A few weeks ago my electricity was disconnected leaving me without power for 48 hours. At first I was highly annoyed by this. How was I suppose to function without power. What about lights, keeping food cold or straightening my hair! After half an hour of sitting on hold, followed by an argument with the electricity company about the mistaken loss of power, it dawned on me that I’d lived in this situation before. Except last time it was a normal everyday occurrence. And it hadn’t annoyed me.
Living at Home of Hope children’s orphanage half an hour drive down the pot holed dirt track from Mchinji in Malawi, Africa, is as close to the middle of no where as I’ve ever been. My first night in the volunteers house, the power went out as soon as we began cooking dinner. There was so settling in period, no adjustment, just welcome to reality of living in Malawi. The only way to eat was to start a fire out the front of our house and cook on that… or wait for the power to come back on. There were a few if’s and when’s attached to the second option, so six Azungu (white people) volunteers set about collecting sticks and leaves in the dark for our fire. Lucky for us we glowed in the dark and the orphanage boys could see us from their outdoor kitchen and came to our rescue with maize cobs to use as kindling. They helped us get our little fire going and we were off cooking. The sizzle of our food in the pot barely masking the giggles wafting out of the darkness from the direction of the boys kitchen, as we attempted to cook outside. Welcome to Africa!
Very quickly I discovered that power outages were the norm. At 5.55pm most nights the power went out. Just as we were getting ready to cook ourselves a meal, or have a shower. It would stay off for anywhere between an hour and sometime early the next morning. I guess the World Cup Soccer was having an impact as villages and cities across Malawi sat huddled around T.V’s cheering on the African nations still in the draw. For the rest of the month for Ann (the only other volunteer still there) and I, we adapted. We experimented with recipes cooked on a fire, learnt to shave our legs by candle light and read the entire “Peace Corps Malawi Guide to Village Cuisine” cookbook for entertainment at night. One night I was having dinner with the girls at their dormitory when the power went out. We’d finished eating and most had been studying, reading or talking. Books were put down and conversations died as they moved out into the clearing in front of the building. A large circle was formed and then the fun began. The only light coming from tiny slivers of moonlight that shone through the clouds, the girls began to sing. Songs
that were a game of sorts. A name was called out in the song and everyone with that name went into the middle to dance, before the next round where a new name was called and a new group went into the centre. My eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the dark as the girls eyes had. They could read books in the dark if they wanted too. I could barely make out each of them. It made for interesting dancing when I was in the middle as I was the only Emma there, but unseen to me, a few girls would jump in the middle to dance with me. Forgetting that they could see me, I’d let loose, arms flailing wildly, feet stomping and having a great old time, until I crashed into one of them. The girls collapsed in giggles. So at least I’d contributed my share of the evenings entertainment.
By the end of our time in Malawi, Ann and I cooked on a fire regardless of the power situation. We preferred it. Everybody else cooked on a fire, so we would too. We learned to laugh and fill in the time talking, planning things we would do the next day or just sitting in silence. It took a few power outages to adjust, but once I accepted that it was just how it was, I didn’t mind. Loosing the power when back at home in the city had stressed me out. It was something I couldn’t understand why, at first. Then I realised because in the city you can’t adapt. Starting a fire on the balcony of my third floor apartment, probably wouldn’t go down very well with the rest of the complex. I somehow don’t think they would understand my explanation that I was just cooking dinner because the power was out.