(a) Manase Accident
While driving conditions are challenging in Malawi, Carole and I have been spared any incidents during the first 11 months of our mission, so it is hard to understand why I would be in three minor accidents over a five day stretch. Wednesday evening, following our weekly meeting with President Chikapa, which finished up at 6:00 p.m., I drove to Manase to meet with Brother Mkandawire, after first dropping off Carole to get started with dinner. The Mkandawires live at the bottom of a ravine, accessed by a windy and steep path. Our normal route is to leave the truck at the top of the hill, by the unfinished brick church, and then thread our way between homes and outbuildings, until we reach the Mkandawires’ home. Their home does not have a street address (most don’t), nor is it accessed off a road (paved or unpaved), but instead is just one of a jumble of homes, clinging to the hillside or spread out as the steep slope flattens out toward the small seasonal stream at the ravine’s bottom. Fortunately, we know how to find it, since it was the first home we ever visited, and Carole is Sister Mkandawire’s visiting teacher, so we have made many visits.
Driving south on the Chikwawa Road, approaching the Manase Police Station, it became apparent that the entire neighborhood was in the midst of a community black out, the only lights being the car and trucks headlights on the road. Otherwise, everything was in the dark--no lights at the Police Station, the gas station next door, or off to either side of the road. It was pitch black, and I had to play careful attention to the foot traffic, suddenly appearing off either side of the road, to avoid a car/passenger accident. After turning off on the paved road to Baluti, the next community beyond Manase, I finally approached the turnoff to the unpaved road heading downhill toward our customary parking spot for the final walk to the Mkandawires. But upon reaching the juncture, I found the roadway blocked by a mini-bus, picking up or dropping off passengers. Mini buses are largely oblivious to the rights of all other drivers—stopping, passing, blocking, whenever and wherever they wish, without the least consideration for the rights of other drivers. They operate under the assumption that they have the right of way, all others having the obligation to defer to them.
I stopped, waiting for the mini-bus to clear, and allowing me to turn, but quickly I found several cars and mini-buses backed up behind me, one mini-bus ripping by me at speed without the least concern for the dark or others’ safety. One other car or truck honked, impatient with the delay, though Malawians are normally not heavy honkers. I found the predicament stressful, and thought I could back up a few feet, though in the middle of the road and despite the dark, and then slip in front of the mini-bus, allowing the traffic behind me to free up. While I knew there was a line of traffic behind me, I thought I had some space (I only needed a yard or so), not seeing any headlights in the rearview mirror. Bad, bad choice—one driven more by impatience than good judgment—though going slowly, I soon heard a crunch. Apparently, there was a young man, on an old motorbike, directly behind my truck, and I had clipped him when sliding backward. Not wanting to further bottle up the traffic, I signaled to him that I would drive down the road until I could find space to pull off, allowing us to check his motorbike and confer.
A hundred yards up the road, I was able to pull to the left into another of the unpaved side streets. I don’t think I was really at fault with either of the two prior incidences. But this time around, I was certainly the one culpable. I had no business backing up. It quickly became apparent that the motor biker, though in his late teens or early twenties, spoke little to no English, though he could follow some of what I was saying. True to form, a crowd quickly gathered, this time ranging between 10 and 15. Some of them may have witnessed the accident, others just happened to be around. It was pitch black, so I left my truck headlights on, so that I could see both the young man and inspect the damage to his bike. His headlamp was busted and, at the time, he didn’t complain about any other damage, but he won’t have had much of an opportunity to see if the steering or other bike equipment were damaged. Fortunately, one woman in the crowd spoke English well and offered to translate so that we could communicate with one another. Not surprisingly, there was no damage to our truck, since I was going very slowly when the accident occurred.
Soon it became apparent that the young man didn’t know what to do—he was frustrated, unhappy, and worried about being left with the short end of the stick. He couldn’t make his case directly to me, so most of his remarks seemed more directed to the crowd, people lingering, in typical Malawian fashion, to gawk at the temporary entertainment and to see what would happen. He may well have doubted getting fair treatment at the hands of an azungu stranger, but I have no direct evidence of that. I asked if he had any idea what it would cost to replace the headlamp, and of course he didn’t know. One bystander thought it would cost 15,000 kwacha, likely a number he pulled out of the air. Since we weren’t make any progress, I proposed a temporary solution—I would advance him 10,000 kwacha (roughly $20 USD) against the costs (before leaving I did give him the money). If the repairs were more expensive, he could track me down for the difference, giving him my card with home address and phone and email numbers.
Just as I thought things were solved, he started complaining about a leg injury, pulling up his pant leg, pointing to the front part of his lower right shin. The leg did not appear fractured (he didn’t seem to be in too much pain and could walk), and the skin was not broken. If there were bruising, it was either too early to see the discoloration or the lightening was inadequate. He demanded a trip to Queen Elizabeth, the large public hospital, so, after arranging for someone to secure his bike, I took him and some other fellow (who turned out to be a total stranger, but one who spoke a bit more English than the biker) to the hospital. Though it wasn’t late (now close to eight in the evening), it was apparent that he was not going to get the attention of a doctor. The three nurses sitting at the reception desk were less than helpful, hardly paying attention to us, saying there was only one doctor present to handle all ER cases, and only serious cases would get his attention. Since his case was not urgent, the young man should return in the morning, when more doctors were around to see patients. After this less than fruitful hospital trip, I returned the motor biker to where we have pulled off the road to talk, telling him to contact me if the10,000 MKW was not sufficient to cover his out-of-pocket expenses for either bike repairs or pain medications.
The following day the injured motorcyclist, and a friend, came back the Blantyre Chapel. Carole and I were there cleaning up the library, and meeting with President Matale about pending items. We spoke briefly and I suggested that they go get quotes on the bike repairs. They returned the following day, again finding us at the Church, as we continued organizing the building’s library. We were also meeting and met with Gabriel Chinomwe to inventory the available cleaning supplies, organize the cleaning closet, and assemble cleaners, mops, brooms, gloves, and dusters. On the second visit, the motorcyclist returned with three companions, one obviously selected to serve as the designated interpreter, and presented both a list of requested bike repairs, together with quotes. The demands now went beyond the broken headlamp. Knowing they were coming, I had asked Gabriel if he would stay around to interpret and, if necessary, help to mediate a resolution.
We met outside the church on the frontyard. As we began reviewing the quotes, and hearing the motorcyclist’s additional demands, a small tribal council had, in effect, convened—the motorcyclist and his three companions, to represent the interests of the injured party, and Gabriel and myself, to represent our interests. Within a few minutes, our little circle expanded, with the addition of the two security guards/gardeners, working the grounds at the Blantyre Chapel—one being Brother Munyowa of the Blantyre 2nd branch--both wanting to watch and hear what was going on. It looked like some excitement and they didn’t want to miss out. For the next 30 minutes there was an animated discussion by each side—mostly in Chichewa, but occasionally in English. The combined quotes for repairs and parts came to 14,500 MKW, not a staggering number, and fortuitously close to the 15,000 MKW that had been estimated the night of the accident. Since I had already advanced 10,000 MKW against this amount, I thought we were done—willingly to pony up the small deficit, but as it often happens with negotiations, quickly we are dealing with several unexpected snags. First, to my surprise, the motorcyclist argued that the 10,000 advance on the evening of the accident was not an advance at all, but instead had been paid to him to compensate him for the accident itself, without regard to the out-of-pocket repairs, for which I was separately responsible. Second, he contended that I should pay him “something” for the injury to his leg, even though it seemed to be nothing more than a nasty bruise—basically a pain and suffering claim, though he didn’t use that terminology. Lastly, somehow the evening of the accident, he had been cheated by the young man who accompanied him to the hospital, and I needed to be make him whole for that loss as well. Over the years of practicing law, one thing you slowly learn is the danger of “overstating a position.” I have no doubts but what our young friend did exactly that, and I think he quickly lost credibility with many of the group as his list of demands expanded. I don’t think anyone believed his argument that the 10,000 MKW payment was not intended as an “advance” against future expenses or that I was in any way responsible for his getting cheated or hoodwinked by the stranger who helped him at the hospital on the evening of the accident. I offered, as I had offered before, to reimburse him for any out-of-pocket expenses he might have for pain medications, but refused to make a general compensatory payment to him simply because he was involved in an accident. In any event, it was fascinating to watching the back and forth of the negotiations—I wish I could have understood more what transpired. Gabriel, after initially hearing what I had to say, did most of the talking for me. But almost everyone offered a few comments, there was a spirited discussion—I assume as to what was the “right” compensation—and most of the observers were, as least as best I could tell, trying to determine what was “fair” given the facts as they were coming out. Gabriel finally told me that the motorcyclist wanted something more than “actual damages” to call it a day. Ultimately, we settled at an additional 10,000 MKW-- 5,500 MKW above his quotes. From a financial perspective, the final tally was not significant—20,000 MKW or roughly $40 USD. But for me, two things were important: first, I didn’t want the young man to be “out of pocket” because of the accident; and second, I didn’t want him to take advantage of the situation to extort from me more than was reasonably due—likely, the same considerations anyone else would have if they had been in my shoes.
 The behavior of the three nurses at the reception was appalling. They were chatting casually when we arrived, explaining that the young man had been in a minor traffic accident and wished to see a doctor. They barely responded, and didn’t even ask to see his leg or to do the slightest triage to see if he was really hurt. Without examining him—other than seeing him across the counter, they said the leg was not broken (which it wasn’t, but which they hardly could have known), and told him to return the next day. It wasn’t really what they said that was so upsetting, it was the utter lack of professionalism they displayed that was a concern. Nothing was taken seriously, they undertook no initiative, nor did they do the slightly physical examination to ascertain the extent of his actual or potential injuries.