Electricity – what is it? And wait, why must I pay for it?

Picture courtesy: Fusion Electric

“Sisi tumetoka serikali kuu, sekta ya kawi. Tumewasili hapa kuwaletea ujumbe mzuri wa maendeleo kwa njia ya stima,” said the career civil servant who besides English, spoke the locals’ language; his face beaming with smile as he addressed the gathering keenly listening under a tree.

He paused a bit to allow his colleague, who only spat the rich Queen’s language, speak again before he could translate further.

“Na hii stima tumewaletea ni ya kiwango cha juu,” he sought consensus from his other colleague over the accuracy of his translation, who nodded in approval before he added, “stima yenyewe itakuja ikienda na mtailipa kwa bei naf…”

“Wewe ngoja kwanza,” an old man who all along sat pensively listening to the bi – lingual presentation, interrupted the translation flow.

“Unasema hii stima itakuwa inakuja ikienda! Maajabu! Sasa mbona tulipe kitu mbovu kama hiyo?” he asked to no one in particular but the gathering under the tree immediately burst into laughter and pockets of discussion erupted all agreeing with the old man. Repetitive attempts to calm down the gathering, which had now broken into a noisy open market dismissive of the electricity agenda, landed on deaf ears.

Later as we drove back to the city, we saw the folly of what our colleague the translator was trying to do. The main speaker – an electrical engineer – had gotten into the details of the electricity to be supplied yes, but the translator needed not to. He fell on his own trap. The engineer had spoken of some high voltage of alternating current type.

Everything got lost in trying to translate the alternating current bit and bring it home to a level the locals could understand. In the end something noble was almost entirely lost thanks to technicalities that could not be localized.


So you pay for your water supply right? For you see its usage, you shower with it, you drink it, you cook with it, you ‘greenify’ your garden with it, you wash your car your house your clothes with it. The usage is endless. And so you appreciate the logic when the bill man from the water authority swing by to collect his revenue at the end of the month.

There’s satisfaction for your bill, you may not like the billing rates, the amount of water supplied, the frequency of its availability, but at least you have minimal to zero misunderstanding why you pay your water bills.

But why do you pay for electricity? Have you ever met electricity? Scratch that, have you ever seen it? Can you, like water, put it in a jug then place it on a table and drink it to your fill? Can you, like you’d do in the case of water, pour some electricity in a jerrycan and share with your neighbor? Have you ever come home one day and found your electricity leaking out, as water would do, if the taps were left unclosed?

We can almost nearly conclude that none of the above is possible with electricity. But we still pay for it. Why?

Because we see the effects of what it does; we see the room getting lit, we feel the fridge cold when connected to the socket, we feel the hot water hitting our back when the instant shower switch is on, we mow the grass when the mower cable is plugged into the electricity supply point, we hear pumps run, we watch people enjoy merry – go – round whirls, we see the beaming TV screens, we hear the sound of music from the woofers – simply put we’re paying for energy to do all the above and more.

So what then is energy? Now if you were to relook at your water supply and assume you are not in a position to actually come into contact with water in your home, but that you have a kid’s merry – go – round or some roller coaster that needs to be turned around or spun.

Also let’s assume that you intend to have the merry – go – round rotated clockwise and the next round anticlockwise in alternate successions. Then, instead of hiring someone to actually hold the handle of the spinner and perform the actual spin in both directions, you somehow create tubes of water directed at some loose hanging rotatable gears.

Gif: merry – go – round doing unidirectional spin

Now the water under pressure would swing the handle of the rotating gears instead and create the motion that ends up turning the merry – go – round. The water would have an entry point at high pressure, do the gears’ spinning, and have an exit at slightly lower pressure after spinning.

The exiting water would then go back to the water supplier who again would have to pump it to your home to maintain the high supply pressure and sustain spinning your merry – go – round, this time round the only difference being the water flows from the previous exit point to the previous entry point and on cycle completion reverses; a seesaw kind of switch.


In the end, you will at no point come into contact with the water doing the forward and backward cycles in a loop, ikikuja na kuenda, as our colleague would have put it, but you will see the effect of what that water going round the loop does; creating a clockwise – anticlockwise spins as the kids enjoy. What you see is the outcome of water in motion; energy.

That’s exactly what electricity does. While circulating in a loop between your house and the power provider’s transformer, the electricity creates energy to light your bulb, spin your microwave’s turntable plate, warm your water, power the TV, pump your water and while doing that energy is spent.

And that my friends, is where your Kenya Power asks you to part with something, for energy spent and sustaining of the same.

Now, that energy is measured in some units, the ones you get when you reload your meter token, and you hear someone sometimes complaining how comes this month the tokens ni kidogo? Yes, those things you call tokens are amounts of energy spent or projected to be spent.

How do they then ensure that the merry – go – round spins in one sustained direction as it usually does instead of a back and forth spin? That, my friends, is the little design secret of the electrical engineer; necessity after all is the mother of all inventions.

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