Cry, the beloved Malawi
On a lonely Monday I decided to drive to the Immigration Office in Lilongwe to renew my passport. I wanted to go for the one-day kill-me-quick option, as I have neither the patience nor the confidence in the system to entrust it with a much longer period of processing.
For reasons altogether unclear, I became particularly observant, disdaining, for instance, the endless eyesore of dust on the roadsides. Lots and lots of red dust. The roads themselves – with the exception of the Presidential Way – were jagged edged, as if termites have been eating into them over time. They are shrinking, and it beats reasoning that they still retain the endurance of carrying trucks, Dubai/Japan BTWs (Better-Than-Walking), ox-carts, cyclists and pedestrians. If you approach the Immigration Office from the City Centre, you are likely to enter from the Kamuzu Central Hospital side, where, just as Shoprite comes into view, a flea market has developed to your left, and the place is chock-a-block with humanity moving like disturbed ants in all directions.
Now, I like to think of myself as a considerate fellow, so I kept stopping to let the pedestrians cross, though there is no zebra crossing there (NB: Zebra crossing is used here not to mean a place where zebras cross – in fact we don't have zebras in the city – but for pedestrians to use, though the disorder with which the road was being colonized was not at all different from the way zebras might have crossed the road if given a chance). You can imagine the endless shrill of car horns by impatient drivers who wanted to race as though no pedestrians were there. And then I branched off towards the Immigration. The road got dustier and rougher such that it was as though I was galloping towards my destination.
A mass of humanity had piled up at the entrance to the Immigration, but it struck me as odd the queue was not moving. And then I noted why. A tall fellow in an Immigration Officer uniform was standing there, his face a mask of contours and ridges. He spoke to no-one, though there was chatter and banter among the assembled people, from which I could pick nothing of substance.
The Immigration fellow seemed impossible to talk to, and a sign pasted next to the entrance curtly and rudely announced THE MACHINE IS DOWN. No apologies, no additional wording to soothe a client. Just that matter of- fact. The Machine is down. Malawi is down. Going, going, gone. I remembered a kind Immigration Official who handled my case with admirable professionalism once. I approached the stone-faced guardian of hell-gate and asked: May I see Madame X?
He looked at me and the frown deepened as if the question offended him personally. She's gone to Blantyre, he said. That was all. So I turned and headed to the Road Traffic Directorate to renew my licence. It was a different world here.
The queue snaked itself into the car park, and that was only one of many, as I was to later observe. Thankfully, I was once a teacher of English Literature, and a former student spotted me as I stepped out of my car. May I be of help? he asked. Do you want to renew a licence? Yes, yes, I said, producing my outdated card. As you can see, he said, the queue is rather long.
However, if you gave me K500 you'd be assisted in five minutes. Wham, there goes my fiver, and indeed in five minutes I hear my name, Chipiri wa Chipiri, called inside. And since we are such a meek nation, not a single soul protests, not one! Next, I have to pay K5,000 for the renewal fee, and this has to be deposited into an NBS Bank agency within the compound.
And just when I think I'm done, my ex-student comes again. The last stage, says he, is at the Motor Examiner's, but being such an important man, only one thousand is acceptable. Wham wham! Two crispy notes disappear into his waiting hands, and in five minutes he returns with a printed piece of paper. They have run out of cards, he says, so you can only have this. By the time I leave, which is twenty minutes after arrival, I have a new licence, but K8,000 poorer, because my ex-student did not do all that work pro bono.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is Malawi 48 years after independence. By my own estimation, we are one hundred years behind Europe in terms of development. If we do not come up with systems that work we are doomed.