When Systems Fry and Fail

Last week I wrote a post on the upsides of local houses. Well, there are downsides as well. The quality of the construction materials and infrastructure here in Central Asia means that things are regularly and unexpectedly breaking. “It takes forever just to get to zero here” is how one partner used to put it. In other words, by the time you’ve got your electricity working again, water back in your tanks, the squatty potty unblocked, and the cockroaches squashed, your energy and motivation to go out and invest in locals has taken a big hit. You’ve worn yourself out just getting to zero – and you haven’t actually done any “work” yet. Because of this, we’ve learned that part of living wisely in a place where things regularly break means having backups. And backups of those backups.

When a system we rely on breaks, that can throw a wrench in other very important plans. It can turn a day focused on good proactive work into a day consumed by reactive scrambling. It can also lead to a rush of stress and anxiety as we strive to fix said system ASAP while the children scream and the parents’ other tasks start piling on top of themselves. This kind of thing can be weathered occasionally, but no, it’s not sustainable. One of the reasons I’ve come to be a believer in backups (and backups of those) is because they simply allow my family to keep on humming along, even when we’ve somehow run out of water – again. Backups also crucially give me a bit more margin to fit in that repair or replacement without nuking my entire schedule. And I also find that I’m practically able to go about the logistics of the fix with a bit more patience, respect, and intentionality – in short, more like a Christian. Which is good, since I am a missionary, after all.

Two nights ago we got back from a Sabbath day excursion to the mountains. The real winter weather had finally arrived in our semi-desert city and I had left some small electric heaters on low so that the house would retain some of its heat while we were gone. The cement houses here quickly turn into iceboxes if their residents don’t vigilantly fight to maintain a low and steady heat inside. Well, we got back to see that our whole street had electricity, but our house alone was dark, as if we had tripped our power again. “Well,” I sighed to myself, “Here we go again!”

Our local electricity situation is quite complex. There is the dirt cheap national electricity which is very inconsistent, but almost unlimited in amount when it’s available. When it’s on, residents tend to binge use all their appliances at once. “Quick! Turn everything on before it goes away again!” When national electricity is off, each neighborhood uses its own private generator. Residents choose how many expensive amps they’d like to buy and can use only that amount of electricity when they’re running on neighborhood power. We buy just enough amps to be able to use one AC/Heat unit, plus a fridge and lights.

However, this neighborhood system still doesn’t equal 24-hour electricity. That’s led us to set up a battery-inverter system to run a few small things during the regular blackouts – things like internet, some light bulbs, and a sound machine for the kids. Beyond this, we have propane stoves and heaters, plus flashlights and candles. A family can actually hold out on battery and flame-powered devices for quite a while. This is what we end up doing when the neighborhood generator breaks down because of extreme temperatures or when the national electricity transformer at the end of our street gets fried by a very unlucky cat (true story). The longest we’ve gone without electricity here is about three days – not bad compared to the Melanesian village I lived in as child. But then again, there are no winters in Melanesia. Nor summers with 120 degree desert heat. In fact, the mountain valley I grew up in was known to have one of the most ideal climates in the world. But I digress.

When we got home from our mountain excursion we saw right away that we had no electricity. I first checked to see if we had tripped a breaker in our courtyard in a power surge. This sometimes happens when national electricity turns on. And it sometimes leads to 2 a.m. electrical fires (once again, true story). Nope, no tripped breaker evidencing a surge. Then I checked to see whether we were on the backup neighborhood generator. An indicator light told me that yes, we were supposed to be on neighborhood power. So I went out to another breaker we have up on a pole across the street to see if we had somehow tripped that one. Negative. Neighborhood power, our backup, wasn’t working for some reason. So I went inside and flipped the switch to the battery lights, our trusty backup of the backup, expecting the battery-wired bulbs to immediately flicker on. Still nothing. Here I started to get a bit concerned. The backup of the backup wasn’t working either. I remembered that a friend had just warned me that it was coming time to replace the huge battery we had bought four years ago for our inverter system. The aging battery must have run out of juice after running for several hours. Now it was completely dead.

I went upstairs to check yet another set of breakers (all fine) and then turned a propane heater in our central room on high. At least we would have some heat. Then I came down and started pulling out all our neglected flashlights and putting fresh batteries in them. With the aid of the flashlights, my ninja wife was able to get our campfire-scented children bathed. We praised God that hot water was left over in the boiler from earlier in the day. We had hot water, some propane left, batteries for the flashlights, and some candles. Not bad, actually. The backups of the backup of the backup were saving the evening. With these things my wife was able to move the kids toward bed (somewhat) as usual. And I was able to start problem-solving the situation, knowing my family wasn’t going to bed in a house that was completely cold and dark.

I quickly called up our neighborhood generator man. Someone else picked up and told me that the man I needed was actually asleep. However, they had another guy to send who promptly gave me a call. I asked him if he knew the house where the only Americans in the neighborhood lived. “Of course I know where your house is, it’s me, Muhammad!” Which Muhammad? I thought to myself. Most first-born males in our city are given that name, meaning the name alone doesn’t do much to call up a certain face. So we end up tagging them in our phones with some other descriptive – Security Muhammad, Baker Muhammad, Taxi Muhammad, Crazy Muhammad, etc. So with “Electrician Muhammad’s” help I learned that some kind of national power surge had indeed burned up the conductor unit next to our courtyard breaker switches. And this was preventing our neighborhood amps from getting through. Alas, that conductor had lasted a whole three months since we had installed it to replace the previous one – which had burned up after only three weeks.

With some skillful screwdriver work by Muhammad and only a couple quick runs down to the neighborhood bazaar, we had everything we needed. To my great satisfaction, after only an hour and $20, we were back up and running on neighborhood electricity. We were also good to go if national electricity decided to come back on, and our battery-inverter system was also getting recharged again (Which I actually had to use during a blackout as I wrote this post). Systems restored.

We then went on to finish a quiet Sabbath evening.

If anyone has made it this far, I’m impressed that you slogged through all of these details. What is my purpose in writing about all of this? Likely, the misadventures of our backups of backups might strike only a few as oddly interesting. But truth be told, over here we actually spend quite a lot of time thinking about, talking about, and fixing these kinds of issues. We don’t write home about them very much, but they are the day in and day out stuff of real life in this corner of the mission field.

“What did you do yesterday?”

“I spent all day recovering from an electrical fire. You?”

“Ran out of water again. Good times.”

For churches and supporters of missionaries, if you know workers on the field, it’s worth asking them if there’s any kind of backup system that they don’t have that could really serve them. Maybe something solar or battery-powered. Maybe a well or a generator. Sometimes we’re not sure if we’re supposed to spend money on things like this, even though we know there might be great practical payoff.

For any future missionaries out there, you may want to seriously consider investing in some basic handyman skills. And also know that it’s not overkill to spend some cash on good backup systems – and on backups of those backups. There may be those days where being able to fall back on that backup will enable you or your family to keep humming along, hopefully at a pace and posture more conducive to spontaneous ministry and steady faithfulness.

After all, when you’re hosting a local and getting close to sharing the gospel, and the power or water or something else goes, it’s wonderfully practical to simply fall back on the backup system, knowing that you can fix the other stuff tomorrow. Turn on the the battery lights. Fire up the propane heater. Bring in some water from that extra tank to flush the toilet. Make a good-natured joke about things falling apart. And then keep on sharing the gospel as if you never missed a beat.

Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash

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