Thursday, February 25

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: KPLC

I estimate that I have about an hour to write this post. I can't tell for sure. My Dell would give me an estimate on how time remained before my battery trained. My Vaio does not, but it says 69%. We'll say a minute for every percent. As you might guess, the power is out. In and of itself, this is of no interest. The power reliably goes out once or twice a week, mostly during the day when we don't need to run our lights, the only things that run on electricity here. The water is unheated except by the sun, and we cook with charcoal, so it's not even that big a deal when the power does go out. The only trouble is when it cuts off during the night, and that's not so bad either. I rather appreciate how it encourages the kids to go to bed an hour or two early.

This time, however, it is not a general power shortage killing our lights. It's KPLC. The Kenya Power & Lighting Company. This all started late November. Four months after arriving in Nakuru, we realized that it was a bit dodgy to have not received a single electricity bill. Eager to avoid any legal trouble we paid a visit to their offices, in the Electricity Building appropriately enough. They visited our center, read the meter and then told us the meter did not exist in their system. It might have been lost when they switched to a new computer system. We would need to apply for a new account, and because we had no bill to prove that we had ever paid for one watt, they would also have to charge us for the back hours. The estimate was something around one million shillings. Maybe a little more. About thirteen thousand American dollars. Maybe a little more.

We regretted telling them about the lack of power bills and regretted so easily giving up on those halcyon days when they didn't know we existed. When we submitted the paperwork for a new account, we were quite pleased that they went straight back to ignoring us. There were no phone calls. We received no mail. We had no visits. We thought they were happy. We were happy.

That ended the day before yesterday. It ended in the form of the guard coming to tell me someone wanted to talk to me. I came out of the office to find one man had crawled to the top of the pole that supported our power lines and another was talking on his mobile at the base. The man on top pulls at some cables and comes down. The man on bottom hangs up.

"Hello," he says.

"What are you doing?" I scream. "Turn our power back on."

The conversation continues in this vein for sometime. He insists our meter is not in their system. I reply that we filled out the paperwork in November. He suggests we come to the office to discuss this. I say I am not going to waste any time with a company that lost our paperwork the first time and believes that the best way to arrange a meeting for a missing account is to cut the power to a home for over one hundred children. He raises his voice a little. I raise mine more. He tries to step past me, I step in his way. For a while he is literally pushing me. I had had a bad day and finally had an outlet. So had about five women on our staff. He only gets away by faking an incoming call and going through our barbed wire fence. Demetra goes to the office and is told the matter cannot be discussed because the manager for the case is gone until Thursday morning. They only agree to reconnect the power when they hear I'm away from the center at the time. I regret that I am not there to stare while they do it, but we have power for another two nights. We are content.

A new man and new partner came late yesterday afternoon and left with two cables. There was less shouting and less stepping in the way this time. I was in a better mood. Naomi and Demetra left minutes later to visit the offices. Around 4:30 the manager calls me to ask when we will submit the paperwork. I tell them our people are at his office now. I then ask why he feels that disconnecting our power is a better method for requesting a meeting than a phone call, letter or visit from one of his numerous flunkies. I ask what happened to our paperwork three months ago. He asks where the reference number is. I say his people screwed up the procedure and we are now paying for their mistakes. He says the office will only be open for another fifteen minutes, that we should hurry to submit a new request to open an account. I thank him for offering us such a generous time frame. He is the first Kenyan I have spoken with to have a fine enough grasp of sarcasm to realize it is an insult.

Later that night, Demetra takes a call from a man with KPLC who has found our paperwork. He and his manager are now respectively stored in my contacts as KPLC (GOOD) and KPLC (JERKWAD). Demetra visited both today and received a reference number and promise that the power should be connected sometime before the weekend.

To put it simply, KPLC are bullies. Rather than request a meeting and make a suggestion that power will be cut if you don't, they cut it. They request these meetings at the end of the day, an hour or two before they go home. They leave the power off at a children's home. Rather than looking for the documents you assure them you delivered months ago, they deny their existence. These are tactics better suited to the mob than a public utility.

And it doesn't really surprise me now. When the man we contracted to repair our roof admitted, on the same day this sordid affair with KPLC began no less, that his original estimate was only enough to repair one of our four buildings rather than all of them, I was not surprised. Dealing with matatu drivers who refuse to return our change even when we know the correct amount, police that lose evidence, Children's Department officers that demand bribes and chiefs who need to be reimbursed for their problems before caggabe and maize flour can be delivered to their hungry people has hardened me, to say the least. The obsession with looking out only for oneself and one's own runs deep. Maybe it has something to do with a ridiculously corrupt government that can't manage to punish or even show a unified will to punish those responsible for selling maize during a famine or skimming from funds intended to make primary education free for all children. I don't care. I'm sick of it. It makes me eager to leave. A little more than two months now.

My mom wrote in her last email that she knew Demetra was back and that I was in a better mood because I was writing about squat toilets and football. Sorry to ruin that streak.

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