Monday, June 16, 2008

You have a friend in Malawi

Lilongwe, Malawi
Malawi is said to have some of the world’s friendliest people and I must say I’ve found the truism to be true. As soon as I crossed the crooked border from Tanzania I found the people more welcoming, more helpful.

The other day I was riding back to town in the car of a businessman and his wife. They had agreed to give me a lift from an area with little public transportation. I asked them why Malawians are so friendly.

“I think it’s because of our first president,” the man said, and once he gave his answer it was clear his wife couldn’t chime in without fear of appearing to contradict him. “He was very generous and taught people to be kind and considerate.”

“I think Malawian people always think, ‘What is it like to be the other person?’”

I thought that was the perfect explanation because beyond surface “friendliness”—constantly asking strangers ‘how are you?’—what impresses is the helpfulness. There is no better place to hitch a ride or borrow a cell phone or ask for directions. Perhaps it speaks to our own shortcomings that “friendliness” is really just when people do us favors without asking for something back.

Whenever I’ve had the “friendliness” conversation with a Malawian they’ve always pointed out that not everyone here is nice, as if it could be otherwise.

But even my run-in with a no-good proved positive. I took a mini-bus to the main Lilongwe bus stand for my trip towards the lake a couple days ago. It was a busy and crowded place and as I struggled out of the van with my two huge bags a guy in a Chicago Cubs hat came by the van and slipped what he could grab out of my left pocket. I caught it out of the corner of my eye and saw a familiar piece of paper flutter to the ground.

“What’s that?” I shouted mid-robbery as I bent over to pick up the list of phone numbers. “Thief!”

“What do you want me to do?” he asked, quite rhetorically.

I found I had shoved him against a nearby van with my one free arm and was shouting “thief” in conjunction with more colorful adjectives.

He didn’t push back but cowered a bit, was pushed against a second van and then scampered away as I advised him to “run, run you colorful-adjective thief!”

It was a strangely empowering experience that I highly recommend. Unlike successful robberies which have occupied my mind for days or weeks after the fact, this one rarely surfaces in my memory and when it does I just check to make sure my bag is zipped and turn to the passerby who has just called over to me and say, “Hey. Good. How are you?”

1 comment:

Nancy said...

b, you scared me a bit, your response to your thief. i guess frustration does breed aggression and injustice, violence.also interesting was his question,like he had no other option but stealing, being the only way for him to get by.sad somehow to be reduced to that makes me think about power, and the most common way to give up power is to think you don't have any.glad you still realize you have some. but more impressive is the practice of what seems to be the golden rule in malawi. really amazing a large segment of the population behaving that way, refreshing i recently read something the dali lama said about compassion being the radicalism of our time. maybe malawi is a living example. bottle some and bring it home for me. in the mean time, it stands to reason not all the thieves there are good natured ones, so be careful. aml