Sunday Morning ~ The Second Stick
Nkhuni imodzi silipsetsa mphika ~ One stick of wood does not heat the pot.
~ Chewa proverb
April 7, 2019
When I got back from Congo, my friend Mary told me she had gotten really angry with me when she read one of my Sunday letters. It was sweet, really. She was angry with me because she was worried about my safety and I was touched. It also made me think about my writing and how I express my thought process and situation. The letter she referred to described my vacation from Congo to Malawi. I was traveling alone and had taken a bus from Lusaka, Zambia to Chapata on the Malawi border. The bus arrived six hours later than scheduled well after dark, and in a terrible part of the city. I’d thought I’d arrive in the afternoon and find a place to stay, but it was pitch dark and drunken voices were coming out of every bar within spitting distance. Bus stations are never in a quiet boring part of town. I had to find accommodation and was afraid to get off the bus. I knew I was a vulnerable target: woman traveling alone, all her possessions on her back, looking confused and lost in a rough part of town. It took less than a second to admit to myself I needed help. As we debarked, in my confused anxiety, I turned to the man who’d been sitting next to me for the past eleven hours and was honest. I said, “Excuse me, I’m scared. I need to find a place to stay and I have no idea how to find a safe ride. Can you help me?” We had barely spoken on the bus ride. He was reading his bible and I was reading my novel. I had no idea if he was returning to family, on a business trip, or relocating. Aside from a few pleasantries on the bus, we didn’t converse at all. He could have been an ax murderer for all I knew, but I needed help, and I was lucky. Without saying a word, he walked over to a bunch of dilapidated cars sitting in what looked like a junk lot. It was a taxi stand. He spoke Chewa to one of the drivers and told me to get in. I had no idea what they’d said but I was relieved to be off the street. I didn’t hesitate, but got in the back and hoped this was all legitimate. He got in as well, apparently coming along. I realized I had little Zambian cash, not enough to pay for a taxi and a night in a guest house. I’d thought I’d arrive in time to go to a bank. So I had to ask them to stop at an ATM so I could get some cash. Another thing I knew was stupid and risky, but I had to pay them! So there I was, alone in a taxi with two strange men, getting cash. I must have been putting lots of cues together to feel like this was ok: their demeanor, the bible, and other social cues must have told me this was safe, safer, anyway, than wandering around trying to find the road out of there and walking in pitch dark toward an unknown location. They waited while I got some cash (the ATM worked, praise Jesus), got back in the car, and deposited me at a guesthouse. They didn’t wait to see if there was an available room, but I was so utterly grateful to be brought to a place that had a light on inside, that I heaped thanks upon them, paid double what he asked for a fare, and added a little more for him to drive the other guy to wherever he needed to go. Was that risky and stupid? Maybe. But at the time, it seemed like the safest option.
I often resist asking for help. There has been this survivalist in me for as long as I can remember, that has a voice repeating, “You can do it yourself.” I rarely ask for directions, but wander around until I find what I’m looking for. There is some merit to this personality trait. I’ve learned lots of different skills, though I must admit, YouTube now takes some of the sport out of it. I’ve discovered sweet little restaurants and shops while completely lost and wandering. There are times, though, when I need another stick to make that pot boil and though it may take some periods of hunger before I’ll admit that, there’s another survivalist in there that says, “Ask.”
I’m honored and grateful when someone asks me for help. I feel like it’s balancing out all the times I’ve desperately needed it from others. I’d like to think there is a safe harbor here for others as there was for me that night in the bus station.
I guess I’m feeling this deeply right now. I think of how I chose what I felt was the safest option, even though it sounds insanely dangerous. I think of vulnerable populations in our country, reaching out for help in our medical system, knowing it is going to be frightening and judgemental. They know they may receive poor care at huge expense and, already beaten down, do it, because it’s the safer option. I think of what it must be like for families to walk hundreds of miles with small children and no food to a strange country, knowing they will face hostility, but know it’s the safer option. I know we can do better than this, but when I get overwhelmed at the unfairness of it all, I try to reel it in and think of that man on the bus, who didn’t hesitate when I asked for help. If we all could be the second stick of wood once in awhile…it’s the thought that keeps me from despair.
Love to all,