The Monitor (Kampala)

Uganda: Tales of Umeme - So How Did We Get to This Darkness?

Hard as I tried to find something else to write about this Sunday, my mind obstinately refused to get tuned to anything else but this one thing... and I am sure you have guessed it - load-shedding!

I can only compare it to a giant Anopheles mosquito that persistently bites a nation that lacks an equally giant mosquito net to keep the devil out of reach. Annoyingly, without permission, it keeps buzzing, as they always do, around the ears and when you occasionally doze off, inject a lethal dose of malaria parasites as it feeds on your warm blood. Like a persistent plague, the blackout has come to live with us and it looks like most of us have thrown our arms up in the air in utter desolate acceptance of the devil's wish - to live and die in total darkness.

I will not attempt to answer the question; how did we get to this darkness but may be it is just fair to reflect on what this whole phenomenon of 'darkness' means to a country's collective mind as well as its individuals. Obviously, even in our blanketed darkness, some people live in so much opulence that 'load-shedding' is not part of their daily lexicon; consequently they can never appreciate the lack of it.

In the early days, when Ugandans were just getting used to the phenomenon of artificial darkness a.k.a., load-shedding, many urban dwellers started finding 'extra- curricular' activities to engage in during those hours as they waited for a few hours of light to return. Since then, lives have somehow been shaped around the schedule of load shedding. So, for instance, you would go home early on a day you have electricity and stay out till late on a day there is no power and you cannot hold a house party or host visitors on a day you have a power outage.

Wedding party venues have been shifted to fit into Umeme's schedule as well. On the days when a Champions League match is played, you have to decide first thing in the morning where you will watch the match depending on the power outage schedule. Those who can afford have made it a fashion to own an inverter and batteries at home but the electricity bill at the end of the month shows no mercies.

I recall some years ago, investors, especially those in the horticulture industry and those providing industrial cooling facility services threatened to shift their bases to Ethiopia and Kenya where they claimed the cost of energy was manageable. Well, they didn't really move, not because the situation improved substantially but 'found ways' to go around the problem without increasing their costs significantly.

Later solar panels become the in-thing, especially in rural settings to light up clinics and dukas, and charge mobile phones. But as I stated earlier, most of us are now happy to live through it almost without a whimper. The state of Uganda's electricity supply has been so dogged for the last 25 years that many Ugandans have suffered a collective mental damage as a result which has inhibited any form of positive reaction to the dilemma. Majority of Ugandans who live in rural settings are 'unbothered' by the fact of being treated like beggars to their own government.

Those who live near national grid lines occasionally ask where the power lines are headed to. Many national hospitals have stopped depending on Umeme's supply and have diesel generators to power their emergency operations - for those that can afford - but many other medical centres use oil lamps and candles. Can you imagine being born in a steely-looking dark labour ward? Well, that's life for you in Uganda! So, don't ask why sometimes midwives inadvertently switch babies.

Having experienced so much mental strain due to the power outages, it comes down to what kind of political and socio-economic choices we make collectively.

Generally speaking, Ugandans are quite an interesting lot.

They speak about these things that affect them in murmurs and occasionally over FM radio stations or newspapers like this one but when it comes to making choices that could change their conditions of living, they seem to lose the instinct of future survival and slump down to the momentary euphoria of politics of survival - surviving now rather than tomorrow.

fmasiga@ug.nationmedia.con

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