Jim and Linda never pretended that their gracious home in Botswana has a reliable supply of electricity. They told us of frequent, unannounced outages of varying lengths. We know that Linda checks the red doorbell light each time she pulls her car up to the high metal gate. The gate will roll open in response to her clicker no matter what, because of the battery backup. But if the red light is on, Linda breathes a sigh of relief to know she’s returning to a house with power. We knew all this, but until last night we had never turned on a light switch or a computer or an air conditioner without immediately obtaining the expected result.
A change was foreshadowed yesterday afternoon at the Grand Palm Hotel, when the lights in the dining room flickered several times but remained on during the buffet lunch. The stores at Molapo Crossing, the shopping mall where we stopped on the way home, had no electricity, but people were still selling and buying in darkness relieved by light bouncing around corners from the mall’s high skylights. The Pick n Pay, where we bought cookies and biscuits for today’s drive, had battery backup for the cash registers, so they were working just fine, thank you. As we left, I peered into the Orange phone store, where people were sitting in near darkness, taking a break, perhaps. This all seemed quaint and amusing to me, and as we waited for the metal gate to roll aside back at the house, the red light was on.
Gladys, Jim and Linda’s unflappable housekeeper, had nearly finished preparing a Botswana-style meal of chakalaka, trout, cole slaw and cornmeal pap when the lights went out at 6:30 p.m. She finished heating the pap on a propane burner atop a portable tank in the kitchen. As dusk gathered, we had a pleasant dinner out on the patio by the swimming pool, enjoying the cooling air.
Darkness arrived. Jim fetched a flashlight to read his paperback by. Darlene’s and Deb’s Kindle 3 cases have built-in lights, and Linda’s and mine have goose-neck lights that clip on to the Kindles. With no air conditioning, it became too hot in the living room, so we all ended up out on the patio alternating between conversation and reading in comfortable silence.
Bedtime came earlier than usual. In the guest room where Darlene and I sleep, we continued our Kindle reading in bed with the windows open to a slight breeze. But as we tried to fall asleep I heard a couple of mosquitoes buzzing. I tried to remember the map of malaria areas we’d seen at the Mount Auburn Travel Medicine Center before leaving for Africa, but I was almost sure Gaborone was safely outside them. This did not help me to fall asleep, and I eventually got up to close the windows. I wasn’t sure if the toilets needed electricity to flush, so I held off on some business that would have made me more comfortable.
At about 2:30, when we were finally asleep, an alarm went off in the neighborhood. It rotated among several creative electronic patterns that seemed to mimic the sounds of animals and birds, and it finally ceased. I knew the electric wire atop the walls of the yard have backup battery supply, and all the doors and gates were locked. Even so, my sense of security was diminished, and by 3 a.m. the power outage no longer seemed quaint and amusing. When I woke up this morning, the electricity was back, having returned at 3:30 a.m., Jim said. But now, for some reason, we’ve run out of water pressure.
I know from working at a natural gas utility company for 11 years in Wyoming and Colorado that in any setting it takes a lot of investment, skill, hard work, and experience to keep the heat and lights on 24/7 all year round. Botswana gets its electricity from South Africa, and there are capacity problems. Despite my shortened night of sleep, I’m glad we had a chance to experience first-hand, in a very minor way, one of the many challenges facing Botswana, this small nation of remarkable resources and promise.