Missing: information

When I moved to Malawi, I had a pretty good idea of the first-world things I loved and would miss:  hot water, fast internet, infrastructure, Thai food, Netflix.  But I didn’t realize how much I loved information, or how much I took for granted the every day availability of a million different types of instructions, news, reports, descriptions, and directions.  I’ve adjusted with relative ease to many things in Malawi, but I still struggle with this one.

I’ve mentioned before how asking for detailed instructions got me out a seatbelt ticket and how signage makes me feel safer.   In short, according to the Myers Briggs test, I’m a J, and I need information to be able to judge.

Yesterday, I was approached by a man asking for money.  This is nothing new.  What was surprising, however, was that he had quite a well-developed story about how he had been robbed the day before and was trying to get from the hospital to the police station, complete with hand-written instructions that started with “to” and “from” – a gift tag of sorts.  I didn’t give him any money; if I had had 100 kwacha in my pocket, I might have.  But I had just left the ATM, and getting out my wallet (which was inside my purse, inside my bag) on the street seemed ill-advised.

I have no idea if the story was legitimate; it seemed plausible at the time but is increasingly suspect in retrospect.  I have never seen a Malawian with written instructions, and perhaps more tellingly, I have never been able to get written instructions for any task here, though it is not for lack of trying.  If this was a scam, though, it was a clever one:  the more details, the more information I have, the more likely I am to consider the situation.

Later in the day, I visited well known, well funded international development program.  I had a few questions about their project, including what percentages of the beneficiaries are male and female.  Gender is a huge topic in development, so this didn’t seem an unusual statistic to me.  Still, it took the monitoring and evaluation officer about 20 minutes to come up with the figure, during which time he dug through computer files and booklets on his desk.  Hey, it’s only an $82 million project – no need to have basic statistics readily available.

In my research and in my daily life here, I regularly run into deadends, or people that, in the US, would have information, but in Malawi, do not.  If you need a copy of a law in Malawi, do not go to Parliament – they don’t have them.  If you need driving directions in Malawi, do not count on street signs – they don’t exist.  If you need to perform bureaucratic procedures, perhaps updating your residency permit, find a Malawian who knows how to do it – there are no written instructions.  If they do exist, theoretically, no one has a copy.

Malawi has traditionally had a rich oral tradition, rather than a written one, so perhaps that explains the lack of cultural expectation regarding data, statistics, and written instructions.  But as map addict who loves having information at my fingertips – or at least in a disclosed location – this adjustment has been one of the hardest.

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2 Responses to “Missing: information”

  1. Nancy M Says:

    Your trip has been a learning experience for all of us. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and activities.

  2. Heather Says:

    Where can you get copies of the laws, if not the Parliament?

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