Thursday, November 19, 2009

Making sparks fly...

Macarani, the security team leader races across the compound with the speed of a thousand startled gazelles.  He's heard something worrying...   It's the genset coughing and spluttering like a 60 a day smoker. The lights in our office flicker and dim so Pete and I stride across the camp in what we would like to believe is a dignified and purposeful fashion but we're no match for Macarani's speed.  We get to the genset just as he finishes topping it up the fuel. Good intentions but as we watch him wiping spilled petrol from the top of the still running genset just above a live 240v outlet, we realize we probably need to do a bit more training with the guys.

In any case we’re hoping fuel can’t be the problem. We reilled it just two hours previously. Macarani is a good guy and he’s troubleshooting the bit that he knows best which is fuel but sadly that’s not the reason it is missing and spluttering. Nothing so simple We tinker and prod as the engine starts running better but not for long. A red light flashes albeit too quickly to tell which one it was then the genset politely but spontaneously shuts down. Macarani stands by wanting to help and is as unsure as we are about the cause, but has enough common sense not to meddle. Pete and I on the other hand, don’t have that particular common sense gene and of course realize that if we don’t fix it no-one else will, so we meddle... Taking covers off here and there, we work out that the problem was low oil. Not a good sign really as it has only been 3 hours since we topped up the oil also. This is the genset that we just got back from the fly camp so we thought it would be a good idea to run this quieter genset at the camp. Our diagnosis is that the rings are shot and poor the little 4 stroke engine is burning oil now like a 2 stroke. With oil topped up, it starts but continues to miss and eventually through a process of elimination we eventually discover that the petrol Macarani added came from a drum that is at least 2 years old. From the look of the petrol in the tank, it’s been pumped out of the drum with the same pump the guys use for diesel and engine oil, neither of which was ever going to be a good idea. Not a good day for the poor little red genset but it soldiers on when we give it some clean fuel.

After 3 weeks here, the generator noise is just part of the background and you don’t even notice it most of the time. In fact, when the quiet one running, even the birds make more noise. We have 3 generators to choose from: small red previously mentioned genset (quiet), medium diesel (loud, Loud, LOUD!), large diesel (quietest) and one of them is running most of the day depending on what we’re doing.

With the red genset back on line now (but for who knows how long) I reflect on how easy it is to take electricity for granted. You flick a switch and miracles happen. Sure, I’ve been without it lots of time when camping etc but that’s different. I’m here for 3 months and I have books to write (not to mention not wanting to disappoint my loyal following of two blokes and a drovers dog waiting anxiously for my daily blog…). I’m liking what electricity gives us out here in particular, and until recently was in danger of taking it for granted. The gensets give us internet and lights. They provide the rest of the staff with television and lights. TV is something that I prefer to avoid but for the local guys on camp it is a real treat. Not just because it keeps them in touch with the rest of the world but because most of them don’t have it at home.

By some estimates, approximately 3 million people live in western Tanzania. I have no real figures for it but can safely say that the majority don’t have electricity. The nearest mains electricity is about 150km away in Mpanda. There is one solar power setup in Mwese 53.3 km away but I doubt there are any other electricity generation setups closer than that. Reflect for a moment on life without electricity. Just think - no cold beer. Ever… Hmmm. Bummer. No electric lights, power tools or appliances either. No fridges or freezers to store food and medicine. No computers in schools and no internet. No google, wikipedia, facebook or skype. No emergency communications to call a Doctor or ambulance (OK so this one is a moot point around here). Not so much as a place to charge a mobile phone even if you’re lucky enough to live in range of a tower. Lot’s of people have transistor radios and some have torches but none have TV outside of the big towns. Many people here are yet to see an electric light bulb. Makes you (or at least me) wonder what they make of it when they come to camp or a place like Mpanda with electric motors, TV, lights, fridges etc. Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction says that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. That works for me. Magic is as good a term as any for the benefits of invisible stuff like electricity. And living out here is only making me more of a believer in magic.

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