Shedding the load

In Zambia the rainy season starts in November and ends in late March. The country relies on this rain to fill the rivers that flow into the mighty Zambezi, which in turn fills the Kariba Dam, which generates the nation’s electricity as well as an excess that is exported to some neighbouring countries.

The last rainy season started late and – aside from a late flourish that catastrophically coincided with the soy harvest – never really took off, so rainfall was considerably lower than usual. As a consequence the rivers and dams are low, and power company ZESCO is rationing electricity, or load shedding as it’s known. This means lengthy and frequent power cuts for the whole country.

Climate change might well be playing a part in this. There is no doubt that weather patterns all over the world are changing, and seasons are increasingly unpredictable in Africa.

Lack of investment certainly plays a part. Zambia’s population is one of the fastest-growing in the world, increasing by more than 3% annually, but there has been no corresponding increase in investment and planning to meet higher demand for electricity and water. The infrastructure is creaking, and now we must all look forward to at least six months of power cuts before – we hope – the rains begin to fill the rivers and dams once more.

While there is nothing quite like the power going off ten minutes after you’ve put supper in the oven to send you reaching for the corkscrew and the biggest glass you can find, I’m aware that for me it’s just a Force 10 nuisance. For business it’s different. Without power to run the pumps, crops cannot be irrigated. Harvests are already lower because of the rainfall deficit, farmers’ incomes are down, and many will struggle to pay for the inputs they have used, creating a ripple effect through many other businesses. Manufacturing is hit just as hard. Many companies are forced to use diesel generators to keep their businesses ticking over, massively increasing their costs as they simultaneously try to sell their goods into a weakened economy.

Load shedding on a national scale has been going on for only a few days, but already we are settling into a sort of resigned routine. We’ve stopped swearing when the lights go out, but merely sigh heavily. We’ve got candles and matches and torches strategically placed around the house. I am driven to rage by hours without wifi, but I’m just going to have to suck it up.

And the best bit is when the power comes back on. It feels like Christmas. Without fail we smile and give a small involuntary exclamation of pleasure. Let’s hope that this equanimity, and the modest sense of triumph and delight, see us through until the next rainy season.

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Group therapy

So we went to Argentina. Notionally to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, but actually to drink lots of wine and to see whether the vineyard in which we made a modest but rash investment two years ago actually existed.

It did. Which was a relief.

It was the first really big trip that the two of us have taken without the children – now all travelling or working or studying – and at the airport we both had the giggly, slightly delirious sensation of playing hooky, or of having forgotten something important.

In fact all we had forgotten was how nice it is to pay two airfares instead of five.

Two jet-lagged days later we found ourselves bunked in much greater style than we’re accustomed to at the Park Hyatt in Mendoza, enjoying welcome drinks with the group we were joining on a wine tour.

Over the next four days we drank wine of a calibre that is the stuff of fantasy when you live in Zambia, and also ate extravagantly well. We were ferried around the country’s top wineries in minibuses into which we decanted – and increasingly squeezed – our overfed bodies, slumping heavily into our seats, catching a siesta on the way to the next meal.

I had never travelled in a group before, and actually I loved it. I loved the way people’s stories and personalities emerged slowly and then in a rush, encouraged by the companionship of shared interests and by the necessity of sitting next to a stranger at lunch and dinner each day.

And if I’m truthful, starting to drink at 11am probably helped too.

People talked about children and grandchildren, about wives who didn’t like to travel and jobs quit in favour of seeing the world. They talked of romantic encounters in Uruguay, of a beloved son’s suicide, of retirement spent practicing medicine as a volunteer in Peru, of aging parents and disappointing sons-in-law. It was fascinating, tragic, hilarious and occasionally a bit dull. Just like real life, actually.

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Argentina is staggeringly beautiful. The Andes – wrapped around the Valle d’Uco in a semi-circle of snow-capped magnificence – bring a lump to the throat and cause you to gape silently in the manner of a landed fish as you struggle for words.

It’s also a country laid low by economic incompetence. Everywhere we went people shook their heads in rage and despair at the car crash their once wealthy country has become and all had their hopes pinned on better things after elections scheduled for October.

In our two-week trip there was one day of general strike and no fewer than four public holidays. One of these was Malvinas Day, on which the country remembers the soldiers and sailors it lost in the Falklands War of the early 1980s. We kept a low profile that day, and left the Union Jack T-shirts in the suitcase.

We saw only a tiny bit of the country, but are determined to go back. The group parted in a flurry of embraces and email addresses and promises to reconvene in two years. I hope we do. But next time, in the interests of maximum sartorial choice, we’ll be sure to avoid Malvinas Day.