Groping in the dark for morsels of ubuntu


Ask anyone in Zimbabwe about electricity supplies and you will hear them curse intensely at the power company — everyone except my flatmates.

Most Zimbabweans have no good words for the power company because of the blackouts that have now become a daily occurrence, especially in the townships. There is no specific timetable or prior warning about these blackouts. They just happen at the whim of the technicians thus making it difficult to plan for them.
A friend of mine who stays in the township used to rush with her meat to a neighbour who had bought a generator every time there was a blackout. She tells me the neighbour would grudgingly take her meat and supposedly place it in the refridgerator. But she suspects that once out of sight the neighbour would take the meat out of the fridge because when power returned and she went to collect her meat, it would had developed a smell. “Sorry, the diesel got finished before the electricity came back,” the neighbour would say, the way of an apology and subtle reminder that the generator did not run on water.
My friend says she would then take back her smelly meat with a plastic smile glued to her face and secretly throw it away. Now she has bought her own generator and is doing the same to others who now come to her with their meat, milk and vegetables.
I stay at a flat in town with my family. Now town is a different place altogether. There is no sense of community in town. The town is a jungle. It’s each person or each family for themselves. No borrowing of salt, sugar or milk in the morning. No sharing of anything. During the time when everything was OK we hardly knew our neighbours. We only bumped into each other in the corridors and nodded hellos at each other, each one going about their business. We only got to know each other’s names when the blackouts started.
The blackouts brought us out of our shells and made us realise we are a family – a community. Thanks to the power shortages we now know each other and are even on first-name basis.
When a power cut occurs we all rush to the caretaker’s place downstairs and queue to cook as no one else is allowed to make a fire at the flat. So we all go to the caretaker who has a fireplace outside her room and take turns to cook. We now call her fireplace the communal fireplace. Our fireplace.
The caretaker buys firewood and charges us a small fee for cooking and the cooking usually takes hours. The clever ones have found a way to bribe the caretaker so that whenever there is a power outage they are the first ones to cook. However, it is the four bachelors in our flat who struck the best deal. They just buy their food and pay the caretaker’s daughter to cook for them. While most of us wait for our turn to cook the bachelors will be eating already. “Lucky b******s,” I always say to myself.
There is a service station two streets away from us that sells firewood and normally a bunch costs about $5 or R40. But when electricity suddenly goes the price doubles. Fortunately, we don’t buy the firewood as it is our caretaker’s responsibility.
The time we spend around the fire is quite interesting as it is the time we get to tell each other personal stories — our successes, failures, fears and dreams. We even behave like one big family.
Now I know there is a Patrick who works at the bank. I wish I had known him when we were still experiencing those terrible cash shortages in our country, those days before the final death of the Zimbabwean dollar. There is also a MaNdlovu who works for an NGO that operates in rural Binga. She is now in the habit of distributing malaria tablets whenever she comes from the field. She waits until there is a power outage and then comes brandishing her tablets like sweets. She uses the tablets to start conversations.
There is also this shy guy who wears suits. I used to think he was a banker or a manager of some sort. The caretaker’s daughter only told me recently that he is a barber and is looking after his sister’s things at the flat. The sister works in South Africa and sends him money for rent.
My favourite flatmate is an old coloured man who lives by himself. Everyone calls him Mr. Green. But he prefers to be called by his first name, Adam. I think Adam makes him feel younger again. Mr. Green is too old to be living in a flat anyway. He is into serious jazz and always comes to the fireplace when everyone has cooked. He doesn’t talk to anyone. When he gets to the fire he usually greets the caretaker and then throws a sausage onto the fire. There is a nasty joke about him around the flat. The joke is that he is always braaing the same sausage!
Staying at the flat has been quite fascinating. One day, during a power outage a man took a prostitute to the back alley and into this power substation box behind our flat. Inside the box they started doing their business under cover of darkness.
They were still about their business when the power unexpectedly returned. The prostitute was electrocuted on the spot.
It is believed the power came whilst she was still holding onto some power cables. The man survived because, according to him, the power came when he had left the woman for a moment to wear a second condom. The story was front-page news in our local newspapers.
We formed a 2010 soccer committee for the World Cup and I am the treasurer.
The idea behind the committee is to counter power outages. We’ve bought a small generator that can power at least one television set and a refrigerator.
Power or no power, we’ve not missed the ongoing soccer extravaganza down south.
Our prayers have been answered and our satellite dishes are working. Soccer and beer! 2010 has been a marvellous year so far!

lRaisedon Baya is a Zimbabwean playwright and cultural activist