1. Crowd Behavior—Two Accidents in Two Days
(a) Mbayani Accident
Westerners must exercise care when they are involved in accidents with Malawians and their property. Things can get out of hand very quickly, something seemingly at odds with the otherwise placid behavior of Malawians. This past Saturday, I was with Jonathan Banda, a Malawian who is a returned missionary from the South Africa Durban Mission. It is hard to think of someone more pleasant and congenial than Jonathan. Jonathan is in charge of the District’s Young Single Adult (YSA) program. He and I had driven into the main market street in Mbayani to pick up someone who was going to pop popcorn during a Saturday afternoon YSA movie/dance activity in the Blantyre Chapel. Mbayani’s market street is typical—especially for a Saturday mid-day—crowded with throngs of Malawians, doing a little shopping for the weekend, or just out for a break or exercise. The roadway is so narrow that, for the most part, it is not possible for two cars to pass one another going normal speed—one must pull off to the side, while the other slips by slowly. The roadway is paved, but, at least on this Saturday afternoon, there is not much vehicle traffic, just the occasional mini-bus, truck or car. Passing through the market requires caution and patience—slowly one inches forward, while the crowds part quietly in front. Often those on foot barely pay any attention to the traffic. It is not uncommon for vendors to allow their goods to encroach upon the roadway, making driving even more challenging.
Despite Jonathan’s efforts, we had been unsuccessful in picking up the “popcorn” guy to help at the YSA activity—apparently he was either not to be found or sick or have forgotten about the commitment all together—I never got the story quite right. In the Church’s Toyota Hilux (a good-sized truck), we were slowly threading our way back through the market, returning to downtown Blantyre, but had to pull off to the side to allow an oncoming vehicle to pass. Then we restarted, going slowly forward, before getting back into the road’s center. I never saw (nor for that matter, could have seen), the large open-faced weave basket of tomatoes that one vendor had placed in the roadway. Jonathan, who was sitting on the passenger side, felt the slight bump, and knew we had hit something before it was apparent to me. I stopped the truck, Jonathan got out, and a minute later I followed him to see for myself what had happened. Our left front tire had damaged one side of the basket and smashed a number of tomatoes. The vendor was upset, though not violently so. She lamented the damage and loss. But rather than openly confronting us, she retreated, climbing up a few steps, away from the road, much as though her feelings had been hurt. Perhaps she doubted she would get any redress from the “azungu” driver. But literally within seconds, a crowd of 20 to 30 had gathered, crowding in to see the damage, waiting to see how the little accident would be resolved. The knot of bystanders quickly blocked the roadway.
Once I saw the damage, I told Jonathan I would gladly compensate the woman for her loss, asking him to take care of the negotiations. I wasn’t concerned with either the cost (I knew it couldn’t be much) or the relative blame. I was driving the truck, I hit her stuff, and it didn’t matter whether or not she might have been at fault. I knew we could bear the loss much better than a small vendor trying to eke out a living. After a short back and forth, they settled at 10,000 kwacha (roughly $18.00 USD). Was it too much money—had she taken advantage of the situation—I think in each case the answer would be “yes.” But in the bigger scheme of things, I wasn’t particularly concerned. On those terms, she would have no grievance against either me or the Church—although I don’t know whether she or anyone else in the crowd knew who we were.
The crowd, though curious and watchful, never turned hostile. There was no yelling, people weren’t agitated, they didn’t appear to choose sides. Nothing happened that might have signaled where their sympathies lay, but it is not hard to imagine what they may have thought. Those in the crowd had virtually nothing in common me. To them I would have appeared very strange--an azungu, a large truck, a white shirt and tie, a foreign from an English-speaking country. Few, if any, would have known that I was a missionary—though I was wearing, as I always do, my missionary tag, and the side of the truck has a decal identifying the Church. Malawians are respectful of ministers and missionaries, but this was not a church setting, to which they might have responded. Indeed, there was little, if anything, with which they might have identified and that might have drawn their sympathy. But the street vendor was one of their own—a young woman, trying to make ends meet, part of the street scene, a native, likely as poor as most of them. So what appeared innocent, and harmless enough, might have changed quickly—had the crowd sensed she was being treated unfairly or bullied. Perhaps, at the back of my mind, I was vaguely aware of the need to be careful. But I don’t think the sentiment was very conscious—or motivated my behavior much. I wanted to treat her fairly, knowing how hard loss of any kind, however loss or insignificant, can be for many Malawians. They have little margin for error, and it certainly wasn’t going to cost much for us to be generous.
Before driving off, Jonathan said he wanted to pick up the damaged tomatoes. Since we had in effect compensated the vendor for them, he didn’t want to leave them, so he got a plastic bag and sorted through the basket to find those bruised, smashed and crushed.
(b) Kampala Traffic Accident
Early Sunday morning (the very next day), I almost was involved in another accident, though this time one far more serious. The last several weeks I have been picking up President Tchongwe, the new Blantyre 2nd Branch President, at the mini-bus station, on the Chikwawa Road, closest to his home. The purpose is to get together for an hour or so before our 8:00 a.m. Sacrament Meeting to prepare for the service and to make plans for the upcoming week. As I was turning from left to right across the main road, on to the unpaved side road, I checked for oncoming traffic, seeing none, I started to turn; several folks on the unpaved road were crossing in front of the truck, so I held up for a few seconds to allow them to cross. Once they cleared, I slightly accelerated to get out of the main road, when suddenly I saw in front of me, coming from left to right, a motorbike, not on the paved road, but off on the dirt. Just in time, I broke to avoid a collision, causing the motorbike to swerve and tip over. Fortunately, it was going quite slow at the time, but it did crash on its side, dumping its driver and passenger. By the time I pulled off the road, the driver, now back on his feet, charged the truck, gesturing and yelling. I rolled down the window to talk to him, to apologize for causing him to tip over and to check whether either he or his passenger were hurt or the bike damaged, when, to my surprise, he reached out and hit me in the face.
As he approached the truck, I could see from his demeanor that he was upset, but I did not expect to have to ward off an attack, so I was totally defenseless when it occurred. But if there is an unexpected blessing in this case, it is that he had enough presence of mind to pull his punch. His fist extended far enough to connect with the tip of my nose, leaving a sting, but otherwise there was no force behind his blow. It was more a slap than a slug, and luckily it did not break my glasses or nose. I won’t have been happy about that. No one likes to be hit in the face. So for this, of course, I am grateful, as it kept the incidence from deteriorating into sometime more serious.
After a second, I got out of the truck to inspect the motorbike and to see if either the driver or passenger had been injured. Each was fine, and the motorbike didn’t appear to have suffered any damage. This time there was no crushed basket or smashed tomatoes. In fact, as best I could tell, there was no damage whatever, other than a loss of dignity and a moment of fright—neither of which is inconsequential, but fortunately are injuries that one can overcome with a little time and distance. As I inspected the motorbike, the driver started yelling about “gas;” initially, I thought he meant the bike’s gas tank had been punctured, resulting in a loss of fuel. I looked to see if spilled gas were visible or the tank had a hole. But within a few seconds, it was clear he was trying to communicate something else---that was his way of asking for compensation for the accident. Given the cost of fuel, and the fact that many drivers barely have the funds to operate their vehicles, often they struggle to scrape together the funds to operate their vehicles and constantly are running out of fuel. One of the most iconic images in Malawi is coming upon trucks, cars, mini buses, and bikes stranded in the middle of the road, because they have run out of gas or suffered from some kind of engine failure. He couldn’t tag me with a bill for damaged parts (because nothing seemed to have been broken) but at least he could demand punitive damages in the form of a request for fuel. From my perspective, I was of course relieved to see that my driving hadn’t caused property or personal damage. So settling up for a few kwacha was hardly the biggest of my concerns. This time is cost me 2,000 MKW or the equivalent of about $ 4.00 USD.
I know I scanned the oncoming traffic on the Chikwawa Road, before turning across it to turn off on the unpaved road. I did not see the motorbike. Had I seen the motorbike bearing down on me, I would not have turned. So I don’t know if I was just careless or whether the biker driver, who clearly could have seen me parked in the road, waiting for the passengers to clear, didn’t slow down or thought he could just pass me by pulling off the pavement onto the dirt and slipping around the truck, without breaking his speed. But, in the end, it doesn’t matter. I was fortunate not to have caused an accident and pleased the whole thing could disposed of without more hassle or damage.
Obviously, this little incidence likewise attracted a crowd, though in this case, a much smaller one than Saturday’s crowd in the market. I think ten or so watched to see how everything would play out. I think, but could be wrong, that the jury may have been more favorable to me this time around. One young man expressed his quiet support for me, leaving me to think the biker driver may have been more at fault than I. Everything happened so quickly, moving vehicle accidents are that way, so I had little time to think. I never felt in danger, regretted the trouble I caused, and again didn’t want to shift any financial burden to the bike driver, whoever might have been at fault. But what is perhaps most surprising is that I wasn’t too upset by being struck. Like most, I am particularly sensitive to blows to the face. Yet, I kept my composure much better than would have been the case had the same thing happened back home. When handing over the money, I did however quietly say to the driver that he shouldn’t have hit me.
 Ironically, it turned out that one Church members was in the crowd. She is a member of the Blantyre 1st Branch, and we ended up giving her a ride into town. I was a bit surprised when she popped into the back seat.
 For some reason, quite beyond me, the Malawians rarely are able to pull their stranded vehicles off the road when they run out of fuel. They mark the stranded vehicles with a line of broken branches that they leave in the lane in front of the car, truck, minibus or bike.