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Wanjii power station which was constructed in 1950s.

Sunday Magazine
How Wanjii power station survives monkey games and scorching drought

Any Nuisance value?   The monkeys are not easily intimidated by women and even venture into houses 

How Wanjii power station survives monkey games and scorching drought

Three years ago, the whole country was plunged into darkness for hours after monkeys tinkered with power lines.

The rocky road weaving out of the main highway has seen better days. Its rocky surface tells a story of hard living while the canal running parallel appears deceptively slow.

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The relatively small dam from where wild arrow roots are clinging at its sides too is unimpressive to a stranger.

Although the houses dotting the road are shielded from the sun by the trees their rusty roofs are crying out for a new coat of paint.

Above the trees, the distended power lines run undisturbed by power needs of the people living below.

It is on top of the tall trees that monkeys reign supreme. Long before they started taunting women with sexist gestures, the monkeys of Wanjii had mastered the ‘power’ games. 

The traps set by Murang’a County cannot contain them and they continue to defy desperate cries from starving farmers whose farms are parched and barren.

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Fun loving

After defying man and nature, the fun loving monkeys have also learnt a few survival tricks like beating hunger during famine. They venture into houses when the owners are out in the fields.

In the event there are girls or their mothers lingering in the homes, these monkeys of Wanjii will not be easily intimidated but they have learnt to stay away from boys.

When the coast is clear, they occasionally dart through the windows of some empty offices and houses in search of morsels.

The workers at Wanjii power station have adapted to a life with the unpredictable cheeky monkeys always lurking in the shadows, silhouetted by tree branches, waiting for the opportune moment to strike.

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“We have had instances when these animals touch the live wires from the station. Whenever this happens, they occasion a short circuit which triggers power outage,” says Washington Wanyang, a Kengen engineer.

The bitterest lessons for Kengen, he says, were learnt more than 100 kilometres from Wanjii three years ago at Gitaru. This is the time the whole country was plunged into darkness for hours after some monkeys tinkered with power lines and in the process destabilised the supply.

“To guard against such happenings, we have protection relays which shutdown the systems when there is a fault,” Wanyang said.

Wanyang, who is manning the Kengen-owned power station says they have had to  install a system which can detect power disruption whenever the monkeys interfere with the lines.

“When this happens, the power automatically shuts itself to prevent power surge, which can lead to electrical faults and damage devices which are connected to electricity,” he adds.

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The 61-year-old Wanjii power station, situated about 2 kilometres from the Sabasaba Murang’a highway town also has the key to one of the county’s most guarded secrets.

The main source of the water, which runs the turbines is abstracted from Mathioya dam which is 5.2 kilometres from Wanjii. The water is transported from the dam through an underground tunnel, whose existence is known only to a few residents.

“I have heard that there is a tunnel running right across Murang’a town but I do not know. Those who claim to know it say the tunnel was dug in 1950,” a 70-year-old resident, Peter Mwangi says.

According to engineers, the tunnel was dug almost 70 years ago and covers a distance of over five kilometres.

So deep is the tunnel that there are homes and buildings sitting on it without the knowledge of the owners and it can only be accessed through some points at Mathioya dam or at the power station.

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The walls of the tunnel, the experts said are irregular as at the diggers in some places encountered hard rocks while in other sections. In other places they had to build concrete walls to reinforce the walls and prevent the roof from caving in.

It big enough to accommodate a man and its headroom at the highest point stands at 2.7 metres while the narrowest area is 1.9 metres high.

Wanjii Power Station
Inspected three times

Since its construction, the tunnel has been inspected three times where water had to be drained to allow technicians to walk through it to establish its status.

The first inspection was conducted in 1964 by experts from East African Power and Lighting Company.

This was followed by another check in 1981. It would take another 32 years before the tunnel would be revisited again by the experts. This was in 2013 when it was drained to pave way for another routine inspection.

According to David Mwangi, an engineer, during the last inspection some of the walls were found to be collapsing and were in need of repairs. They have since been repaired.

“The station was supposed to have two units with a capacity to produce 2.7 mega watts each. There is another unit comprising of two more units which are powered by water from Maragwa river, which is delivered through an open canal,” Wanyag says.

Maragwa river is also home to one of the oldest power stations in the area. Murang’a Electricity Supply Company (Mesco), situated 12 kilometres from Murang’a town was constructed in 1932 to exclusively generate power for the town.

It was constructed the same year EAP&L acquired a controlling interest in the Tanganyika Electricity Supply Company Limited. 

The 0.43 mega watts produced by Mesco is relayed to Wanjii for further transmission to Nairobi so that it can be connected to the national grid.

After 67 years of roaring, the water turbine which was manufactured by Harland Engineering Company in 1950 has been decommissioned in 2017, after it became uneconomical to continue servicing it because the technology was now outdated.

Experts say that although hydro power structures can last over 100 years, the machines are meant to work for 50 years. This means the equipment at Wanjii have exceeded their lifespan. 

The water from the turbines is finally released into the river, where it fuels the growth of wild arrow roots that are as useless to the monkeys as they are to the local residents.

The residents, like staff at Wanjii power station, do not have free acess to the power generated right under their noses.

“Do you see these twin lines from the valley below? They are terminating in a power station which is run by Kenya Power. As soon as we produce the power, we cannot use it. It has to be supplied by to us for consumption,” Wanyang says.

There has been instances when electricity to the power station was cut due to non-payment of bills. In the scheme of things, all power produced at Wanjii and other power stations must be sold to Kenya Power in bulk, who then charges according to units consumed.

The residents especially those in the immediate neighbourhood of the station have learnt to live without electricity for decades and hope that one day they too will benefit from the government’s last mile initiative.

As power generators play hide and seek with monkeys and effects of climate change, age is catching up with half-century-old machinery and the engineers must continue praying that the unpredictable rains resume so that they can power the nation.

Wanjii power station monkeys dam

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