Monday, September 7, 2009

Reduce, reuse, recycle, REPAIR

Malawi is truly the handyman’s dream. The nascent economy produces (or at least imports) most modern machines, but unlike a more consumer-driven economy, there is a lack of choice. There are often only a few iterations per product category. For example, there are only 4 types of soda, several colors of paint, and 1 common doorknob in the Mangochi area. The simplicity is quite nice; not only is shopping straightforward, but next time you need to touch up that chipped paint on the bathroom wall you don’t need to agonize over a color match. Yet, the chief advantage of such a parsimonious system is the ubiquity of spare parts and the resultant opportunities for the do-it-your-selfer. I count myself as a proud member of this demographic, and thankfully, Jes does not. Fortunately Jes doesn’t hog repair jobs or usurp my position as head tinkerer. .

I am not nearly as ambitious when it comes to jury-rigging as some of my Malawian counterparts. The other day I saw a man securing an engine block to his car with the remains of an old tire. I do, however, welcome the occasional weekend project; so imagine my delight when, while reading in bed, I began to smell the unmistakable stench of burning electronics. I jumped up to find that the plug of our electric water kettle had melted into a clump of mangled plastics and wires. Luckily, a plug in Malawi is a huge contraption equipped with screws for easy repair. I suspect that the inconsistent electricity in Malawi has spawned a demand for repairable and replaceable plugs. After a quick trip to the hardware market and I was the proud owner of a new, rather expensive, electrical plug.

The hardware market-men, as I call them, are notorious sharks who will charge ridiculous prices for simple items. I was once quoted a dollar for a rusted used 1/16in bolt that was worth a few cents. I usually try to patronize the larger established hardware stores that have fixed prices; however, I entered Mangochi around 1pm, meaning most large businesses were closed for their 2+ hour lunch break.

With plug in hand I returned home and prepped the wires from the dysfunctional kettle. Three wires protruded from the sheath: red, blue, and yellow/green. ‘Well, this doesn’t take a genius,’ I thought, ‘no sane person would make red the ground wire.’ This left me with a fifty-fifty chance of correctly guessing the proper arrangement of wires in the plug. After a moment of vacillation, I finally settled on blue as the most likely candidate for the ground line, and chose red and green as the live wires. For anyone who would rebuke me for picking blue over green, let me state in my defense that a later investigation revealed my choice to be irrelevant. Someone “intelligently” choose red as the ground line for reasons I cannot begin to fathom.

I gingerly plugged my kettle into the socket and…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ… OUCH!! What’s wrong Jesse,” Jes called from the bedroom. Jes walked into the room just in time to see me try to unplug the kettle…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ… *@#!!$%. “It shocked me again,” I said accusatorily. Jes started laughing, much to my annoyance. However, her amusement was short lived as she nonchalantly rested her elbow on the refrigerator and…OUCH…WHAT THE #%$@. “The refrigerator shocked me!” Jes exclaimed - now eyeing the refrigerator as if the once harmless appliance had acquired a nefarious agenda. These weren’t paltry shocks either, mind you; they were body-spasm-inducing, make your-arm-hurt-all-night, shocks. The rest of the night was punctuated by outbursts of curses as we were shocked by various electrical appliances throughout the house.

I finally managed to unplug the kettle using a long wooden stick while standing on a plastic beer crate, a stroke of brilliance to which I still refer. I am not sure exactly what happened, but I think I managed to electrify the ground line of the house when I improperly wired the kettle’s plug. The end result was that everything plugged into an electrical outlet had its chassi electrified with unbridled Malawian power. When Jes or I touched one of the electrified objects, our bodies provided a seductive electric conduit to the well grounded cement floor. This theory should only work, however, if the ground line of our house was affixed to an object with less grounding potential than yours truly (I actually suspect the outlets in the house were interconnected but never grounded to anything). This would not surprise me in the least, seeing as many Malawians view ground lines as an irritating waste of time. Many appliances and dwellings are frequently mis-wired, and I am constantly receiving low-level shocks from ovens and refrigerators that are not probably grounded. Through trial and error, I was able to construe the correct arraignment of wires for our plug. Don’t tell Jes, but as I was sweeping the next day I found the small instruction card that had fluttered, unnoticed, out of the plug and onto the floor. Jes and I have now been enjoying piping hot shock-free water for over a month. My next project is the stove, which inexplicably has only one functional burner. Wish me luck.

Ps. If anyone with more electronics knowledge has insights or theories about what happened with the ground line, please send them my way.


  1. Jesse - I thoroughly enjoyed the vision of your electrified appliances in your home. Hope the stove repairs goes well. Wendy

  2. I think your analysis is exactly right. A shock of the severity you describe is not to be taken lightly.

    Return to the hardware store and buy a couple of 1/2" diameter copper-clad steel grounding rods, 8 feet long or their metric equivalents. These should be driven into the ground near the outside wall and next to the electrical service entrance (breaker panel or fuse box) 6 feet apart. The upper ends should be below the surface of the ground. Run a #4 or #6 bare copper wire from the neutral bus bar in the breaker panel to the grounding rods and secure them with copper-clad clamps (also from the hardware store). Connect the neutral bus bar to your steel or copper cold water supply pipe. Run a jumper from the supply line to the outlet line of the hot water heater.

    Connect all your ground and neutral circuit wiring to the neutral bus bar. At the other end, check that each electrical outlet ground is connected to the grounding wire.

    In Britain and Commonwealth Countries, the term "earth" is used in place of "ground".

  3. I haven't the foggiest idea what you are talking about except that I am so glad you both are still alive and living mostly shock free.!

  4. why did that say sam? it is from sheila!!