When I moved to NYC, I heard a lot about the blackout of 2003. A children’s book was even published about the event to show how New Yorkers came together during a time of difficulty – BBQing on the sidewalk, games of tag, and neighborhood parties were no longer the sole jurisdiction of the suburbs.
Blackouts are the norm in Rwanda. Total 24/7/365 blackouts. Power lines are popping up everywhere in the hilly country but more than 89% of the population still live their daily life with it.
For New Yorkers, dependent on electricity for cooking, entertainment, temperature control, and communication, the Blackout was a major disruption. For Rwandans, a power outage is inconsequential.
For me, it’s somewhere in between.
I’m fortunate to live in a house equipped with fairly reliable electricity. I share it with my neighbor and we pay approximately 6 US dollars a month for our umuriro (power). We pay more than most, between his constantly blaring television, my electric stove, and both of our laptops, but still….cheap.
I’ve grown accustomed to the luxury of electricity in my daily life. Maybe not as much as when I lived in the Big Apple but I certainly take for granted that it will be there when I need it. Which, for life in Rwanda, isn’t all that often.
A sunroof in my bedroom and an open front door keep my house well lit during the day. A power strip channels the minimal electricity needed to charge my cell phone, computer, and Nook. A water kettle is indispensable to PCVs – providing both coffee and hot baths. But I’m careful to never waste; saving hot water in a big metal thermos so I’m not constantly heating more.
My stove is my biggest power drain, one I avoided relying on at the start but have come to appreciate more and more as my schedule became more hectic. I eat lunch at school most days and fruit in the morning, so the stove is typically used only at night. But the ease of turning one dial wins over 15 minutes lighting charcoal, everyday.
Also a winner – being able to see after 6:30pm.
Electricity is good. I like electricity. I will happily pay 6 dollars a month for the luxury of a hot bath and quick dinner. Not all PCVs in Rwanda have that option. And I suppose it was time for me to find out how the other shoe fits.
I was cooking pasta and tomato sauce on my two-burner stove last Monday when the power flickered. The power goes out regularly but flickering was something new. After several stops and starts, I got dinner completed. Then the power stopped altogether.
I lit a candle to eat by, read on my nook and went to bed early expecting to wake the next morning to the steady beeping from our power-console that heralds a return of the electricity.
Birds, cows, and children playing were all the sounds that greeted me.
I went to school and the market, returning to silence.
A 24-hour absence of power is unusual but not unheard of. I lit my charcoal stove outside and made dinner the Rwandan way.
Morning two: No beeping.
Evening two: Still no beeping.
I arrived back home late and wet from rain to realize just how inconvenient no-electricity living is on one’s own. Most families have an umukozi (domestic worker) who stays home to cook. When the family gets home late, the charcoal has been lit for hours and dinner is on the table. Not so when you live alone. Most houses also have a sheltered outdoor kitchen so cooking goes on, rain or shine. Again, not the case for me.
I ate my last pack of tuna from America and went to bed.
Morning three: Beeping!
Oh the glorious sound of power returned! I nearly danced out of bed! I filled my kettle and set it to boil water for my morning coffee then cracked an egg on a frying pan, looking forward to making up for my meager dinner.
I turned the stove off in despair.
I turned the dial on again.
Hmm. It appeared as though two appliances at once was a problem. A new challenge but I’m a smart girl. I finished boiling the water in my kettle, then fried my egg. Voila!
I went to school, returned home; No beeping.
I admit to getting a bit frustrated with the fickle nature of my electricity. Everyone else had power: the school, the Parish, the hospital. It was just me and my neighbor living the hard life. Okay, and 89% of the rest of the population. But come on! I had grown to expect a certain standard of life here!
Thankfully, I left the next day for a weekend in beautiful Kibuye, determined to duke it out with my wayward electricity upon my return.
Unfortunately, my electricity also took a vacation. A long one.
I arrived home on Sunday to a quiet house. No beeping, no power.
I cooked on charcoal, graded exams by candlelight, and went to bed early.
The next day, I took my dead computer and e-reader to school to charge. I also took a cold bath and pretended it was refreshing.
Life repeated the next day.
I could do this! I had a system: fruit for breakfast, carrots and peanut butter for lunch, a real dinner at night. Use the charcoal to boil water for my thermos, enjoy a little romantic candlelight, charge electronics at school and conserve their use.
Look at me! I can live without power!
Nonetheless, I asked around. I was feeling accomplished but not at all prepared to indefinitely accept this new lifestyle. So I got tips on how to contact a technician and went to bed dreaming of the imminent return of that annoying beeping sound.
I dreamt so well that, upon waking, the high-pitched pulse rang in my ears.
I sat up and strained to hear better. Could it be? Why, yes! I wasn’t dreaming! The beeping was back!
I ran outside to find my neighbor grinning as he explained the technician discovered our problem – a damaged fuse. Fixed. We paid less than a dollar each to the miracle-worker and he went on his way.
I reached up to push the button that would silence that incessant beeping, then stopped. I think I rather need to hear it for a bit, I thought. A little reassurance.
I didn’t play tag or have a neighborhood party, but my charcoal stove’s a bit like a BBQ and I can now confidently say I would have survived that New York Blackout. Though, I’ll be rather glad if I don’t have to test that theory again anytime soon.