Is it Malawi or is it Me?

On the ride home from work today, we drove past a line of cars stretching at least 800m down the tarmac road in central Zomba. At the center of this line was a mob of men waving jerry-cans over their heads and shouting angrily at an unseen attendant. Prognosis: petrol has arrived in town.

In North America, people still talk about the fuel crises of the 1970’s as though they were a current event. In Malawi, fuel shortages are a weekly occurrence and it is not uncommon for the entire country to go 5-6 days with every filling station dry as a bone. It is difficult to describe the ripple effects of this ongoing crisis — the black market thrives (selling petrol off at 800MK a litre (more 5-6 USD), industry comes screeching to a halt (as transportation of goods becomes nigh-impossible), and life creeps on in its own dysfunctional way.

In fact, dysfunctional is not a wholly inaccurate way to describe life here in Zomba. Paradoxical is another. In some ways, this town is quite modern (hot, running water, infrequent black outs, a shoprite [the “real” grocery store in MW], and a number of well paved roads leading up to huge colonial-era mansions) and yet sometimes we seem to be decades behind the rest of the world (fuel crises, painfully slow bureaucracies, widespread gender inequality, and class disparity that truly makes me cringe).

The unpredictability and potential dangers of this life came hurtling into the foreground today after I spent 30 minutes trying to unlock the broken padlock on our safety door. Eventually my housemate had to cut the lock off with a giant pair of bolt-cutters that a friend brought up from his house down the road, all so that we could leave the house. Throughout this entire process, I could not shake my sense of general unease – what if the house had been on fire (there are safety bars on all the windows so that’s out)? What if someone had used a similar set of bolt cutters to break into the house?

Now I realize that most of this is just mindless paranoia but it reminded me of the great many things I take for granted in Canada (security, an alert and responsive police force, locksmiths, a seemingly unending supply of petrol…). I do love being in Malawi and my work is both exciting and challenging; however, I also greatly appreciate the life of luxury and ease to which I have become accustomed… especially on days like this!


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