The most common question I have from anyone I meet while living in Tanzania, East Africa, is what I miss about Canada.
While the easy and honest answer is family and friends, I must admit that I find myself struggling to when reflecting at greater lengths as to what I am truly lacking?
In terms of the basics, I have them all — clothes on my back, a place to call home and three meals a day. In terms of the luxuries, I can pretty much track them down when I need to — ice cream, a relatively current movie or a decent book. Really, there isn’t too much more to ask for.
The funny thing about life in Tanzania is that all of the pieces really are here to have a fairly decent life. However, making this a consistent reality is more a matter of these many parts being somewhat connected, than it is their actually being present.
For many here, the missing piece tends to be the money or ability to sustain the basics such as food, clothing, and shelter before even remotely being able to realize other essentials. It can be a challenge to sustain basic education, health care and safe water far less luxuries such as soda pop and cable television.
Among the endless and dizzying discussion as to what actually is missing that holds Tanzania back from realizing her fullest potential, for me it constantly comes back to what I truly miss about home. Being assured that when I flip a switch that there is going to be a light that comes on.
As a Canadian, I have always considered access to energy as a given that borders on a fundamental right. Since being in Tanzania, I have been humbled to learn it is one of the finest privileges to be had in living in the developed world.
The common reports in Tanzania are that only 15 per cent of the population has access to electricity. In a country where there are an estimated 44 million persons, that works out to about 6.6 million people who have electricity. However, that doesn’t nearly account for the true reality of the situation when it is further considered in the rural-urban context.
Roughly 75 per cent of Tanzanians live in rural areas where electricity access is generously described as reaching two per cent of the population. To put it roughly into numbers, out of 30 million rural persons, making up the majority of the national population, only 900,000 have reasonable access to electricity.
With dismal numbers such as these, one would think that there would be a silver lining in terms of actual electrical supply. It really shouldn’t be much of a problem to produce enough electricity for so few people — especially in rural homes that typically only need enough power for two to four light bulbs and a radio. Sadly, this is not the case at all in Tanzania.
At their best, power outages come several times a week in Tanzania and last for a few hours. At their worst, they stretch for two to three days at a time (my personal blackout record is five days). While an impromptu work holiday is sometimes appreciated when an outage arrives between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., evening outages provide some opportunity to fumble for a flashlight and ponder an even darker question. If the power is this poor when the use is low, what is going to happen when electricity demand, as estimated by the government, triples by 2020?
Questions and opinions as to why electricity is such a problem in Tanzania (and what should be done about it) are both abundant and diverse, but the common agreement among one and all is that the nation is in the midst of an energy crisis.
However, when reflecting on the number of people that actually have electricity, I find my question more often becomes, "An energy crisis for whom?" It is important to keep in mind that when the lights go out in Tanzania it doesn’t plunge the entirety of the nation back in to darkness — largely because the majority of population is already there. What a loss of electricity really means is that the one out of seven Tanzanians living in cities and blessed enough to have electricity are temporarily forced to make do with a kerosene lamp like their neighbours.
In a land where having modern energy is a dream unlikely to be achieved within one’s lifetime, arguing the absence of electricity as a dilemma is almost unfathomable.
While it is easy to say that most of us in Tanzania really are in the dark, as I’ll continue to discuss next month, it may be a surprise as to what is actually keeping us there.
» Josh Sebastian is from Brandon-Westman and is currently working on international development projects in Tanzania, East Africa.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 14, 2012