Living in a developing nation that seems to think it’s short on resources has made quite an impact on me. This I’ve only realized since coming back to the US. We have regular power outages in Nairobi; this is juxtaposed by huge electricity bills. Often I wonder, ‘what am I paying for, it’s not on half the time.’ For about two months we had regular electricity ‘rationing,’ Kenya Power and Lighting turned off our power from 6am to 6pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. In true Kenyan style it turned out to be more like 7:31am to 5:43pm. I have noticed that in the US we use electricity for everything. We have plugs everywhere and we keep everything plugged in all the time. In the middle of the night when I stumble out of my bed to collect my crying baby there are at least five electronic devices blinking at me in the dark in my in-laws guest room. The phone, the TV, the computer, the intercom, the heating pad on our mattress, the VCR, the alarm clock, the plug in air freshener, and the night light in the bathroom. We have power running even when we are asleep. I have also been shocked about how testy the lack of power has made me, I have caught myself frequently scowling as I angrily flick off a light that someone has left on, or wrenching a plug from the wall that goes to an appliance that is lying fallow at the moment.
Our public bathrooms are completely electronic. You can wave your hand in front of the sink fixture for water, you can do the same for soap and paper towels. All so that you don’t have to touch where other people have touched. The electronic paper towel dispensers kill me, if you’re getting a paper towel shouldn’t you have washed your hands so that they’re clean? I can’t tell you how many bathrooms I’ve been in that the electronic one is broken and they’ve installed an old-fashioned dispenser that requires touching it underneath the broken one. So what happens when the power goes out? You can’t wash your hands at all. Then we’re all kinds of crazy dirty, running around touching doorknobs with our unwashed bathroom hands. Chaos.
I have also become jumpy about water usage. Regularly water ceases to flow from the tap in our little Kenyan apartment. We have a borehole on our compound so we are not subjected to water rationing like the rest of the city is. My friends without wells have had to buy water several times a month to refill tanks that they have had to install themselves, because city water somehow never comes or doesn’t come when it’s supposed to. Meanwhile there are gigantic puddles that stop traffic because of a burst pipe or our rich neighbor who has his driver wash his three cars every morning. To get hot showers we installed an ‘instant shower.’ This is an electric device that goes over the shower head and heats the water as it flows through. As soon as it was installed I second guessed our decision, it absolutely destroyed the water pressure and makes the water come out either lukewarm or scalding hot. So usually I take my showers by standing on the periphery of the flow and either quickly waving appendages through or a fast dodge underneath to rinse my particulars. Instant showers are pretty popular in Kenya, because lots of places don’t have water heaters and if they do they refuse to run them, just like we do. At the hotel we stayed at before and after climbing Mt.Kenya there was an instant shower that was afflicted with the boiling hot disease. A cruel irony before and after a week long backpacking trip. On the morning after the trip Scott was taking a shower, I was in the bathroom getting ready to join him, he says in an voice that a mixture of extreme calm and slight bewilderment, ‘Uh, it’s on fire.’ I start laughing because it had been so hot I thought he was joking, then he says, ‘No really, it’s on fire.’ The ‘instant shower’ truly had lit on fire. Fortunately it shorted and died right after it lit on fire. I skipped the shower that morning.
I’m not sure why our water somehow doesn’t make it up to our tap on our compound, no one seems to be able to give us a clear answer. The cold tap does not work in our kitchen, never has. Of course we don’t have hot water because to run our water heater raises our already incomprehensibly high electricity bill. We follow the ‘if it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down’ rule. We shower with a bucket underneath our feet to catch water and then use that to flush our toilet, the toilet that takes five flushes to get anything brown down. As my friend Jill asked, ‘why is it that the toilet uses buckets and buckets of water, yet still the turd remains?’
In one of the first weeks that we were in Nairobi Scott went out of town to do a training, I believe this was my second or third week teaching school. In that week I got the flu and our water ran out and our power went out for about a day or so. I remember after a night of projectile events at both ends of my digestive tract relenting and calling a friend to take me to the doctor. I hadn’t had running water or electricity that whole night. Right before my friend arrived the water began to run again, but not in the bathroom only in the kitchen. I eagerly splashed water on my feverish face and unfortunate armpits in the kitchen sink, when my friend arrived I embarrassedly explained my dilemma. She smiled, she knew, she had already lived in Kenya for a year.
I know there are plenty of Kenyans and people all over the world that don’t have electricity or running water at all. I just feel like if the tap is there it should run, and if the lights are there they should turn on. There must be some kind of balance between Americans almost ridiculous over consumption of resources and the Kenyan inability to keep them coming. A utopia where we wisely use resources, not over use out of a need to be comfortable and fear. A place where people are conscious of not overusing them or are not praying in gratitude each time they actually work.