Monday, April 23, 2012

Software of the Mind – Part 2: Expecting (and accepting) the Unexpected

Imagine this.

You invite a friend over for dinner. You plan what you will prepare and write a grocery list. You are scheduled to work until 4:30 and plan to pick up the ingredients at the store on your way home. You should be home at 6, giving you an hour to prepare before your friend arrives.

Easy, right?

It is 4:25 and you are getting ready to send the final e-mail of the day. You wait the 5 minutes it takes for the attachment to load and hit ‘send’… you watch the bar move across the computer screen and wait… after a few minutes, instead of the ‘message sent’ screen you get the ‘Your Internet is Not Connected Page’. You ask your colleagues if their internet is working. It is not.

You pack everything up while you wait, but the internet doesn’t start back up.  It is now 4:45 and you are running late. You decide to try to send the e-mail later in the evening from home, after your friend leaves.

The commute home (a combination of public transport and walking) takes an hour and you need 30 minutes at the store. You know that it will be pitch black by 6 p.m. and it is unsafe to walk in the dark. You decide to call a taxi – he greets you warmly but tells you that he can not pick you up because he is lining up at the gas station waiting for a fuel delivery. It has been 10 days since he last bought fuel at the pump. You call the other two taxi numbers that you have in your phone (there isn’t a central company, just individuals with cars) but they are also queuing for fuel.

You have no choice – you left your bicycle at work yesterday because someone offered you a ride home. You are wearing a long skirt but decide to tie it in a way as not be revealing. You can make it home and to the store before dark as the bike ride is only 30 min.

Transport in Pick-up
 You start peddling hard, propelling the one-speed bike up the hill. Things are going well until BOOM you hear a bang and your back tire goes flat. You don’t have time to push the bike all the way before it gets dark. You stand at the side of the road and wave down a pickup truck. You offer him some money to drive you and your bike to the store. You lift your bike into the back open area of the truck and hop in beside it. He drops you at the store and you rush in to buy your ingredients.

Empty Shelves
When you get to the sugar isle, you see that the shelves are empty. Last week you heard a rumour that sugar would be scarce soon, but you wanted to finish your  home supply before buying more. You ask an employee and are told that the sugar is ‘finished’ (aka all sold out) and that they don’t know when another shipment will arrive. Tonic water, your friend's favourite is also no where to be found. You improvise with other ingredients instead.

It is 5:30 and you have just enough time to get home before it is dark. You unchain your bike, tie your groceries onto the back rack and push it, squeaking and flat-tired up the hill.

You get home just as dusk is settling and start preparing dinner.

Prep is going great – you have prepared everything and now dinner just needs to bake in the oven.  You slide the pan into the preheated oven. You did it! Only 15 minutes before your friend arrives. You can even send that e-mail…

Then you find yourself standing in the dark and silence… The lights are out and the hum of the freezer has stopped. The power is out. It may come back in 5 minutes or it could be 5 hours. Crap! You try to call your friend to let her know the situation, but the phone network has also gone down.


This is a slightly extreme but not unbelievable example of the unexpected surprises that are part of my daily life here in Malawi. Each one of those ‘unexpected’ surprises has happened many times in my 6 months here. In fact, the above scenario demonstrates my privilege – I have power, internet, a bicycle, money to shop at the grocery store… Most of these unexpected surprises wouldn’t be possible for many of the 80% rural population of Malawi, as well as many living in urban areas.  

I recall the famous blackout of 2003 in central Canada – the shock and fear that I felt when the power went out as I was lifeguarding at a small community swimming pool. What happened? Was it a terrorist attack? What will we do? Driving home there was mayhem on the streets as drivers were unaccustomed to not having traffic lights. People panicked! How could the power just go out like that? The region shut down. I imagine what my Malawian brothers and sisters would have thought of our hysterical reactions?

Malawi is developing, and its infrastructure is different from back home. This means things that never crossed my mind at home surprise me all the time here. These include commodotity shortages (fuel, sugar, medicine, foreign currency), power and water outages, phone and internet network problems and random stuff breaking all the time (e.g. vehicles, bicycles, electronics...).  

In my adjustment, I have developed a two-tiered strategy:

      1)    Expect the unexpected. This includes a number of techniques to minimize the impact of ‘surprises’; and,
     2) Accept the unexpected. Equip yourself with a sense of humour and get over it.

      1)  Expect the unexpected
·       For commodity shortages:
o   Often rumours of a shortage come before the actual shortage. If someone tells you that sugar will soon be unavailable, go stock up.
o   I don’t have a car, but those who do try to stock up on fuel when possible. They also buy it on the ‘parallel market’, although this is much more expensive.
o   If you will need foreign currency, ask people coming into the country to carry some for you. Every time you leave the country stock up.

·       For phone network and internet problems:
o   Always carry your dongle (also known as an internet USB stick).
o   Most Malawians have at least 2 phones on different networks.
o   Having a phone with internet capability really helps.
o   Call far in advance if possible. If your phone is not working but internet is, you can skype call instead.
o   Carry a USB stick so that you can share documents without internet.

·       For water issues:
o   Although the water is generally safe to drink in Lilongwe, always look before drinking. Sometimes it comes out brown (pipe problems), and then it should not be consumed.
o   Always have extra water and a bucket nearby. Become well versed in the art of bucket bathing.

Things breaking:
o   Stuff breaks – if you absolutely need to be somewhere on time, give yourself lots of time in case your bike breaks and the pick up truck carrying your broken bike also breaks.
o   Avoid using a mac computer in Malawi as this country is where Apple products come to die. If you must use a mac computer, do so with both feet planted firmly on the ground to avoid electrical shock.

Aggression and theft:
Hiding $
o   Malawians as a whole are incredibly gentle and friendly. It is rare that someone will try to rob you, but like anywhere, it does happen on occasion. Just in case, I always hide extra cash on my body and don’t carry anything that I don’t need to.
o   Be alert when in public places, especially bars where fights are common.

o   I always carry a chitenje in case something happens and I need to be covered in traditional clothing (for example the trouser stripping day). This is also useful in case you need to attend a funeral unexpectedly (you should wear a chitenje or long skirt to a funeral), or go into a village where traditional clothing is the norm.

Tying Chitenje
      For power outages:
o   If you are having frequent outages at a certain time, you either plan dinner before the usual outage time or prepare something in advance that can be eaten cold.
o   You make sure that you always have candles and matches close by.
o   I have a ‘home’ headlamp and a ‘purse’ headlamp (and spare batteries!) so I am never without a flashlight. You would think that having a flashlight isn’t always necessary, for example when you go to a bar or concert. Trust me – never leave home without a headlamp: Try being at a night-time concert without a flashlight when the power goes out. 
o   Ensure all that all devices are charged at all times. When you have power, make sure your stuff (especially cell-phone and computer) is plugged in.
o   When working, save documents frequently!
o   For meetings and presentations, make sure to have documents in hard copy and a flip chart and markers.

2) Equip yourself with a sense of humour and get over it:

Sure, it can be frustrating to wake up and find that you need to bathe with cold water out of a bucket or when you have to be at an important meeting and the minibus breaks down. That said, one doesn’t choose to come to one of the world's poorest and least developed countries expecting to live in the lap of luxury.  In my case, part of my reason for moving here was to experience a different way of life. It would be exhausting and completely ridiculous to expect the same comforts as back home. Most of the time, these unexpected malfunctions are completely outside of my control. Freaking out, feeling frusterated or trying to control these obstacles is a waste of time and energy.

After half of a year, I find myself much less shocked by these daily ‘adventures’ (although sometimes you come across a ‘good one’). Oftentimes, they make for a good story and laugh.

They are also a reminder of how lucky we are to have water and power and access to food, internet and medicine.

I admire how my Malawian colleagues and friends take everything in stride. There is usually a solution, and if not, it is usually not the end of the world. They have a sense of humour and a creativity that allows them to move easily through precarious situations. I take my cues from them.

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