Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre, White Privilege

Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre ~ White Privilege

“Lero lomwe” anadetsa nthengu. ~ Today, today made the little bird black.

~ Chewa proverb

February 4, 2024

Hi Everyone,

Schedules are fluid here and this week I ended up with two suddenly open days. I decided to bite the bullet and register, insure, and pay for my car. You’d think within two full days I could accomplish this. You’d be wrong. This has been way more complicated than I anticipated. The largest bank note here is 5,000 Kwacha, worth less than three American dollars. Paying for a car in three dollar bills would require several hours at the ATM. I thought I could just transfer money from my bank account at home, but OH, not so simple. I brought some cash with me and got a very nice exchange rate for it, so paid for almost half the car that way. I’m still working on the second half. PayPal has a few bugs. And fees. I may have a date with every ATM in town. The sellers are being very patient.

I learned I can’t switch over the car registration until I registered myself as a driver at the Road and Traffic Safety Office. I dreaded this. When our trip to Mangochi to supervise students got canceled because there was no fuel, I braced myself and ventured to the equivalent of a registry of motor vehicles. I walked through the gate into the parking lot/waiting area. My heart sank. Hundreds of people were sitting on benches in front of four unlabeled service windows. I knew not what they were waiting for, if each window provided a different service, or where the line started or ended. I stared. Should I get in line? If so, where? I walked up closer to the windows to see if I could get a sense of what to do. I looked around for someone official looking and didn’t see anyone in a uniform. I stuck my head into an alleyway and saw two men in blue shirts looking at phones. I approached one of them and greeted him: “Muli Bwanji, I must register as a driver to buy a car. Where do I go?” Barely looking up, he answered, “Second window.” There were four windows. Second window from which side? “Second window” was different depending on which side you counted from. I looked for a number on the windows and saw none, though there were so many papers taped to them it may have been hidden. I wedged my way through the crowd in front of all the windows to see if there was a number. Couldn’t see any. I went back to the man in the blue shirt. “Which is the second window?” He reluctantly accompanied me and pointed. Ok, this was progress. I now knew the right window. I waited in the line in front of that window, which was short. Only two people were standing as opposed to the fifty who were seated in front of the window. No idea what they were waiting for but it seemed the standing ones were the line. When my turn came I told the man behind the window I needed to register to buy a car and he handed me a form to fill out. I joined the fifty seated people and thought this might not be too bad! Only one page! Unfortunately it required my passport not my license, and I didn’t have that with me. I folded up the paper, tucked it in my bag and left, dreading the thought of coming back but relieved to leave, thinking I’d be better prepared mentally upon return. Note to self: bring a snack. And a book. 

I feel very guilty about the next part of this story. The all-day planning meeting scheduled for Wednesday got cancelled when the faculty from the Lilongwe campus “failed to arrive”. So I had another free day. I took a deep breath, passport in hand, and knowing what to expect, went back to Road and Traffic Safety Office. It was even more crowded. Where should I drop the form? Second window again? There was a very long line. I saw people, lots of them, waiting in a different line and saw they had the same form as me. I asked one if this was the line to register? One person said yes, the one next to her said no, and pointed to the longer line a few feet away. I got in that line, but still wasn’t sure if I was in the right line. A blue shirted person with badges on the sleeves walked by and I said, “Excuse me, is this the line to register as a driver?” and showed him my form. He said, “Yes, come with me.” I followed him along the line into a room with two stations. He pointed to a chair in front of a desk with a window barrier. When the person in that chair got up, the blue shirted man told me to go next. I said, “Oh no! I don’t want to go before these people waiting!” (This was both true and false. I desperately wanted to go before those people waiting. I also didn’t want to look like I was going before those  people waiting.) He said, “Yes. Go. You are over sixty aren’t you?” I was simultaneously insulted and relieved. I’m always surprised to be reminded of how old I am because I don’t feel that old and I guess wanted him to think I was much younger, but I was relieved that it might be my age and not my skin color allowing me to jump the line. It may have been both but it was privilege nonetheless. I turned to the fifty or so young people in line and said, “I’m so sorry.” and turned away from their looks of disappointment. Or was it disgust? I told myself, “They do revere old people here.”  I handed over my form, my passport, my license, and noted that the expression of the guy behind the window was not reverence. I said, “I’m sorry”meaning I never would have asked to go first. I just wanted to be sure I was in the right line, I swear,  but don’t think he was in the mood to make me feel better about my white privilege guilt. His expression did not change. I got fingerprinted, photographed (which took several tries because my white shirt, white hair, white skin, and white background made me invisible on the photo. He had to take several shots and he wasn’t happy. He stamped my form and gave me instructions which I could not understand but I did not want to take up any more time after cutting the line, so ran out to find another blue shirted person to ask for the next step.

I was told to go back to the window that gave me the form in the first place. I slipped my form through the opening and took a seat. A while later a young girl in front of me said “They are calling you.” Seriously? How did she hear that? I was listening for it and heard nothing. I went up to the window, where the blue shirted woman asked for my passport. I handed it over and refused to leave while she had it. This I did not feel bad about. I stood there until she did whatever she was doing with it, and I got fingerprinted again. She handed back my stuff with more instructions I couldn’t understand. “Did you say go to the bank?” She pointed to the left, done with me, and went on to her next task. I looked for another guy in a blue shirt to ask what I was to do next. I’d lost all shame for needing assistance. There was no way I could have figured this out. Around the corner there was an actual bank and I was instructed to go there. I went into the bank, paid some money, took the receipt, and got more instructions I couldn’t understand. The bank was less crowded so I felt comfortable asking her to repeat the instructions until I understood I was to go next door with the receipt and do something. That part was fuzzy but at least I knew where to go. I went into the adjacent building and waited in line. No special old lady treatment there. No hairy eyeballs either, thank God. It was only about a fifteen minute wait, the line moving pretty fast. I got up to the window, handed all the papers and receipts over. She handed them back and said, “We have no cards. Just use the receipt.” Which, I guess was why the line was moving fast. Seems like that could have been noted at the door. I don’t know what I was supposed to “use” the receipt for, but I asked if this was the last step, she said yes, I found the nearest exit, walked a mile to a cafe, and ordered a beer. It was one o’clock. This was all just so I can buy the car and register it. I have no idea what’s next in this series of bureaucracies but in the meantime, I’m still driving their car.  

I thought the students were starting classes tomorrow but now it is not until the 19th. Friday we chose which courses to teach. I’ll have time to prepare and recover from the shock of learning the class will not be twenty students like in 2016, 17, 18, and 19 but a mere 260 students since midwifery and nursing will be combined. It will be in a bigger room they assure me. A year suddenly feels very small. A month is already gone. I always think I’m doing well managing expectations but then let my imagination run wild with what we COULD do and get frustrated and disappointed with what actually comes of it. I need to reel it in. Two hundred and sixty students. Yikes.

There is a Fulbright student in Blantyre and we met for breakfast this morning. On a blackboard at the entrance of the cafe was written: Slow progress is better than no progress. Stay positive and never give up. The proverb is about this. It doesn’t have to be today. Rushing spoils things.  Reminding me again of my privilege. 

Love to all,


One thought on “Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre, White Privilege

  1. Kris Hallenburg Reply

    Great story and so third world. Reminded me of dealing with immigration in various countries. I almost always left the office crying. Yes, time moves differently.

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