1. Culture of “Waiting”
(a) Consumer Transactions
Shortly after arriving in Malawi, we were told that we should get accustomed to waiting in lines. Queuing up was just a part of Malawian life—indeed it seems to be a part of African life in general. It doesn’t help to get impatient or testy. Getting mad or venting or snapping at clerks wouldn’t make the lines go away, improve the quality of the service, or make for a better personal experience, so it is best just to recalibrate expectations to retain a bit of sanity as one gets things done in Blantyre. Getting to the banks first thing in the morning, or arriving at the MRA offices (local version of the IRS) before the early-morning crowd gathers, were offered as prudent suggestions. Taking a book to read while waiting was offered as another wise precaution. We didn’t have to worry too much as the “queueing” up phenomenon, until we became the office couple in Blantyre in mid-March of 2015.
But it is not always convenient to time our trips to the banks and MRA to target the off-peak hours. So since mid-March, we had had our share of long waits to withdraw and deposit money at the main office of the Standard Bank, in downtown Blantyre. Usually one, and at most two, tellers are asked to a line of 15 to 20 customers, each wanting to withdraw a little or lot of money from their accounts; hence, 20 to 40 minutes waits in line are routine. The bank has a separate line for depositors, with similar wait times, and frequently the depositor line is equally backed-up. At least once or twice a month, we are required to make trips to the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) to make leasehold tax payments to the government. The Church leases a number of properties in Malawi—flats and houses for missionaries and church buildings. Whenever the Church pays the rent to the landlord, it is also required to pay, on the landlord’s behalf, 15% of the gross rent to the MRA as a leasehold tax. If the payment is not made, the Church becomes secondarily liable for the landlord’s tax. This way the government gets two parties on the hook rather than one. Lines at the MRA Office, in the Msonkho House, can be as long and crazy as those in the banks. You might think the government would have an incentive to make it easy for taxpayers to make payments, accelerating the receipt of tax payments, by adding low-cost tellers to increase volume, but for some reason that kind of thinking has not prevailed. No doubt the same might be said of various governmental agencies in the United States, where taxpayer satisfaction is not a high priority.
Financial institutions are not the only places where queueing up is common place. We have encountered long lines in grocery stores (Chipuku and Shop Rite), the local utilities (TNM and ESCOM), hospitals (Queen Elizabeth Hospital and Seventh Day Adventist Hospital), and Internet provider (Skyband). Recently, when mailing a package to the United States, we waited over 30 minutes at the local office of Federal Express, where Carole was asked to sign 8 copies of the same invoice/order request. Sometimes it is difficult to see how the wheels of commerce work with such built-in inefficiency. Presumably, businesses find they optimize profits by squeezing employee costs (fewer employees interfacing with consumers), while not losing business. Customers queue up, waiting as long as it takes to complete a transaction, rather than taking their business somewhere else where the customer experience might be better. There is no premium on delivering a Nordstrom customer-oriented experience to the consumer. As long as there is not customer attrition, businesses have little or no incentive to increase the number of employees who are directly interfacing with customers or to streamline the paper trail. Many businesses have in place paper intensive practices. Malawians love officially-looking stamps, triplicate copies of documents, countersigned copies, indeed anything that makes something look official, whether or not it really serves the purpose of formalizing or authenticating the transactions. As a consequence, it is amazing how helpful an ink pad, coupled with a wood-handled stamp with the Church’s name and address, can be in getting something done.
(b) Dealing with Tradesmen
The inconveniences are waiting are not limited to consumer-type transactions. They apply with as much, if not more, force when engaging tradesman to provide services, such as repairing water heaters (known locally as “geezers”), cleaning and painting apartments, or replacing stubborn door locks and broken cabinet doors. Under local practice, the landlord is responsible for maintaining the exterior of apartments, while the tenant is responsible for problems that arise within the interior. But irrespective of who have legal responsibility for the costs of interior or exterior repairs, practically speaking the tenant must coordinate with tradesman to get anything fixed, repaired or replaced within apartment. Because of the pervasiveness of theft in Malawi, one would never allow tradesmen to work within an apartment without oversight; this means that the tenant or a representative is effectively tied up, just keeping watch, whenever work is done within the apartment.
It is almost impossible to convey the utter inefficiency of local tradesmen. Some may doubt the accuracy of the following example, thinking it exaggerated, but it isn’t--similar problems crop up all the time. About a month ago, we discovered that the Church’s Stephens Road flat, used by the two elders helping the Ndirande Branch, was without hot water. For months the young elders, rather than complaining to us, tolerated icy cold showers, which are not pleasant, even if they are not as bracing here as though would be if the elders were working in Norway or northern Germany. Shortly after we contacted the landlord, the landlord arranged for a plumber to meet us at the flat to assess the situation. The first problem is that no one is ever there when they say they will be. The plumber promised to be at the flat at 8:00 a.m. Back home we roughly know what this means and can usually rely upon the workers to be at the appointed hour or sometime reasonably close—and, if they are tied up, it is customary to get a call about the delay, But anyone who thinks that what it means in Malawi is going to be disappointed. An 8:00 appointment may show up anytime between 8:30 and noon, or in the afternoon, or for that matter, sometime the next day. When the workers do appear, they sometimes come with an excuse, but often not. In any event, they expect the home owner or occupant to accommodate them. The temptation is to do precisely that, because, if one doesn’t, who knows when the tradesman will surface next. Homeowners and residents are constantly at the beck and call of the tradesmen, waiting hours for them to show up, but never knowing when it will occur. Being annoyed, showing frustrating, or complaining has little effect. One is at the mercy of the tradesman. But, in our case, once the plumber finally surfaced at the Stephens Road flat, a couple of hours late, he determined it was not a plumbing problem, but instead was an electrical issue.
The Church leases the Stephens Road flat from the same landlord (a family of Indian descent which has been in Malawi for several generations), who leases three other flats to the Church. The landlord has been very responsive, and we have no complaints about the landlord’s attentiveness. Hence, the next day the landlord’s electrician was scheduled to show up first thing in the morning. Another couple hour wait, but finally the electrician, plus a handy man, are at the door. The geezer (hot water heater) is located in the attic space above the living space. But what might have been an easy fix is not. First problem—the electrician does not have a “torch” (flash light), and needs to borrow Carole’s; fortunately she had one on hand. Second problem—the electrician does not have a screw driver (indeed, he doesn’t seem to have any tools), so he returns to his office to pick one up—returning a hour later, screw driver in hand. Third problem—when he finally inspects the geezer, he decides the problem is a burned out element. Of course, he does not have a replacement part, and this time heads off to the local market, in hopes of finding a cheap refurbished part. By now the day is largely spent, and we reschedule for the next morning. Finally, after three days, five or six separate visits, the geezer is finally repaired, and the elders can enjoy for the first time in months a hot water shower.
Frequently, tradesmen will does not have “transport,” walking being the primary mode for getting around—so they look to the customer to pick them up, drop them off, and get them to a retail store to purchase necessary tools, parts and supplies.
What have we learned through this, and similar experiences? The following painful lessons have been taught. First, if we can help it, we never go to the flat to meet tradesmen—either they come first to our residence at One Kufa Road and then we follow them to the flat or we show up at the flat only after they are there and call us to come. That way we avoid becoming hostages of the tradesmen, waiting indefinitely for them to finally appear. Naturally, it is much easier to establish these inflexible rules in the abstract—they only work when we are not in a hurry to have the work done. When there is some urgency to the project, we end up going down the same old rabbit hole over and over again—waiting for tradesmen; hoping they will come when promised; trying to maintain our composure; being nice but insistent about getting work done on time; tolerating the multi visits that it invariably requires to complete a simple project. Second, if it is a simple task, or at least one we are capable of doing, it is usually much easier to do the work ourselves. Why hire the tradesmen, when you have to pick them up for the job, take them to the store for supplies, and wait the entire time they are doing the job? Elder Reynolds, for this reason, alone often did the work himself. He was very handy, so this was not particularly difficult for him. Alternatively, it is much easier to hire a general handyman either to do the repairs or to coordinate with others. This, in effect, shifts to another all of the hassles of dealing with independent tradesmen. He is left with sorting through the details, inefficiencies, and problems of coordinating with subs. This option is more costly for the Church, if measured solely in dollar terms, but much easier on our nerves and frees us up to spend more time visiting members. The option is however feasible only if the Church can find a supervisor whom it trusts, who is reasonably competent, and who will not gouge the Church when billing the work. Fortunately, the Church has such a handyman in Gabriel Chinomwe, a returned missionary. He is wonderful to deal with—positive, responsive, prompt, and good spirited. Lastly, we recognize much of the problem is “economic:” tradesmen never come prepared largely because they are so poor. Rarely do they have a box of standard tools on hand for use in diagnosis and basic repairs, and never do they carry with them standard “inventory” parts. Much to our chagrin, each repair project entails at least two separate appointments: one for diagnostic purposes and the second to effectuate the fix. Tradesmen never have the necessary parts in inventory, but instead must go to the shop to purchase them. Also it is not uncommon for the tradesmen to ask the consumer for the money to purchase the parts, since the tradesmen don’t have credit arrangements in place to allow them to carry small trade balances, even for relatively small periods of time.
Often we prefer to hire members to handle small projects within their expertise. If we need to hire someone anyway, it is better to pay members, many of whom struggle to find work, than to direct the work to others. The Church wants them to be self-reliant. But, of course, this may complicate matters. Sometimes the members are not fully qualified for the work, even if the projects are simple. Sometimes they do the work poorly or are slow or charge more than we think may be fair. Sometimes they need or want more support from us than other independent parties might require. Obviously, it is to resolve grievances with members. One doesn’t want to jeopardize their standing in or feelings about the Church, because of the ill-will created by a project that went bad.
(c) Major Life Events: Funerals, Engagements and Weddings
Elsewhere we have described in considerable detail how funerals are conducted in Malawi. One defining characteristic of funerals is how much time family and friends take to show support for the family of the deceased. Literally hours upon hours are consumed, included participating in all-night vigils at the family home of the deceased. Here one “waits” as well—but the waiting serves an entirely different purpose. It is not a by-product of inefficiency, credit problems, or a lack of resources. Instead, the “waiting” is used as a way for showing support and affection for the family of the deceased.
(d) Nothing Starts on Time
Nothing seems to start on “time” in Malawi. This applies to Church meetings, funerals, weddings, engagement parties or social activities. [We assume schools start on time.] It also applies to bus schedules. Time schedules are treated as “rough” approximates—indeed, in some cases, not even that. If a Church social event is scheduled to start at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, no one is present at the appointed hour. No one takes the schedule seriously. For several hours after the scheduled start time, individuals and families slowly assemble—quietly talking, mingling and waiting for the activity to begin. It is as though there is a generally understood social convention that the event itself will not commence until a quorum, however that might be defined, has finally gathered. At first one might wonder what is so terrible about this. Perhaps starting on time is just a fetish of the Western world—an unfortunate, and perhaps unhealthy outgrowth of the West’s focus on schedules, timeline, and bottom line orientation--and shouldn’t be given much priority.
But now, after having to live in a world where “schedules” are largely ignored, we have become true believers--starting on time really matters and is at core to imposing order. Absent these expectations, one does not know when to arrive or when the activity will actually begin. In fact, by any rational measure, coming on time is “irrational.” It makes far more sense to guess when the “requisite” quorum will finally be present, and to timing one’s arrival accordingly. The current norm is disrespectful—it is disrespectful of the time and commitments of others, and disrespectful of one’s own time and commitments. We have tried hard to encourage the two branches with which we work—Zingwangwa and Blantyre 2nd—to start Sacrament Meetings are on time, even if few members are in their seats at the appointed hour. Slowly the branches are making progress and we are hopeful that that progress will over time migrate into greater punctuality in other meetings and social activities.