can cause some pretty hectic situations.
Believe it or not there have been days at a time where the entire country has been without power. I can tell you, you’ve never seen anything like the absolute blackness when it all goes down at once. It’s an eerie soot-soft silent blindness that descends, followed almost instantly by the thunderous sound of hundreds of generators all roaring to life at once.
Of course the vast majority of people in this country have neither running water nor electricity, let alone a generator, and so it doesn’t affect them much, but living conditions are improving all the time and the strain on the electricity providers is beyond what they can handle. Suffice to say we have a lot of power cuts.
When a storm brews up over the lake we all know that sudden click is coming, that’s pretty much inevitable, but it’s the one’s you never could have planned for that really create the situations.
For my first example I have to mention the school play. Try as you might to have thought of everything, you cannot anticipate 40 kids on stage in full Lion King costumes, mid-song and accompanying dance routine when the power goes out. We had the generator on standby but someone had to change it over and that person had chosen just that moment to disappear!
It was only a minute, but it felt like twenty and two things stand out for me. First, the audience never flinched. To be fair they tend to talk right through performances here anyway, but no one moved, or panicked or raised their voice, they simply waited – that’s how used to it we all are. And second, the students simply carried on singing! Ask them now, a few years on, and hardly anyone will remember that power cut, but as the director, I do! Thank goodness no one fell off the stage or knocked over a large piece of set (though it would have made a good TIA Tale!).
OK, so for me that was pretty tense. Now imagine you are in the pub watching the finals of the Rugby World Cup with all your mates, everyone’s dressed up in their team’s colours. The action has just begun again after half time and everyone is shouting at the screen. Oh yes, that’s the moment it picked to cut out. The groan went up from everyone in unison and we were forced to rely on updates via magical internet phones for a very stressful 20 minutes before the TV was reinstated via a generator.
I thought that groan was loud, but I had not heard a thing until I heard the same groans echoed from pubs all over town when the power cut during a Man United, Liverpool game. Now I don’t get football, just not a fan at all, but Tanzania loves it and they especially love the British teams so this was really taken seriously. Not least because many of the smaller local pubs would not have access to a generator.
Some of the funnier occasions where the power has dropped (Tanzanian English creeping in!) have included shopping in our tiny supermarket where one second everyone is wandering the little isles and the next some kid has plunged into magazine stand completely disoriented by the sudden blackness! Or the time when a guest of the school was giving an especially long and tedious speech. The power went and an involuntary sigh of relief went up from the assembled students. “I guess that’s my cue to sit down then.” He quipped when the microphone was reinstated. The silence in response was cringe-worthy!
Of course I’ve mentioned the seriousness of power-outages for major hospitals (see my piece on the mystery deaths in TIATales – hospitals) but mostly there are good contingencies. Either a generator is set up to automatically kick in, or the hospital doesn’t have power in the first place!
It’s the little things that often catch you out though. Like putting your phone on charge and going to sleep, then leaving for work to find it’s about to die – the power was out all night. Or recording your favourite TV show, sitting down to watch it and discovering you only have the first ten minutes. Stuff that you know in the grand scheme of things really isn’t important, but you still curse it at the time …and then feel ashamed of yourself afterwards. Actually a lot of the time power cuts just change the course of your day – you can’t do one thing, so you do something else instead – and I quite like the shake up of routine and the fact that everyone accepts your excuse for things you couldn’t get done! It reminds us all of how lucky we are to have electricity at all.