On the evening of our third day in Malawi, during a power outage when I was trying to find a flashlight, I dropped my phone. The screen smashed on the cement floor. Instantly I lost contact with family and friends in Canada plus all new contacts in Malawi.
I had almost no contacts so I started with the ones I did, a few expats. One woman told me she had recently paid 300,000 MWK (Malawian Kwatcha) to fix her cell phone. I wasn’t willing to pay approximately $500 Cdn. I hadn’t thought to ask a Malawian. Four days after the catastrophe I was walking down the crowded main street in Blantyre with an American friend, when I recognized Gibson—an older Malawian who helps lead a ministry the PCC supports—whom I had met a few days earlier.
When I mentioned to Gibson that I needed to get my cell phone fixed, he immediately had a solution. He led us across the main street and up a small side street and into a parking lot to a small yellow building with two doors: one door led to a tiny take out restaurant that served fried chicken and french fries. The stove was located in the parking lot, and the woman preparing the food sat on a chair with a bucket of potatoes to slice into fries. Later in the morning a big pail of water with whole chickens arrived. Then she stood in the parking lot frying the food for lunch customers. I know this because I spent several mornings waiting in that cell phone shop: as it turned out, losing contact with Canada led me on a multi-day adventure that helped connect me to people here in Malawi.
The second door was the cell phone shop, which consisted of three chairs against the right-hand wall, a counter on the left, a partial wall behind the counter, and presumably a table and chair behind the wall where all cell phone repairs were done in secret (since customers couldn’t see behind the wall). Behind the counter was a well-dressed, bearded Malawian who assured me that he could fix my Blackberry for 30,000 MWK (approximately $50 Cdn), and told me to come back in one hour. My American friend was doubtful and asked Gibson if this was a reputable and trustworthy shop. He said he was sure the man could fix my cell phone.
When I returned with Gibson over an hour later, the technician and my phone were nowhere to be found. Gibson and I sat and talked in the parking lot. He told me of the ivory bracelet he wears that was made in the 1800s and passed down to him by his grandfather. Almost an hour later Mr. Cell Phone returned, but my phone was not fixed. Nor was it fixed when I had to leave to pick up the kids from school an hour after that. Nor when I returned at 3:00.
I returned the next morning by ‘taxi’ and spent from 9:30am until noon sitting and talking to other customers while a different Mr. Cell Phone (one with silver front teeth) worked on phones. It wasn’t always clear if the men who came into the shop were customers or just friends of the cell phone men. And it wasn’t clear how much I should talk to these men (in all the hours I spent there, I only saw one other female customer). Also, they spoke Chichewa to one another. One older man was keen to talk to me in English. He wanted to know when I needed to pick up my kids from school. How did he know I needed to pick up my kids? We talked about Canada, and then he wanted to know where my husband worked and where he was right now. In this new culture I find it difficult to know who to trust. I don’t want to be the naive or gullible foreigner, yet I want to be Christ-like and not suspect every man of being a possible “bad guy.” He asked me if I liked music and then he asked if I liked dancing. I said I couldn’t really dance, but that I could dance on skates—that I had been a figure skater. That ended the conversation, for he knew nothing about figure skating, and perhaps that wasn’t the direction he was hoping the conversation to go.
Finally, it looked like my phone was fixed. I paid my 30,000 MWK and sat down to make sure that it really was working, but I soon realized that the far right-hand side of the screen did not work. Mr. Cell Phone 2 wrote me a receipt and said to come back the next morning at 9:30.
On Wednesday I put on my running shoes and walked into town. I knew the way by now, and I felt free and hopeful as I made my way into town. I arrived at the shop and said to whichever Mr. Cell Phone was behind the wall, “Hello? Is my cell phone ready?” A minute or so later Mr. Cell Phone 1 came out with it, and it looked fixed. It was in one piece. I tested it out. The right hand side of the screen was working. I left feeling like the luckiest person around, but also a lot more connected to people here in Malawi. It turns out that my phone speaker doesn’t work anymore: I have to use speaker phone for phone calls. But I’m definitely more familiar with Blantyre, better connected to life here, and I’m hoping that I’m getting a little closer to knowing who to trust in Malawi.