When the power goes out in America, everyone panics and starts frantically hunting for candles and flashlights. It’s all we talk about for weeks afterward. In Kenya, as well as in almost every other third-world country, power outages are normal and even expected.
The first time the electricity went out while I was in Kenya was only two days after arriving in Africa for the first time.
I was sitting in a Swahili language lesson in Old Town, Mombasa, when the power suddenly switched off. It wasn’t until my skin began to glisten with sweat that I looked up and noticed that the ceiling fans had stopped.
Our instructor just kept teaching and it wasn’t until an hour later when the fans screeched to life again that we finally understood what was going on.
As the room cooled he just looked at us, smiled and said, “Welcome to Africa. Hakuna matata [no worries].”
In Africa, electricity comes and goes, but life goes on.
As the sun sets and lights flick on all over Kenya, generators kick into overdrive and the rolling blackouts begin. Every third night, sometimes more often, the power cuts out for hours and you’re left eating dinner by candlelight.
Kenyans are used to it, though. They expect it. Going with the flow is the cornerstone of an African lifestyle. You just pull out the old Coleman lantern and hand-crank radio and go about your business. That’s just how life is in the third world.
Now think about going a whole day without electricity in America.
You could still get to work, unless you drive a Prius or take public transit, but you couldn’t do much when you got there. And what would you do when you got home without a television or the internet? Most of us wouldn’t even be able to cook dinner without our electric stovetops, ovens and (most importantly) microwaves.
Our electric addiction is why we’re having such trouble understanding what happened in India this week.
In case you haven’t heard the story, on Tuesday over half of India’s 1.2 billion people lost power in the country’s largest blackout ever.
The American media has been ablaze all week with news of miners trapped (temporarily) underground, trains screeching to a stop and other major interruptions.
We express our empathy because when the power goes off stateside, it’s a big deal, and we don’t know how half of such a massive country can function without power. The fact of the matter is, though, most Indians are used to going without power.
From the New York Times:
While the numbers are colossal, disruptions in many people’s daily lives were kept to a minimum. After all, India, a nation of 1.2 billion people, sees frequent local power cuts that last several hours a day in some parts of the country.
So when Tuesday’s unplanned power failure occurred, following on the heels of another power failure the previous day, the usual backup of generators and inverters that households and businesses privately own kicked in.
Power outages in India—totally standard, just like in Kenya (and most other third-world countries, I imagine).
For those who own their own generators (because power loss is so common), there was almost no interruption. For those who don’t, they’re used to losing power regularly for large periods of time. While inconvenient, that’s life.
What most Americans just don’t understand is that in third-world countries, you don’t rely on anything.
You don’t rely on the government to stop corruption. You don’t rely on the mail to come. You don’t rely on a train getting you there on time. And you especially don’t rely on any sort of infrastructure, especially government-funded infrastructure.
When the lights work, or the police are honest, or the government funds a new hospital, you’re surprisingly pleased and grateful. Because of this, citizens of the third world don’t take anything for granted.
And I think life is a little better that way.
Let’s look at India not as a demonstration of poor infrastructure or third-world government corruption, but as a lesson in adaptability. After all, I think everyone (Disney especially) would agree that Americans could use a hefty dose of hakuna matata.
And a little more emergency planning wouldn’t hurt either.