A day with an orphanage Director

Lucy Chipeta texts me to arrange my collection from Lilongwe. After some back and forth texts we agree on 10 am Thursday. When Thursday rolls around I am ready at 8am. This is Malawi after all and time means very little. At 10.45am Lucy arrives.

“How are you Emma? Sorry I am late. Malawi time.” She says, while texting on her phone and directing Joe the house boy to put my bags in the appropriate place in her car.

“Ok.” She says when my bags are loaded. “Can we go.”

I nod. Although I don’t think it was actually a question. Western world habit, I suppose, to answer a statement, or feel as though I need to give some sort of feedback or contribution to the conversation.

Samson, opens the front gate for us, and salutes smartly as we drive out. Lucy confirms my list of jobs to do in Lilongwe and then makes a plan of how these can fit in with her business in town. Considering the impact of Malawi time into her calculations to get us through the required jobs for Home of Hope and on the road out to Mchinji before the sun starts to set. Driving west into an African sunset is one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever come across, it is also one of the most dangerous things to do in Africa.

First stop is Xerographics, a computer and copier store, to buy more photocopier toner. It is examination time in the Secondary school at Home of Hope and they have run out of toner to print more exams. After 20 minutes of being shuffled from sales assistant to the manager and back again, we are informed that the toner is in the warehouse, but they will send for it and the toner will be at the store soon.

“Be here soon means it could take a while.” Lucy says. “Malawi time.” She reminds me. “Let’s go to Office Works while we are waiting.”

We drive down a dirt road parallel to the main road. The pot holes are quite small, about the size and depth of a metal trash can lid.

“Do you remember this road from last time you were here?”

“Is this the road from this time last year, when we went to the farm supply shop?”

“Yes, this is that road. They have fixed it. See there are no pot holes now.” Lucy says.

The pot holes last year had been craters that could have easily fit half a cow, or at least a very large goat. The road had definitely been improved somewhat.

We pull up at Office Works and squeeze through the front door as a man is stacking piles of Lever Arch files along one side of the entrance wall. Lucy heads in to pay the orphanage’s stationary account and pick up her order of envelopes and reams of paper. I ask how much the Lever Arch folders are. 850 MK. I had paid 1500 MK for the same thing at Mchinji Boma the week before. I get two.

Lucy is followed out with a man loaded up with cartons full of her purchases. Lucy tells him in Chichewa of our other items still to collect and he arranges the boxes on the floor of the back seat of our car.

Back to Xerographics. Collect the toner.

Quick stop at Steers for takeaway lunch. 10 minute wait on the burgers, 5 minutes on the chicken and chips. We are on a deadline. Chicken and chips it is.

We have to make it to the Cowbell warehouse before noon. The orphanage has run out of powdered milk and the milking cows are out of action. One with calf, the other off with a local steer in attempt to expand the current dairy farm from 2 milking cows to 4.

IMG_1212At Cowbell, they give us a donation of 18 cartons of little packets of sweetened powdered milk. It can be mixed in with Phala, the breakfast maize based porridge, to help give it a little flavour. We also buy a 25kg bag of powdered milk. Lucy needs to get more, but her car is already full. There is only room in the front seats and if the rear doors are opened it looks as though boxes of milk will come cascading out.

Our lunch, which has been stashed in the paper bag on the passenger side floor, is now dished out. We are just finishing eating as we drive past a van that has rolled off the main road and into a ditch. Lucy pulls over and talks to the large crowd of locals gathered around. The kids wave at IMG_1215me, giggling when I wave back. I hear them mutter azungu – white person – to each other in between giggles. The ambulance has already taken the driver to hospital. It was his third car accident in a month.

We hop back in the car and Lucy starts telling me about the dangers of driving in Malawi. The main roads are used by cars, trucks, buses, oxen carts, bicycles, and people walking, goats, dogs and children cross at random without looking for on coming traffic. Vehicle maintenance is poor. Most people, if they have a vehicle, usually can’t afford the repairs.

A kilometre down the road the police pull us over in a speed trap they are operating. Another of the dangers of driving on Malawi roads – no one does the speed limit in Malawi either. We pay the fine and the woman police officer tries to  trade me my skirt and my earrings for a skirt she will give me next time we meet. I decline her generous offer.

IMG_1222Another half hour down the road and we arrive at the government cattle farm. We enquire about purchasing some cattle, using a donation of money that arrives next week. After some initial confusion about what we are after, we are informed that there are only 2 cows we can buy and they are not ready until next week. Also we must fill out a form at the DODA office and then come back to the farm for the farm manager to sign off on. Finally, Lucy will need to take the form into Lilongwe and have some one from the Ministry for Health or Agriculture also sign the form, before returning to the farm to finalise payment for the cattle and arrange a collection date.

We arrange to return to the farm the following day with the forms.

At 2.35pm Lucy and I arrive at the Ministry for Agriculture and Food Security office in Mchinji. The offices are empty, except for a secretary who has Malawian gospel music blaring from a computer speaker. We enquire into the whereabouts of the person we need to meet with. The secretary turns the music down as we turn to leave her office.

IMG_1224Sitting in the shade on the steps to the office, Lucy makes a few phone calls and 10 minutes later the officer arrives. He goes into his office to find the forms and came back empty-handed. He is all out of copies. Can we wait while he goes and makes some copies at the Boma?

Lucy offers to do this for him. “Who know how long it will take him to copy the form. This way we can go and get it done and come straight back. No waiting.” Lucy says.

The photocopy stall in the Boma runs off six copies and we drive back up the bumpy road to the office. He fills in the form, using pieces of carbon copy patch-worked together to make the required duplicates.

Six hours after leaving Lilongwe, Lucy and I take the turn off to Home of Hope, happy to have beat the setting sun to the mountain range and avoiding the blinding rays that will glare down on the main road from now until dusk. I think back over the list of tasks Lucy had to do today. In the west, this list would have probably taken half the time to accomplish. But, this is Africa. Nothing is a simple as it could be and obstacles to achieving anything are a normal part of the process. If you get frustrated or expect to get certain results in a particular time frame then you will be left disappointed. But if you except that it is the way it is, all of the seemingly random, frustrating asides, become an enjoyable part of the process. An entertaining add-on to what would otherwise be boring work.

“It’s Malawi time.” Lucy reminds me.

I nod, laughing with her at the craziness she must deal with each and every day just to manage the basic operations of the orphanage.

For more on Home of Hope visit http://homeofhopemalawi.org or www.facebook.com/homeofhopemalawi


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Hilary Drysdale
    Jul 09, 2013 @ 00:02:49

    TIA ( This is Africa ) IMT (It’s Malawi Time )
    Love your stories Emma. They almost make me homesick.
    Can’t understand why you didn’t take the very generous policewoman
    at the speed block up on her offer.


    • Emma
      Jul 09, 2013 @ 03:57:30

      Thanks Hilary. I know it was an offer to good to be true, but unfortunately I only bring 2 sets of clothes for working at the orphanage. One to wear while the other set is washed. So I told her next time we meet I would trade for sure 😉


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