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Life in Uganda

Electricity

To explain myself fully here I have to go back to my student years in Canada in the early sixties. Part of the training was the acquisition of some manual skills, and I was assigned to the electrical workshop of the house. Later I would also work in the book binding section and the shoe shop! All useful things to learn and these skills served me well over the years. Three of us were under the supervision of a professional electrician and we were plunged immediately into practical tasks from small electrical repairs to full house electrical installation. All this would prove very useful but I always remember that electrical works still remain a risky business! I remember well one day cutting a cable with a pair of pliers, having forgotten that the cable was live! The results were not very glorious and sparks were part of the exercise!

When I arrived in Ibanda in 1968, I saw for the first time a stand-by generator. I had no idea on how the thing worked but the principal of the college had a good time enlightening my ignorance! Now given the state of electricity provision in Uganda a generator is a great thing to have, and they have been part of all my places of residence in the future, be it Nkozi or Kampala.

My first major experience with electricity was in 1972 when I was posted to Mushanga parish in the west of Ankole, Shema District. A country rich with a bounty of greenery, mainly plantain, but also with a vast variety of vegetables and fruits. The house we were living in was a storied building constructed by a Canadian some twenty years earlier. It was comfortable, with large rooms and offices, as well as a marvellous sitting room on the first floor. At that time, electrical installations were still mainly surface installations. One day, returning from a visit to a nearby village, I reached home to find my colleagues sitting outside on the front porch in a state of disarray. I must admit one of them was 93 and the other 78, so I had a vision of total disaster when I saw them. What had happened? With all the phlegm of a good Basque, my 93 old friend simply told me the house almost burned down! I asked them what they had done to avoid total disaster and he said “nothing, we waited for you to return! Just go and see for yourself”. My worst fears were quickly appeased as the “fire” comprised the total cremation of the electrical system in the house, but no other damage. Black lines marked the walls where electrical wires had once been fixed. What happened? I could not get any explanation and my two friends were simply sitting there waiting for me to proclaim my verdict. My answer was very simple: “Well since everything is burned, we will have to replace it all and add some securities!” My older friends agreed and continued their conversation as if nothing had happened, not realising that for some time there might be no electricity in the house. For the next two weeks, each day after returning home from work, I set about reinstalling our electric system, and soon all was back in good order and condition. Another good work completed! This time I made sure the fuse box was strong enough to support our needs.

My little experience with electricity would be tested again years later in Nkozi (the place on The Equator). The supply of electricity by the company, then called UEB, was anything but regular, and I had many discussions, not always very amicable, with the area manager of the company. Having gone for some fundraising in 1994, I was absent for about four weeks, and during that time the power supply to campus was interrupted at regular intervals: there was more darkness on campus than light! For those who had remained on campus this could not continue and Herself phoned the area manager expressing her disappointment and frustration at the situation. How the man knew I was absent is still clouded in mystery. Candidly he asked her “when does he come back?” “Tomorrow” was the immediate answer. Within an hour power was restored to remain so for some good time. Was this the power of mind over matter!

In any case this situation could not continue, and it was decided that two major things were necessary. First, we needed a strong generator to manage the supply of electricity on campus. Second, the campus grid, lines, and poles, had to be seriously inspected and where necessary replaced. In fact we ended up replacing the whole grid with a completely new net of overhead lines. The transformer of the company was an old rotten box, too weak to supply a university campus, and it needed urgent replacement. The generator was purchased by ourselves and installed by the university electrician who did the needful to connect the campus through a switch-over box. For some years we would be saved the problems of lack of power as our generator supplied the place with all the needed power. As for the grid and transformer, this took some serious discussions and negotiations with the company. After months of haggling and hassling, they relented and gave us a new transformer, sufficiently powerful to cover our needs. We would cover the expenses of the campus grid. This work was done by a private company owned by the manager of the state electricity company! Hmm!

Once this work was done the new transformer was delivered and installed, not a big deal. But in the eyes of the company and government these things had to be publicised to show the good will of both. This was done one sunny morning when the deputy Prime Minister, who was also Minister of Energy and a founding member of the university, appeared on campus for the formal inauguration of the “transformer”, which was installed on new poles and over a new control room. There was no problem to inaugurate a transformer as the exercise consisted simply in pressing down the switch so that power could pass through the university grid. But the good man thought this was not sufficient and in the most serious manner he stood in front of the electricity poles holding the transformer and delivered a speech in the direction of the new equipment about the benefits of electrification. We were two members of the university administration, the Registrar and myself, plus the Minister for this “important” ceremony! I looked a bit silly standing there with my Registrar but then any little step forward does indeed call for recognition and publicity. Hurrah, we had a stable supply of electricity and this was the main thing for us. Herself documented it all on a small camera.

Looking back at what had been achieved and how my little knowledge of matters electrical had been helpful, I was proud that we had been in a position to see things move forward. Later we installed another generator to provide stable supply to our Internet and IT equipment, independently from the main supply. This again was a major step forward. Plus we had to secure all the equipment with “Uninterruptible Power Supply” (UPS) capable of supporting all electronic equipment. So the university had at its disposal some top facilities which would remain top of the range for the years to come. After we left the university in 2006, a new university engineer was appointed. I learned later that the man convinced the university administration that all overhead cables, connectors, and lightning conductors needed to be replaced! Now how do you explain that new equipment needs to be replaced after a few years when it had served well? The fact is that weaker cables were installed, the lightening conductors disappeared, and all the equipment we put in just vanished into thin air, so I was told! I know that today all these efforts we made have been worth it, as one day my successor at the university told me “UMEME, the electricity company, is now the standby to the university generator!” How things have changed over the years!

Just a quick story before I finish here. One day, the campus plumber was doing some work at the bathroom of my house. He had forgotten that the electricity supply was earthed in the copper plumbing piping. A loud bang was heard for many metres around and the young man came streaking out of the house wailing “the electricity has killed me!” Herself, being of a pragmatic nature poured him a large brandy, and lo and behold, he rose from the dead in no time at all. Somewhere down the line (pun intended) there may be more about electricity in the country but that’s it for now.

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