15 July 2011


I have just survived without electricity for six days. I've been off the grid in my own home, but it has been an oddly exhilarating experience, says Susan Erasmus.


I have just survived without electricity for six days. I've been off the grid in my own home, but it has been an oddly exhilarating experience, says Susan Erasmus.

Right. I will spare you the Kafkaesque saga that led to the disconnection. Suffice to say they are not supposed to cut you off on estimated readings, but what the hell?

Last Wednesday evening I arrived home in darkness. All was clearly not well in Wireland.

In an effort to become reconnected, I became acquainted with Latiefah, Ebrahim, Jody, Dielshaad and Donna who answered the council telephones – eventually. We were on the point of exchanging family snippets, when oh joy, oh rapture, it was Day 2 and I was on the reconnection list. I felt as if I had won a Golden Ticket in the Idols competition. But come Friday night all was still in darkness.

And they don't do reconnections on a Saturday. No joy, no rapture.

I have to admit there was a moment of despair. The water in the geyser had finally run cold. I needed to bath and wash my hair. I lay in bed pondering my next move. What about a small gas cylinder? Afraid not. No gas appliances were to be had anywhere as there is apparently a shortage. I was about to have a meltdown and pack my bags to go elsewhere for the weekend when a certain pioneering spirit kicked in.

People lived for millions of years without electricity. In fact millions of South Africans still do. What makes me so special? Besides, I had warm blankets, candles to read by, the landline was working and there was running water, albeit an Arctic stream. That's more than lots of other people can say.

In fact, a bit of elbow grease and some ingenuity go a long way. On day 4 I lit a large fire outside and boiled water in a pot. This served to make some decent coffee in the plunger I had forgotten I possessed. With the help of a bucket and a plastic beaker I 'showered' and washed my hair. I found clothing that didn't require ironing and settled down to drying my hair in the sun and building a jigsaw puzzle.

I enjoyed the absolute silence. No radio, no fridge purring, no alarm beeping as I opened doors. I just managed to let myself out before the batteries in the electric gate finally gave up the ghost.

When I was running a few errands I noticed one or two people glancing at my half-dry hair, but pretended not to see. Nothing time wouldn't solve.

I felt more than a passing sympathy with the beggar at the traffic lights. That's when I realised that poverty brings with it its own humiliations: it's difficult to keep yourself and your clothes clean and neat when you have no money, no access to running water or electricity. You have little negotiating power when there's no money in your pocket. Hunger and cold are hard taskmasters. Your choices are severely limited. Not that my situation was nearly as dire as that of many other people: I was just temporarily inconvenienced. I suddenly felt a bit ashamed of myself for feeling the universe had it in for me because I couldn't watch the DSTV History Channel, use my portable phone, or hear my doorbell.

I turned down three invitations to come and spend the weekend with friends who were still on the grid. In fact, I decided not to cancel the lunch party to which I had invited some friends on Sunday. If millions of people can do without power, so can I. Power to the people and all that. It's amazing what you can cook on a fire. And good company more than makes up for a lack of kilowatts.

Right, and on to Day 6. It was finally time to wash clothes in cold water in the bath. As I said, life does have its little humiliations.

A few phone calls later the grim truth was revealed: the power had actually been switched on four days before, but there was clearly a problem on the side of the municipal electricity supply. A few men scaled poles and flicked switches – and there was light! And a fridge, an iron and a TV. And eventually hot water and an alarm. My joy knew no bounds. My good luck fairy had returned.

All but 48 hours of this ordeal had been unnecessary. But now I know I can survive quite happily off the grid and out of the loop. I wouldn't choose to, but I know I can. It gives me a strange feeling of power. Percolated coffee, anyone?

(Susan Erasmus, Health24 July 2011)





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