23 June 2014

the power rangers.

Let me give you some advice. Don't share electricity with your neighbors. We found ourselves in this situation. And it is no fun. Here is the story.

During our initial house hunting visit of our current home, we asked our landlady, 

"Hey, does this home share electricity with these three stores right in front of the house?" 

"No," she replied without hesitation. 

"Perfect," we said.

Fast forward one month and we are living in our home.

There is a knock on our front gate. Looking through the gate, I see a young man and I ask, 

"Can I help you?" 

"Yeah, I work in one of the stores right here in front of your house and I have come to check the electricity meter," he tells me.


"To see if we need to buy more kilowatts." 

"Wait, are you telling me that your business shares the same electricity meter as our home?" 

"Of course." 

We confront our land lady.

"Hey, what gives? You told us that this home does not share electricity with these three stores, but we know it does," I tell her. 

"I know. I was hoping to have that situation changed," she replies. 

"But why didn't you tell us the truth when we asked you during our first visit? We were intentionally trying to avoid this kind of situation." 

"Don't worry. It will be fixed. I have already contacted Tanesco, the Tanzanian Electric Supply Company."

Okay, a little background.

Our electricity is pre-paid. There is a box on the side of our home with a keypad. We visit a person in a wooden kiosk down the street to buy electricity vouchers. Each voucher has a unique 16-digit pin which we enter into the keypad on our electricity meter. This instantly recharges our electricity for the amount of kilowatts we purchased. The benefit of this system is that it gives you more control over your electricity usage, and you can easily see when you are getting low. It also means the electricity company no longer has to hunt people down to pay their prior month's bill. Since our home shares an electricity meter with three stores, everyone has to contribute cash in order to buy more electricity before our current allotment runs out. To solve this, a second electricity meter would need to be installed that supplies the stores, separating our electricity usage from theirs.

Over the next few weeks, a battle ensues between us and the workers in the three stores.
About every three days, I would come home from work and have this conversation with the store workers: 

"Okay, the electricity meter is about to hit zero kilowatts, so everyone needs to contribute money to buy more. Each should contribute according to their usage, which we can measure using the meter," I explain to them. 

The responses generally go like this: 

"I don't have any money." 

"My boss has to approve the amount." 

"My boss says I cannot pay that much." 

"I will contribute later." 

"I don't want to pay the amount I owe." 

This conversation would continue for one hour and end with each member contributing mere change which would buy us enough electricity to last another two or three days. Then this event would repeat itself. To be clear, most of the time I would visit them to have this conversation, I would find them either lying face down asleep on the floor in their store, or sitting listening to music without a care in the world.

Tanzanian culture is essentially non-confrontational. I was admittedly and decidedly quite confrontational as the frustration of this situation continued to wear on me. One of the store workers told Ashley when I was not around, 

"Your husband is very fierce. I have been studying him. He does not play around." 

I suppose I owe that to my Americanness.

After a few weeks of this situation, and our Tanzanian landlady not being responsive, we learned that she had left the country to visit her sister in the United States. We were officially on our own to bring about utility usage justice and restore electrical power to our home.

Enter the Power Rangers.

It was time to take matters into our own hands, so we visited the district office for Tanesco, the company that supplies the electricity and installs new electricity meters. We told them our landlady said that she had already started the process to have a new meter installed for the stores in front of our home. They pointed to a stack of papers literally piled floor to ceiling. We had to flip the pages one-by-one to find the handwritten record of our landlady's visit to their office. Eventually we did. Turns out she had not yet paid for a new meter, despite telling us it was all taken care of. So, using our own wallets, we fronted the money for a new electricity meter to be installed for the three stores. We thought this would end the waiting game, but we were wrong. The district manager explained to us,

"Look at all of these papers. These represent all of the people ahead of you waiting for a new meter. The current wait is at least six months."

We pleaded our case to the district manager. We explained the situation and how we were being taken advantage of by the store workers, likely because the color of our skin told them we have a limitless supply of money and can pay for everyone's electricity usage. He said he understood, and that we should return in two weeks and he would try to do us a special favor.

In the meantime, our new language school teacher in Mwanza somehow learned of our home location and says to us, 

"Wait, do you live in the home that shares electricity with the stores in front of it? I knew the prior residents. That situation drove them crazy." 

Good. Glad to know we are not the first victims.

Well, the two weeks went by so we returned to Tanesco. They told us to come back in a week. Another week went by, and the district manager asks one of his employees to hand him a crumpled piece of paper from his back pocket. Handwritten on this page were ten names - this random piece of chicken scratch paper contained the names of the people who were on the list to get a new electricity meter installed that day. He made our names number eleven on the list. We were thrilled!

That evening, after I returned home from work, there is a knock on our front gate. I opened the door to find eight Tanesco employees in hard hats holding several meters of electrical wiring and a cardboard box.

"We are here to install a new meter." Hallelujah!

For the next 45 minutes, I watched six guys watch two guys do the actual installation. Why they sent eight people given only two did the work, I do not know. They needed to bolt the meter high up on an exterior wall. Without asking, a man grabbed our two outdoor plastic chairs, climbed on top of our car and stood atop the chairs atop the roof of our car to bolt in the new meter. As they finished their work, they threw the cardboard box (which held the new meter), nails, screws, pieces of plastic, and old wiring across our yard and on top of our car and walked out, like that was no big deal. Our dog, Noli, immediately tried to eat the electrical wiring.

As they walked out, I yelled, 

"So all the work is done? The new meter works and our electricity is separated from these stores?"

"No," they replied. "We just install new meters. You need to call an electrician to separate the electricity between your home and the stores." 


I followed the men out and updated the store workers on the progress, and ask if they know which electrician our landlady (who also manages these three stores) likes to use. 

"Johnny," they replied in unison. 

As they said that name, a drunk man stumbles out of the bar and yells, 

"I know Johnny!" 

Turns out this random drunk dude did know Johnny the electrician, and he called him on the spot and Johnny showed up 30 minutes later to finish the electricity separation.

To connect the wiring to the new electricity meter, Johnny had to climb into the attic above the stores. Suddenly, I heard a loud banging. I called out, 

"Hey, are you trying to hammer through the wall? Shouldn't you be using a drill?" 

No sooner had I asked than a six-foot section of the wall and roof fell to the ground and shattered. On the positive side, there was plenty of room to run the electrical wiring. On the negative, he left a massive hole. 

"I'll return in two days to fix this," Johnny told me. 

"How? You are not a carpenter," I replied. 

"Don't worry," he said. 

Four days have passed and still no appearance of Johnny the electrician. Guess I need to find that drunk dude again to help call him.

Despite the gaping hole in the building, I am happy to report that, as far as we know, our electricity is now separated and we pay for our usage and our usage alone. Hooray!

Now if we can just solve the macro-infrastructure issue of electricity going out all of the time in this country…perhaps another day. For now, we will take comfort in this victory.


  1. Wow, funniest thing I've read in awhile. My favorite part:

    'Tanzanian culture is essentially non-confrontational. I was admittedly and decidedly quite confrontational as the frustration of this situation continued to wear on me. One of the store workers told Ashley when I was not around,

    "Your husband is very fierce. I have been studying him. He does not play around."

    I suppose I owe that to my Americanness.'

    Started laughing out loud at this point and pretty much didn't stop until the end. The other funniest part was when the shopkeeper is lying face down asleep on the floor, which I could just picture Michael narrating in his most sardonic voice.

    Well, I guess the electric holiday is over for the shopkeepers. It must have been like Christmas for them to find out they'd be sharing an electric bill with a real Mzungu! But I know what it feels like to be the guy who "does not play around." I once ate at a restaurant in Vienna where I ordered something called "Beef Soup with Beef," at least that was the English translation on the menu, and when it came there was not a gram of beef in the whole bowl. After the fifteen minutes it took to get the waiter's attention, while my friends were all finishing their meals, I explained to him why I would not be paying for any of the beef soup. Everyone was kind of taken aback - foreigners aren't supposed to complain about the food in Vienna - but after a little back and forth, he relented. The worst part is the pangs of guilt you get the rest of the evening, like maybe you were too hard on the poor restaurant, expecting them to put beef in their beef soup, etc.

    Good job, Power Rangers.

    1. Well I just laughed out loud reading about your "beef soup with beef" experience. Hysterical. I know what you mean about the guilt. Sometimes in the moment though it's just tough to remain calm.

  2. I had fun reading your post, it is better have own electrical supplies so you can know the electric meter did you used.


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