In Uganda, Theft of Power Turns Deadly For Many, Despite Danger Warnings


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The eldest child of Micheal and Theopista Kibeti, who are seen here with their five children, was electrocuted when he tried to tap into an electrical grid in the Mbale district of Uganda. Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

An estimated 50 people are electrocuted weekly in one region of Eastern Uganda as they attempt to illegally tap into power lines. The nation’s largest energy company and the government are trying to caution local people about the hazards.

MBALE, UGANDA — Micheal Kibeti and his family have waited more than a year to be hooked to the visible electric wires that jut up along the road. But the wait hasn’t always been patient.

His 21-year-old son, eager for the family to have electricity, was electrocuted in May 2016 as he attempted to tap into the electrical grid.

“It is very tempting for me to set up ‘hush power,’ but the memory of my son just won’t let me. I could not bear another loss towards this family,” Kibeti says. “Life has not been the same for me and my family; we miss him daily.”

In Bulekya, like most of the Eastern region in Uganda, illegal power connections are nothing new. Samson Kibeti was among the roughly 50 people electrocuted weekly in Eastern Uganda’s Bugisu region.

It is very tempting for me to set up ‘hush power,’ but the memory of my son just won’t let me.

Paul Sempira, Mbale district manager for the nation’s largest energy distributor, UMEME, says Uganda’s Eastern region has the most illegal connections in the nation, but notes the number of people who die from trying to tap into the electricity grid is only an estimate.

“Officially we have not received [reports of] a death due to a hook, but when you go to the communities, you will realize that the deaths are occurring, and when they occur, the local authorities get to know,” Sempira says. “Locals keep these deaths a secret, attributing them to snakebites. The numbers are high because people continue dying and are buried in secrecy.”

Bulekya resident Moses Wakhungu explains how easy it is to set up such a connection from wires that jut from the ground:

“You dig a hole into the ground and fill it with about 10 packets of 500 grams of table salt and add charcoal to it. You then add water to make a mix. After which, you get a log, connect a wire inside the underground mix and raise it up and hook it up to the legal wire. You use the hash wire and connect it to the main wire.

“Any wire can work,” he says, pointing to the barbed wire he uses to connect power to his house.

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Barbed wire, known as hash wire, is used to illegally connect to the power grid.

Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

In the Mbale district, UMEME’s loss from the illegal connects is approximately $10 million a year, Sempira says. Nationwide, it’s $66 million.

“That is money that could be put into many other uses,” he says, adding that those figures don’t begin to count damages to the electrical grid when too many people are using power from the company’s lines.

“Power theft interferes with the supply of the legally existing customer, so our repair maintenance costs, investment costs, go up,” Sempira says. Because of theft, UMEME has its largest repair team in the Mbale district, he says.

Although the electric company and others are making efforts to caution communities, Kibeti says no UMEME official visited his village to warn of the dangers.

Locals keep these deaths a secret, attributing them to snakebites. The numbers are high because people continue dying and are buried in secrecy.

“No one has come to tell us about the power connection, not even the local council chairman. I think little is being done here in Bulekya to warn our residents on this issue. We do need the power though, and I will be happy to pay for a legal connection. I will wait patiently,” he says.

Deputy District Commissioner Pamela Watuwa says the government has broadcast one-hour radio programs in all local languages to warn of the dangers. “I want to believe they have heard the messages, because in some villages we were not able to visit,” she says.

Mbale resident Watela Penina, whose daughter was electrocuted, stands with her grandchildren behind a grave marked only with stones. Her daughter died in October when the wind blew so hard that the metal hash wire connecting the power loosened from a tree and landed on her arm.

“You know how children are very innocent,” Penina says. “She touched the wire there after to play with it. I heard some cries from the other children she was playing with.”

Two loose illegal hooks still connect to her house.

Such illegal connections ease living costs, she says. “You do not spend money on kerosene to light lamps or even buy candles — that saves me money to buy some sugar for my children.”

Penina now takes more precautions.

“The wires are knotted to the tree tightly, and we only connect to the power lines at night,” she says.