(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Fire in the Sky



I’m sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Kigali as I type. I have a nice view looking over the city. Dark clouds are brewing on the horizon and there is an increasing rumble of thunder as a storm approaches.

One thing that I didn’t anticipate when I moved here was the amount, and quality, of thunderstorms. It can get pretty crazy at times. It also can get deadly. On Saturday a storm hit a community in the south of Burundi a little over two hours from the capital. Students sought shelter in a classroom as the storm beat down upon them. Generally in Burundi towns are built on the tops of hills making them more susceptible to lightning strikes. Suddenly the school building was hit. Seven students were killed instantly and fifty-one others were wounded. The storm also destroyed roughly 500 houses in the area due to the subsequent mud slides.

The tragedy follows a series of fatal lightning strikes in recent days. Last week lightning killed four people and wounded nine others as they sheltered inside a small church in eastern Burundi. The following day two people guarding a herd of cows were also struck by lightning, while houses and crops were damaged by the heavy rains.

In addition to being tragic, it’s also a bit odd since normally the dry season has begun by now. Most people I’ve spoken to are puzzled by the late and violent storms.

Though nothing nearly as tragic, but still on the topic of lightning, I had an interesting exchange with a nice young lady last week. The other night we had a massive thunderstorm. One of the biggest I’ve experienced since we’ve been in Burundi. Crazy rain. Thunder. Lightning right on top of us. Kept going on and on. On my drive to work I could see the muddy remnants of flooding downtown, showing how deep the flooding had been during the night.

Before I left for work I noticed that the internet wasn’t working. I was afraid it was in some way connected to one of the lightning strikes that seemed to be on or very near the house. I checked the router but it seemed to be working, lights flashing and so forth, but no connection. Priya called our ISP to see if we could get some assistance. After telling us several times they were coming, and after much time has passed, someone finally came. I happened to be at the house since I’d come home early to go for a quick run.

I was happy to see that it was a young lady – good to see women elbowing their way into a field that is generally dominated by men. The woman, the size of an NBA forward, accompanied me to our little technology area and she started checking cables and looking for flashing lights, similar to what I had done that morning. She grabbed the box next to the router, the router-looking thing that is connected to the antennae, and said that the lights weren’t flashing. I said that I noticed it too but that I actually couldn’t remember if it ever had a flashing light. She confirmed that it did. Though the problem was likely discovered, that’s where her brilliance began to fade.

“I guess it was fried by a lightning strike during the crazy storm last night,” I said to her in French.

“No,” she said, “this was caused by electricity.”

Intrigued by her lack of understanding that lightning is one of the most violent and visible forms of electricity, supposedly inspiring a young Ben Franklin, I paused for a second. “Hmm,” I said. “So what do you think lightning is?”

She stared at me for a second and then said, “These devices are normally blown by electrical surges coming from the wall,” she insisted.

“Well, my guess is that since this was hooked up to a heavy duty surge protector, it wasn’t from the power coming through the wall. Moreover the router, a more delicate piece of technology, is in fine shape. I would say that it is likely that the surge came from the other end - like from a lightning strike directly to the antennae, down the cable and to the machine.”

“Hmm,” she said. “Maybe. Anyway, it needs to be replaced.”

“How long is this going to take?” I asked. 

“It’s 5pm. Won’t be until tomorrow.”

“But you showed up ten minutes ago. If your work is unable to continue after 5pm why did you show up at ten to five??”

“I don’t understand,” she said, maintaining the blank look that she had from the time she arrived.

The exchange led me to believe that she was fairly new to the job or she’d been partying the night before or possibly both. Either way it was a losing battle. Unfortunately for her, my internet expectations have changed in the past few years. Now, rather than coming home in great anticipation as to whether or not the internet is functioning in the evening, I simply expect it to work. And I get all bent out of shape when it doesn’t. I suppose that’s progress. 

So maybe I should focus on the positives. We had a technician arrive at our house the same day that we contacted them (even though it was seven hours later). We had a woman arrive rather than a man demonstrating progress in towards gender imbalance (even though she seemed to have the intellect of a postage stamp). And the lightning didn’t result in any loss of life. There you go. I guess I was a good day after all.

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