IYIP BLOG: The Spring of Our Discontent

This blog post was originally posted on A Street in a Strange World, which is the blog of our IYIP in Uganda, Mariah Griffin-Angus. For the complete post, please click HERE

The corner of Kampala Street in Kampala.

Life in Kampala is pretty good. It’s beautiful, with excellent restaurants and friendly people. I can get most things I need at the supermarkets or local shops. Armed robberies, so prevalent in Cape Town and Nairobi, are rare here. The only real downside? The constant power outages and poor infrastructure.

It always happens at the most annoying of times. When you’re sitting down for dinner. Or maybe you’re researching a project online. Then, poof, lights go out. No power. It always sparks a few curses, a scramble for lanterns and flashlights, and a hope that it’ll come back on soon. Sometimes it does; sometimes it will be hours.

‘Load-shedding’, as power cuts are known in Uganda, is frequent. If my neighborhood has power, it is likely another neighborhood somewhere else does not. Last Thursday, the power was out almost all day, returning around 4:30 and cutting off again at 6:30. It’s strange planning the day around power outages. I keep my laptop plugged in all the time so I have reserve battery power. I keep a flashlight in my bag at all times. There are lanterns in every room at my house. Our stove is gas so we can still cook dinner. Even still, there’s something strange about an evening without power.

When I stand on my porch, with the only light coming from the flickering lantern, the city, for once, seems so very quiet. Even the yelping dogs, the roosters, the cats, the cows, they all go silent. The air will often feel cool, a welcome change from the blistering heat of the midday. Sometimes, I see the lights from the cars driving down the bypass. I pull on my hoodie, grab my ipod and sit outside, enjoying the solitude. It’s a rare moment of peace and it’s something I’ve come to enjoy.

Yet my experience is very different from most Ugandans. A significant percent of the population live in poverty. Some places, like Moroto in northeastern Uganda, just got power last year and even then, it’s only for a few hours in the evening. Only 3-5% of the population has regular access to electricity. The busy night markets in Kampala are usually lit up by lanterns and candles rather than fluorescent lights. The few shops that are connected to the electrical grid make extra money by offering a place for people to charge their cell phones.

But lack of electricity is more than just an inconvenience; it’s symptomatic of  larger problems: the rising cost of living, unreliable infrastructure and high unemployment. While large malls and expensive resorts have backup generators, most businesses cannot afford this. Many offices, my own included, face problems when the computers shut down. How can people develop a country or run a business when they cannot depend on the infrastructure?

Not only is load-shedding frequent, but electricity is also very expensive. In our house, for instance, our electricity bill doubled over the last month for no apparent reason. If a house full of decently employed people struggle with their bills, then what about the people who don’t make that much money? Solar power is also prohibitively expensive, as we discovered when my landlord looked into getting solar power for our house. Living on the equator, I can’t help but think how revolutionary solar power could be if it was cheap and accessible.

For countries to develop, they need infrastructure: accessible roads, electricity, a communications system and functional governments. If there is no power, restaurants can’t cook food; students can’t type up their homework; businesses can’t connect to colleagues internationally. More crucially, many hospitals are forced to operate by torchlight or by the light of cell phones. For mothers facing complications during labour or for the person facing amputation from a road injury, the operation becomes much more dangerous. Over 150 people have died in the past six months at the Jinja Referral Hospital (about an hour outside of Kampala) because of power outages. Children in intensive care, patients who need assistance breathing, or those who need blood transfusions, are all in danger when the power goes out.

The Daily Monitor, the ‘reform’ newspaper, has labeled this state of discontent “Uganda’s national despair”. In December 2011, there were riots in Kampala over the frequent power outages and since the election last year, the opposition leaders have led ‘walk to work’ protests against the rising cost of living. As Reuters points out, Uganda is the third largest economy in East Africa but this growth can’t continue with such poor infrastructure. In the Reuters article, Asaf Kulumbano, a sheet metal worker, says he doesn’t make any money if there’s no power. His children will go hungry.

Clearly the government will have to address these concerns very soon. As the cost of living in Uganda keeps increasing, people are becoming increasingly frustrated. Food costs have increased, along with fuel. When the GDP per capita is $1,300 USD (Uganda ranks 209/226 countries in terms of GDP per capita), every penny counts. People pay more for the services yet see poor hospitals, terrible roads and lack of electricity.

The government is promising more reliable electricity, but whether this will be enough remains to be seen. For now, I am both relieved and uncomfortable that power outages are just an inconvenience for me, not a matter of life and death as it is for so many Ugandans.

The Owino Market in Kampala. This market is one of the largest in the continent and is believed to have more than 50 000 vendors.

– Mariah Griffin-Angus, Governance Project Officer, CIDA International Youth Internship Program, Uganda 2012
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