Infrastructure Implosion

Disclaimer:  Amy in Malawi has had a frustrating week.  She (sort of) apologizes for the rant that follows.

When I got up yesterday morning, the internet was down, the water was off, and my cell phone screen, instead of identifying my network provider, read “Emergency Only.” I felt like I had rolled out of bed and into Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. In fact, after discovering the cell phone outage (the third of three), I considered going back to bed.

The cell network outage was fixed around noon; around 2, my internet provider’s office staff moseyed their way back from lunch and finally started answering the phone. The first person I talked to didn’t know what the problem was, but took my number and promised to call me back. I waited. And waited. An hour and a half later, I called again, only to learn that they had decided to consult my “husband” (my housemate’s name is on the account) about the problem instead of calling me back. Apparently the installation bill has not yet been paid. As the internet is supposed to be paid by my housemate’s employer, this is not my fault, but why no one in this country can pay a bill BEFORE it is due is beyond me. The accountant in charge of paying the bills told my housemate it had already been paid; I’ll believe it only if (or hopefully, when) my internet comes back on.

So, I went to a nearby cafe to check my email, as I had been trying to set up some meetings later this week. As I approached, I could see that the curtains were drawn, though the front door was open. There were a couple people sitting outside. “We’re closed,” one of them told me. “What hours are you open?” I asked. “Nine to six,” he responded. In an elaborate gesture, I checked my watch. “But it’s only 4 o’clock.” “But we’re not open today.” I sighed. He told me they would be open tomorrow. Only time will tell.  (Update:  it is, indeed, open today.)

The water is off because the water board is on strike, though why and how being “on strike” means that the taps are completely turned off, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that not even Lilongwe relies on workers physically carrying the water from the river to the plant, so I see no reason to turn off water to the city. Isn’t access to clean water included in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights? Isn’t this an area where government should intervene? Apparently, the workers did not feel their Christmas bonuses were adequate and felt their complaints would best be heard if they were protested in a completely irresponsible way. Hopefully the scabs come soon. My respect for organized labor has decreased by about 10 points today. My recent interactions with the water board – both billing issues and the fact that they reportedly stopped chlorinating the water for some time, just for fun – have not left me with much leftover gratitude, anyway.

These ridiculous times do give rise to an illustration of two basic principles of life here, however. First, “one’s word” here is only guaranteed about 50 percent of the time. Secondly, there is virtually no planning for the future, even when current conditions indicate future scarcity.

Though I was anecdotally aware of the first principle, it was most clearly illustrated to me when I was registering my car. I was on the way to the DMV with the Malawian who was going to assist me, and he was going through the folder of documentation. “Your insurance is expired,” he said. No, I responded, the owner of the car [an American] told me it had been renewed in September, and I would only have to change it to my name. We went through a few more rounds of it’s-not-here and but-he-said. The Malawian dug a little more, and eventually found the right insurance paper. Then he turned to me and said, “Oh yes, you Americans are truthful 90 or 95 percent of the time. If a Malawian had told you the insurance had been renewed, you shouldn’t believe him.”

Whether people here lie purposefully or there’s just a predilection for fabrication, I don’t know. The official word was that water was to be restored yesterday. It was not. The official word was that the internet bill has been paid. It has not. These little lies don’t just come from service providers, though. Professors and students will tell you that the work is done when it isn’t, and friends will tell you that they’re stopping by and then don’t. While I suppose all of these things happen in the US, too, what’s surprisingly here is the utter lack of apologies. If I were supposed to show up at a friend’s house and then didn’t, I would at least call to let my friend know and apologize for holding up the plans. If I were supposed to pay a bill and didn’t, resulting in a loss of service, I would apologize profusely. And I wouldn’t lie about having paid the bill, particularly when it was obvious that I had not.

This penchant for ignoring the truth is, perhaps, related to the second characteristic of Malawian living: lack of planning for the future. This issue is well documented in development literature, and is a major barrier in seeking long-term change in a monetized economy; there is no culture of saving for a rainy day. Saving crops or livestock to sell for a rainy day is somewhat more effective, but if you have cash, you spend it. These habits infiltrate everyday life, as well. Since the water has gone off, the cold water tap does not flow at all. But because we have hot water heaters (called geezers) with tanks in the ceiling, we continued to have a minimal amount of lukewarm water. (Good for face washing, if not for toilet flushing.) This morning, the water is still not on, yet I awoke to find the housekeeper washing windows, with two full buckets of water – one soapy and one clean. Now, the windows are not particularly dirty, there was no reason for them to be washed TODAY when there’s no water, and the housekeeper has other projects (like building a chicken house) that could keep him busy. Further, the housekeeper knew the water was still off, that there was a limited amount in the geezers, and presumably that that amount would have to last us until the water came back on. Did that cause him to change his actions in any way? No. Did he consider what would happen when the water was gone? I don’t know. I was brushing my teeth when he emptied the last of the remaining water for who knows what purpose. I had to rinse with my water bottle.

So now I’m sitting here, just waiting for the electricity to go out. Apparently those workers are considering striking over their Christmas bonuses, too. Some days, it’s easy to hate Malawi.


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3 Responses to “Infrastructure Implosion”

  1. Graham Lettner Says:


    Fair is fair: sounds like a crappy day. Malawi is not the paragon of reliable public works.

    I’ll say this much though: it pays to push past all of this. Taking the situation at face value and then trying to understand all the dynamic reasons that make things the way they are creates a whole lot less frustration and some wicked new insights. i.e. seeing farmers farm in horribly unproductive ways is actually a really good window into what they’re thinking and how they see things.


  2. Mercy Says:

    Welcome to the reality of the Warm-Heart of Africa!! pretty sure the water-board will had the water running sooner that later!! best of luck

  3. jess Says:

    where do i start? we do not lie purposefully. don’t be superficial – listen to the message behind such words. i wrote about this it might help
    and about the water… labour laws permit industrial strikes. it is the human right of lilongwe water board workers to strike… ”not even Lilongwe relies on workers physically carrying the water from the river to the plant”. are you serious? you don’t know how much labour goes into water treatment?
    what do you mean ‘not even lilongwe’, perhaps you could be a little less patronising?? it will be a good day when you stop expecting malawi to be america.

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