Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"It's like a hurricane is coming our way, We've all been warned but we still chose to stay" - Needtobreathe

For those of you who haven't figured it out yet, I'm back in the United States. And I'm in New Jersey. A number of people have asked me to compare my experience with Hurricane Sandy and the aftermath with my time in Africa. It's been similar in many ways, but in other ways quite different. Some of my friends in Africa asked me what a hurricane is. I defined it simply as a really really big thunder storm with crazy strong winds and lots of flooding...except it's really bad.

A very common sight!

My current situation is that I am at my cousin's apartment just trying to stay warm. I lost power one week and one day ago at my parent's home. I don't have a smart phone, so that means I don't have access to the internet. It's 42 degrees today and it dropped down to 25 degrees last night (for you metric folk, that's -4 degrees). My dad stayed at home last night to "guard the house and care for the cat." My mom stayed in NYC at Emmaus House where she volunteers (https://www.facebook.com/EmmausHouseHarlem).

Let's go situation by situation.

Lack of power: I've gone days without power in both the US and Uganda. Luckily I lived in the city in Uganda and knew lots of people with generators. So, if I go tired of sitting in the dark, I could get a ride to someones home with power. It seems like more people have generators this year compared to last year's hurricane (I guess some people learned, though last year was a much different storm). We do not have a generator at our home. Nor do know anyone with an extra one around. And pretty much everyone was in the same boat. People keep asking when we will get power back here. Rumor has it that it will be at least another week for our neighborhood. The wind pretty much knocked everything down. I overheard someone describing the area that I work in as it looking like a bomb exploded there. There's a lot to clean up, and lot of power lines that need to be fixed. We pedestrians don't wanna mess with that stuff! In Uganda the power company might tell you when to expect power outages. Sometimes they would be accurate, while other times not so much. Also, power was usually out for short periods of time. When we knew blackouts were coming we would charge our computers and phones ahead of time and unplug quickly so that when the power surge came they wouldn't be spoiled completely.
Trees down the road that fell on power lines!

Lack of power meaning no refrigerator: To most of the population of Uganda- no power- what refrigerator? If they have a fridge, again, they probably have access to a generator or they know someone who will let them use it for a few hours at least. If not, Ugandans are so friendly that they'd just cook up all the food and have a feast for the whole town. America? So much food is prepackaged here and goes bad if it's not kept in the freezer. Sad days.

Lack of internet: Africa- who has internet? Ok, so a lot of people do have access to internet cafes these days in the cities. In this area of America, most people have smart phones, and are wayyyy too addicted to their constant contact social network connections. It is frustrating for us who don't have internet access while the rest of the world goes on expecting you to have complete access and reply to things. People just don't understand that it's not going to happen.

Lack of phone use: Unfortunately, for the first 5 days of the power outage, there was also no cell phone signal and landlines are still down. People with their smart phones were frustrated at not being able to power up and use the internet at a drop of a hat. In Uganda, I was used to the network not working all the time. Once, I got a text message 8 months after it had been sent. True story.  People out in the villages often don't leave their phones on, and to charge them they will walk to the nearest village and leave their phone at a shop for a few hours and pay to get it charged.

Gas shortage: Gas doesn't always make it to Uganda. It's landlocked. The petrol comes from ships off of the Indian Ocean. Who runs the Indian Ocean? Pirates. Yes, they still exist for you sheltered people out there. So gas doesn't always make it to the port of Mombasa in Kenya. Sometimes the roads are blocked along the 24 hour drive from Mombasa to the capital city of Uganda, Kampala. When there is a gas shortage in Uganda, some forms of public transport go up. Bodas (the motorcycle taxis) will often try to get more money from their passengers. In America? PANIC. Ever heard of the gas shortages in the 70's? They imposed a law that on even numbered days people whose last number on their license plate ends in an even number can get gas. Well, it's happened again. I'm hoping I don't need to wait in 2 insanely long times today (one to get gas, and one to vote...I better get going!) People here are crazy. I know people who have waited in line for 1 1/2 hours just to get cut off 10 cars ahead of them. I know others who have been tempted to take bribes for letting a car cut them in line. You get the idea.

Lonnng lines on highways for gas.

Temperature: The good thing about it being soooo cold outside is that we can just put the things from the fridge out on the deck. And watch out that the squirrels don't steal everything. In Uganda we didn't have to worry about the weather during outages. The weather was practically perfect all year round in Kampala. My cousin's apartment is rather happily situated surrounding other apartments so it's quite warm in here now. However, at home without power, I couldn't feel my hands or nose, and that was when I was still under 2 blankets. 100 years ago people lived much differently and didn't have power, but stayed warm. However, people had fireplaces in every room in their house! Please join in prayer for people to stay warm!!!

Stoplights being out: In Uganda, people don't really follow traffic laws. And the cops tend to make up their own laws as they go (I'm speaking from experience). Don't get me wrong, I love the place dearly, but there is corruption. You'll often find a long line at a stoplight just to find that some police officers decided to ignore the light and tell people to go themselves. In the US, there are signs put up when lights go out, but people still don't know what to do! Even if there is no stop sign at an intersection where there is usually a stoplight, they stop. It's comforting to know that people err on the side of caution. It's still crazy to me though that as we were driving last night the car that I was in hit a live wire hanging from a power line. There are still not enough signs to warn people of impending danger. Thank the Lord we were OK.

No power at intersections.

Grocery stores: Another funny aspect about power being out in Uganda is that stores and restaurants are still open- just with limited menus or candles lining the isles so that you can see what products are on the shelf. It was somehow enchanting. I was reminded of this the other day when I went into a grocery store that had a generator running just for one cashier. The rest of the store was dark. The meat, cheese and freezer sections were eerily empty. My cousin found one grocery store with ice. They had a limit of 2 bags. One lady wanted to buy 3 in front of her. When she was told that she couldn't buy that many the woman just got mad and left.

Attitudes: And that brings us to our next section. People in America are selfish. I hate to admit it, but it is SO true. The government told people that because there is so much wreckage, that people will have to find their own way of getting rid of all the rubbish in their yards (leaves, trees, branches, etc.). I drove down several roads that you could barely drive on because so many people have ignored that and just put their huge branches in the street. Not even the sidewalk, the street. People just don't care- they only care about themselves and their problems. Let me rephrase that, there are some who care, but they are diamonds in the rough. Someone just asked me today what I thought of Uganda. My first response was that Ugandans are some of the most friendly people in the world, and the most giving. True story. Even if they don't have much, if they see a need, they give. If someone comes to their door, they invite them in and feed them, even if they have no idea who they are. They're just giving by nature. We could use some more of that around these parts. Just sayin'.

Water usage: People's wells don't work in America without power. If the water is running, there have been concerns about the safety of consuming it due to contamination. I guess there's always a chance that due to flooding, bad water can get mixed in. All I have to say is that at least in the US we don't need to worry about all of those evil water-born diseases. AND water comes to our homes. How amazing is that!? No seriously, do you know how blessed you are? I had water come to my home in Uganda, but I even had to go and buy drinking water in huge jugs at least once a week. And people in villages? Not so much fun having to walk a few miles, fill up a huge yellow jug by using your whole body weight in physical exercise after waiting in a line, then hoisting that jug on top of your head and walking slowly back to your home. But wait, it's not done there! Then one pours some into a pot. Luckily, you've already got a fire going. After waiting a while for the water to boil, you take it off and wait for it to cool down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat for the rest of your life...and that's just if you have water access. Ok, enough.

Me carrying a small jug of water back to the hut we were staying in out near the border of Kenya. Notice I can't handle the balancing act. They've got some strong neck muscles! 

Cooking: A lot of people in the US have electric stoves, so when the power is out, they can't cook. In Uganda, people know better. We always had not only gas ranges, but a way to light the oven when the power was out. I'm blessed to live in a place that has a gas range, but no oven. At least we've been able to make hot water for hot chocolate and make some stir fry!

What to do???: A lot of people's places of employment have either been closed or they've not been able to get there. My school has been closed since before we lost power, as with the public schools in the area. Yesterday afternoon I drove through a town and saw some kids with backpacks. I said to my cousin, "Are they coming from school?!!" Her response was "Jealous?" Absolutely! I miss teaching. Even if it's not exactly what I thought I'd be doing, I still miss it and those kiddos. I am however very thankful to have a job. Period.
People here don't know how to occupy themselves without access to their computers and TV. In Uganda we got along fine playing games by candle light. I've been doing a lot of reading by candle light here, a task which few others seem willing to undertake due to the flickering.

Ok, so that was longer than it needed to be, but I hope you found it entertaining or insightful. Both places have their weakness and strengths, as we all do.