Thursday, June 25, 2015

Adventures in Road Traffic

Early on, I bypassed some bureaucracy by dropping my quest to get a Malawian driver’s license and choosing to drive on an AAA approved International one. I figured I had successfully escaped having to spend time at the Road Traffic Authority (aka, the DMV).  Alas, I was wrong.

Dead wrong.

Turns out, the bureaucracy gods are a fickle bunch. As of June 1, anyone wanting to conduct business regarding their vehicle first must get a Traffic Registration card. As I am leaving June 30th, I wanted to sell my car. Luckily, the purchaser clued me into this little debacle, and readily prepped me: Five lines, three hours. She even helpfully got the application form for me, taking care of line #1.

I arrived at Road Traffic early (though not as early as I wanted because - guess what? - There are two road traffic offices. *facepalm*). From that moment on, it was as if the universe swallowed me up and I was required to spend all the time I would’ve spent at the DMV over the past two years in the course of two days. Arg.

The first line, Biometrics, took me 2.5 hours. Not so bad; I finished my book. The clinical label turned out to be nothing more than a glamour shot and a finger print session. This was important, as they took your fingerprint at every other subsequent queue.  I heard that one devout 85 year old Muslim man was convinced the finger print machine didn’t work on him because he’d spent his whole life washing his hands before and after prayers five times a day.  Turns out, the system was just down.

The next line, Enrollment, was another hour.  By this time, I was noticing a curious event. Prints were scanned, but only at the window.  Those of us waiting in line were just that: waiters. Many of these patient folks next to me were just place holders for the more affluent! (and better prepared) who were called in at the last minute to take their place in line and swipe their prints. How na├»ve I was, waiting in line for my own self! I had failed the most basic line-hack.

Finally stepping to the window, I watched in agony as the registrar glanced out at me and then turned to help two MP’s who were next to her behind the glass. When she was finished, she stepped away into the back room, only to return 10 minutes later.


Too far in to abandon my quest, I moved to the third line: Payment. By this point, I was a little batty. After two years in Malawi, I thought I’d finally learned to stop asking why, but at this point I was near hollering:  WHY COULDN’T WE HAVE DONE THIS ALL IN ONE LINE? Credit card kiosks are still new here, so cash payments had to be made at the approved government bank teller window…around the corner. Then you had to take the evidence of payment to the final line to collect your card.

After a little over four hours total, I had received a receipt stating I had paid. Unfortunately, having little fortitude to handle any more lines or human contact, I conceded defeat. I vowed to return the next day for the fourth and final queue: pick up.

Day two was the absolute worst. The queue itself didn’t seem so long. However, I failed to discount cultural differences in personal space. Meaning, the distance of the line is not necessarily directly correlated with the amount of people. Place said line in a 10x15 foot room with no air conditioning with only two of the five windows processing cards and you have my idea of hell. I had thought of sending someone to stand in my place, but by this time I figured I might as well have the whole horrible experience. It’s a wonder I never learn.

I stood in line behind a nice lady with a red dress (Martha) and a young man (Marcus). The process was going like this: one had to show their receipt at the window, get your prints verified, and then go wait outside while they printed your card. When it was ready, they yelled out your name and handed it back through the queue, effectively negating the point of taking your finger prints. Hilarious.  

Two hours later, when there was twenty-five people ahead of me, the system went down. Then they ran out of cards.  After a while it was tough to know what exactly the problem was, as everything being shouted was in Chichewa.  The one thing I did know was I was hungry, thirsty and had to go to the bathroom all at once. My tongue began to feel thick and my head ached.

Around hour three, a savior emerged. A new window opened right in front of me, Martha and Marcus. Upon a few words from Martha, he quietly processed our fingerprints and we shoved our way back out the door to the sidewalk. Triumphant, exhausted, dehydrated, we split some tangerines from a roadside vendor and waited for our names to be called. Two days, 6.5 hours later, I had my card.

I’m still not sure if I accomplished anything, but as it turns out, there is a direct correlation between the degree of difficulty and feeling pride. Many people decry African bureaucracy and claim that standing in line is a Malawian past-time. But Malawians aren’t any different than Americans when it comes to queueing and let’s face it, DMV’s are suck holes anywhere on earth. Some people were angry, some were patient. Some cheated the system, others waited for their appointed turn. In the end, I think it ws a fitting way to leave Malawi: on its own terms. I sold my car, transferred the title, and feel like I have paid my bureaucratic dues. 

Time to go home.  

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Honor Among Thieves: A Review

Third in a series (including one prequel) by blogger and development professional, J., Honor Among Thieves, more than any of the others, delves into the day to day life of the development industry. The protagonist, Mary-Anne, has found her way from the horn of Africa to World Aid Corps (WAC) headquarters in Washington DC, as director of global programs. She’s left to the wolves of political whimsy as WAC fights to distinguish itself from a sea of bigger development organizations.

The Shangri-La of funding, $500,000 of unrestricted, private money waltzes through their door in the form of Gary, outdoor clothing entrepreneur, with a desire to “do good in Cambodia”. As a result, Mary-Anne gets told by her boss Jillian to hop on a plane and work with the curmudgeonly Cambodian country manager, Patty, to come up with something. But, midway through program design, the donor decides that all the money should go only to water projects. Marie-Anne and Patty have, of course, designed a livelihoods program. Cue drama.  

This might not come off as a nail-biter for non-development readers, but as far as a true-to-life telling of the development rat race, this book nails it. J. does a great job wiggling his finger in the soft grey middle where we most live. Which is better – create a program that speaks to people’s needs, or get the funding that keeps the organization going that can do other impactful programs? Design a water program, but have other initiatives around it? Fight the battle or win the war? There are no simple answers. Explaining this book to a few friends over dinner one night, one of them exploded “That exact same thing happened to me!” So clearly, J. knows his material.

J. does excellent work portraying everyone as rounded out human beings, with families and decisions and motivations far beyond the work of the work. Each character brings with them a new conundrum, a new avenue of exploration into what ‘doing good’ actually means. My favorite is Trevor, fresh out of undergrad and ready to save the world. J., uses him as a vehicle to answer some of the more basic questions about the development industrial machine. (But there’s so much need! Why doesn’t someone just do something?). Starting his own non-profit, he finds, it isn’t as easy as it seems.

While more true to life, this book also loses some of the tittering decadence from the pre-quel (Marie-Ahhne, Jean-Philippe whispered) that made it such an entertaining read.  I wanted someone to hate. I wanted a place to hang my hat and yell with moral superiority: YOU HAVE CHLAMYDIA YOU IDIOT! Mary Anne should’ve told that crappy Todd that if he’d done his job in the beginning, he could’ve wooed the donor away from water, and this story could’ve been written entirely from the arms of Jean-Philippe.

In the end, I’m not sure if the true-to-life mundaneness overshadows the bones of what makes a good story. This first novel was entertaining in a dashing, bold, even corny kind of way. To be a true homerun, this third novel needs bolder statements, darker lines, bigger dichotomies and a stronger narrative arc than just “Mary-Anne grows up in development”.

This may be exactly the point: development is one big grey area. It’s still a great book, but the big reveal comes in such a non-exciting way that it feels buried, ambiguous, almost after-the-fact. Even if it might not ever happen in real life, I wanted Patty and Mary-Anne to gloat, for Jillian to get her public come-uppance and for Todd to become addicted to opium and fall into a river of crocodiles. 

That is, perhaps, for next time. 

 Views are my own and I was not compensated for this review.