I spent almost all of yesterday battling to get electricity.
Normally, when the power cuts, the generators on the farms all around us fire up and I can remain confident that I am not alone, not a singular victim plunged into darkness (I am inasmuch as the generator on this particular farm long ceased functioning but the hum of those around me indicate I’m not the only one ostracized, yet again, by national power company which is reassuring).
But yesterday was silent. And dark. Being lone casualty of power cut is especially worrying: it means you have no allies in the battle to get lights turned back on. And it could – worst case scenario – mean that finally the Accounts department at national power company have had rare forum with Maintenance department and established that we – on the farm – don’t deserve any power at all since it is some months since anybody paid a bill.
Ambitiously I decided that, to cheer us all up, I would cook roast lamb for lunch. But the gas ran out mid roast. My children looked at me glumly. And expectantly. I told them, in case they were in any doubt, that I was having a wobbly day and that I would need their tolerance. They nodded sagely but didn’t look any less likely to demand lunch. So I drove to town, which I hate doing on a Sunday, to collect a new bottle of gas so that roasting of lamb (which turned out to be really, really old mutton that had clearly been couch potato all its life for it was almost too tough and fatty to eat) could resume.
Following disgusting boarding school lunch, which children thought prudent to thank me for anyway, ‘thankyouforalovelylunchmum’ (which is what they say when they know it’s more than their life is worth not to acknowledge I have at least fed them – and especially under trying circumstances), I recommenced telephone calls to Dominic at power company.
He assured me that the technicians were on their way to ascertain where the problem was.
But I needed to ascertain for myself where and what the problem was and that promised technicians really were going to put in an appearance. So I employed services of a farm askari – watchman – who had told me, when I greeted him earlier in the day, that he was hungry and tired, that he had not been paid for two months, that his children were hungry and tired and needed to go to school but he couldn’t afford to pay the fees and now they and his wife were all in doubt as to his whereabouts because he kept saying he was at work yet never came home with any money. It’s a sorry tale and one I’ve heard repeatedly in recent months.
But why do you keep coming to work if you’re not being paid, I ask.
Because perhaps one day the money will come, he told me, and if I’m not here I won’t get any of it. Perhaps you can help, he said and with that pulled a cell phone from his pocket to give me his mobile number.
Since the advent of cellular telephones here I am told that the profits of Tanzania Breweries have slumped drastically; people would rather talk on the phone than drink a beer (except me of course, especially today, although disappointingly – much as I’d rather drink self into a stupor so that I don’t notice whether the lights are on or not – I am obliged to use my cell phone about 107 times because without power not only will there be no computer, lights or telly but the water pump won’t work and then we won’t be able to bathe and we will begin to smell worse than we did last week when washing machine was out of order).
I offer the askari enough money for a couple of loaves of bread (or – quite possibly and more probably – a scratch card for his phone, or ‘vocha’) if he’ll nip down the farm road and keep an eye out for me regards situation with repairs to power line.
He returns 20 minutes later to confirm that the technicians arrived, located the problem and then said that they must return to HQ to turn off the power in order to work on my line If they don’t turn off the power, said the askari gleefully, they will all die.
By nightfall there are still no lights. My kids sit at one of the two remaining tables in the house battling to complete homework by candlelight. I think we must represent a very Victorian image. And if it weren’t all so bloody frustrating, perhaps it’d be faintly charming.
Suddenly though, we were delivered of a startling brightness. There was not a murmur from the children. Power cuts have vested in us a terrible superstition; if you greet the return of electricity – even after 20 hours without it – with delighted squawks, you will frighten it away again. Similarly if you blow out candles, you’ll scare it off. So we spend the rest of the evening (until it goes off again, 2 ½ hours later) with lights and candles burning.
Before I go to bed, lighting my way through a dark house which – despite being almost empty still presents – because I am very clumsy – considerable toe-stubbing potential, I go and check on my makeshift washing machine. My mechanical Whirlpool, which was finally fixed 14 hours before it was loaded onto the container, is obviously no longer here. So I have resorted to two buckets and the bath, separating whites, coloured and undies and soaking them in a stain-removal detergent. As I splash about in the semi gloom Amelia calls to enquire ‘whose having a bath at this time’ (who does she think she is, my mother – although my mother, who is kind and patient, wouldn’t dream of commenting even if I decided to have a bath at 3am).
Me, I hissed, I’m doing the laundry.
Ben, who clearly can’t believe his ears, comes to investigate.
I don’t think he’s impressed at sight of his mother – in her pajamas – organizing dirty clothes into so many buckets and – because it’s quite dark – covering floor with soapy puddles.
I look up, ‘bet none of your friends’ mums do this kind of thing’.
No, he says sternly, ‘I don’t think they do, and I think it’s time you went to bed’.
I plop last full bucket on the floor, slopping more water, and stand up, ‘well they might all be better people if they did’ I growl and then I stomp off to bed. With my phone/torch. And don’t stub my toe once.
This morning I must get down to a piece I am writing for a South African glossy about the ‘invisible woman’. I think my children wish that I were invisible at times. But with my emergent profile as quite the maddest mother in the vicinity – except when there’s a power cut of course, when nobody can see anybody – I’m a lot more visible than they’d like me to be.
Too bad. Would they rather friends who avoid their mother because she’s going quietly round the bend. Or would they prefer their friends avoid them because they stink. They need to reflect on this.