Thursday, November 13, 2014

An Emergency

Sarah raps timidly on my office door. “Madam,” she whispers and waits for me to look up. “We have an emergency.”

I peer over my laptop screen. Slender and long-limbed, Sarah reminds me of a giraffe. Well over six feet tall, with a wide straight smile and elegant neck, she is easily the most beautiful administrative assistant in all of Lilongwe. Her movements are graceful, even as she traipses around the office, making too much noise in too high heels. I watch her slip into my office and slide the door closed. 

"It’s the Salima office, Madam.” She says, by way of explanation. I wait for her to continue, as I have learned to do. She takes a deep breath and steps closer to my desk. 

“It’s like,” she chews bit of her hair, then launches. “Beatrice is out until tomorrow and they only have one bank signatory and they might have guests today. Nancy called me, Alice is out today and the gas station has no fuel. She doesn’t know when either will return. So when she called she was afraid that it might be on, but it’s not on, so I told her that I would help her out.”

This is a typical day in my office: lots of context, but very little by way of actual explanation. I have no idea what she is talking about. The field office in Salima might be out of fuel, which happens frequently, preventing our project cars and motorbikes from getting out on the road. Salima office is a major hub to our project operations. Nancy, our office admin there, is often calling for help. The level of emergency this time around was difficult to gauge however, so I kept Sarah talking while I figured out what she meant.

“What can we do to help?
“Well, she wants us to do the buying here. They are almost out and-“

“Out of what?”

“Sugar.” She says it quietly, but no less urgent, pronouncing it "shu-ga"

I bite my cheeks, trying not to smile. Tea breaks are a big deal in this former British colony. Fuel can be tricky, but sugar? This is an emergency I can handle. “How much do they have left?”

“3 kgs, Madam.”

“Oh dear, only six and a half pounds to get through one day,” I sigh, fake exasperated, trying hard not to laugh. There are only about 10 in the Salima office at any given moment. They'd each have to eat themselves sick to be out of sugar by tomorrow. But still, out of respect for Sarah, I try not to laugh too hard. Another example of cultural perspectives and a decision that doesn't need to be kicked up to the director. I struggle, and try to find a way to make this a teachable moment. “Do you think they’ll make it?”

“I don’t know.” Said Sarah, not catching my sarcasm. “Nancy thinks the staff might be upset.”

“Something tells me they’re going to be fine,” I assured her. "But I'll leave the decision up to you if you'd like to drop everything to order more sugar for Salima." 

When I stopped by her desk a few hours later, she had decided that work was more important. Unsurprisingly, everyone in Salima lived.

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