Saturday, August 14, 2010

Buckets and Candles

I never imagined how much I would come to depend on buckets and candles as part of everyday life here in Zambia.

Water is a sometimes thing. I have had no hot water for about a month, because the pressure is too low to fill the water heater. Cold water usually comes on at 5 am and stays on until 8 am, then returns around noon for a couple of hours, and again from 5 pm to 7 or 8. It trickles from the bathroom faucet, runs a little stronger in the kitchen, but apparently my house gets it before Jenny's so she has even less. It is dry season now, so we do not water the grass, only the vegetable garden. Rain comes back in November.

How do we manage? I store water in buckets in the kitchen and bathroom. My bathtub is large and deep, and it is almost always kept full of water. This is because we need a source for filling the buckets for the garden when the outside tap is not running,for doing the laundry, and for filling the toilet tank and the pans of water we heat for washing dishes. I drain all but a few inches on Sunday morning, add many pans of boiling water heated on the stove, and take my weekly "full bath". Otherwise it is "cat baths"--and I wash my hair in the kitchen sink.

At least here at MEF we do have water in our homes. Many Zambians have to get their water from a communal faucet, or a river. The high mineral content (Kitwe is in a copper mining area) makes the water look a little orange, but it seems to be safe for drinking once boiled.

Electricity is more dependable than water, at least for us in MEF. The same is not true for the nearby compounds, where they experience lengthy outages several times a week and virtually every weekend. And, of course, there are parts of Zambia without any electric power at all. At MEF we lose electricity about three or four times a month,sometimes for a short period, but other times for many hours or a full day.

Twice the electricity has gone off about 10 or 15 minutes after I had put a cake in the oven. The first time this happened, I just left the cake alone, didn't change the thermostat or open the oven door. The power was restored 4 hours later, and I then waited until the cake smelled good, opened the oven door, and miraculously it survived. Didn't rise as much as usual, was a bit denser, but tasted good all the same. The second time it was off only half an hour, and that cake was hardly affected. Who would have guessed cake batter would be so resilient?

I will appreciate having more dependable public utilities like electricity and water when I return to the U.S.--and well-paved roads, as well. Here, the roads are so full of ruts, potholes, and eroded shoulders that driving is truly hazardous. Pedestrians are also at risk of falling into holes or tripping over bumpy, rocky roadsides. When it rains it is even worse, of course, as the holes fill with water and are more difficult to see and avoid. Many side roads are not paved at all. Dirt roads become impassible for ordinary vehicles in the rainy season.

It must be a real challenge to decide where to invest public money in a poor country: schools, health care, roads, the electrical system, water, agriculture, public sanitation, technology... Is it better to spend a little on each and have poor quality services in every sector, or concentrate resources in a few areas and totally neglect others?

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