Things don’t get done quickly or conveniently here in Malawi. When something actually is accomplished in one go, you find yourself wide-eyed and amazed, wondering what you will do with all the time you have saved. We live for days like that.
The list of pending business around here is quite long; we spend hours going to the bank, paying bills, and checking on an application to approve our church’s site plan for building that has been waiting approval for a few months now. When one initially moves overseas to a situation like ours, it can take some time to grow accustomed to the change of pace. I remember the first few years we worked abroad; we wondered how we would ever get anything done. There’s always another signature, another stamp, another fee…no wonder so many fall to paying bribes. We decided long ago that we couldn’t follow the crowd and pay bribes; it has made us an enigma among many but we sleep peacefully at night knowing we are working on the up and up.
This doesn’t mean we don’t get frustrated – we certainly do! There was a time, years ago, we believe that our commitment to not paying bribes played a central role in us not getting approval for our church to operate. It was time-consuming (we worked on getting approval for years) and expensive with many trips, applications, fees, and even living in the country for a time. The sting of ending our efforts, the embarrassment we felt over leaving, made our situation all the more uncomfortable and demoralizing.
We are now used to taking our time. One of the most notorious places you will ever waste time in here in Africa is the bank. To open an account at the bank, you will need a list of documents that will fill a large binder. It can take a few days to gather all the proper documentation, but, once you have it all together, you then have to fill out a 6-8 page application. There are many questions on these applications that will stump even the most avid application-filler! I’ve needed counsel almost every time when filling the applications. I usually don’t take less than two days in filling said applications; I will customarily take at least 2 blank copies to prepare for the inevitable errors that I will make in my attempts at filling in the needed blank spaces.
Once you have an account at the bank, you would think that things would be a bit easier but, alas, going to the bank is not meant to be convenient. From long lines, few tellers, money that requires time to count (the current rate of exchange for the Malawi Kwacha to USD is roughly 700 MWK/$1 USD), there’s rarely an occasion when going to the bank is easy. So when asked, “What did you do today?” and I answer, “I went to the bank.” People here immediately know what frustration I must’ve faced and will often nod with understanding.
My young daughter, Andreya who I call Dee, has also grown accustomed to our errands around town. Another skill we have developed in our service here is making time for our family when there’s no time. Yesterday, for example, we had to run a few errands after school was out for the day and we took Dee with us on our route of “getting things done.” We’ve learned to be together on these errands that can, without planning, simply be time-consuming and rob us of family time. Our journeys yesterday took us to pay the Internet bill and by the pharmacy. Dee, knowing that such things can take time, took her bag, homework, and baby doll with her to pass the time efficiently.
Jamie, my husband, and I were chatting away as we pulled out from the pharmacy and heard some crunching coming from the back seat. I asked Dee, “What are you eating?” Before she could reply, Jamie looked back and saw she had brought a sandwich with her– and not just any sandwich: it was a potato chip sandwich.
“I knew I’d be hungry so I brought a sandwich.” She said in her sweet little voice and I was immediately disarmed. I had the usual list of motherly reasons why a potato chip sandwich wasn’t the best choice du jour – but that voice and reply finished me off. In any case, if I were honest, I wish I had thought of bringing a potato chip sandwich along as well.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in patience has been to value the potato chip sandwiches of life. The sweetest moments won’t come with the approval of plans or building of facilities. They come often in the unplanned, unguarded moments when we drink in the beauty of those who God has given to us.
The next time you get ready to unload the pre-prepared list of reasons why not to someone you love, remember the potato chip sandwich. The reasons why not aren’t quite as important as we may think and the moments of the sandwich may just pass by without our taking them in.
Psalm 90:12 VOICE “Teach us to number our days so that we may truly live and achieve wisdom.”