Driving in Malawi is not for the faint of heart. Traffic laws are malleable. Drivers are constantly passing each other with a very narrow margin of error. I have seen many close calls, and it is common to see a car coming straight at you as it passes traffic. Then, in the nick of time it makes it back into its lane. Roads are narrow with little or no shoulder. Vehicles continually need to circumvent pedestrians and cyclists who carry a wide assortment of bags, buckets, baskets, or branches that often stick out into the lane. Instead of traffic lights there are roundabouts. Mini-buses filled to the brim and in questionable repair are ubiquitous and operate by their own rules of the road. More than once I have seen a mini-bus drive along the sidewalk in order to pass slow traffic. And then on top of all of this there is the confusion of everything feeling backwards because we drive on the opposite side of the road in Canada.
I started driving here about a month after we arrived, and I have to admit I was pretty proud. I am no safari-driving hero like Blair, who can drive the diesel beast through Malawi’s worst roads during the rainy season. He can even get us out of extreme mud using the winch. Nor am I a pot-hole and goat-dodging, rural Malawi driver. I am simply a Canadian girl proud to be able to navigate the streets of Blantyre and Limbe in my little Mazda. However, as you may know, pride comes before a fall.
On December 23 I set out to do my final Christmas shopping. I told Blair about where I was going and how I planned to get back. There is a median down the middle of a major road on my route, and I explained that I had returned home last time by turning right through the break in the median. He questioned the legality and wisdom of this move, but I assured him that I had done it before.
I set out and did my shopping. On my way home, immediately after I made the turn through the median, I saw a policeman standing on the side of the road. He was directing me to pull over. “OHHH NOO!” I thought. I pulled over and the policeman explained that I had made an illegal turn. He asked for my driver’s licence. I gave him my international driver’s licence. I said that I didn’t see any signs saying that I couldn’t turn there, and that I’m quite new to Malawi. He explained that there is a solid line there, and that it’s very dangerous to make that turn (in hindsight I realize it was kind of a crazy place to make a right hand turn). Then he explained that I needed to drive to the police station, he would follow me in his vehicle, and then I would have to pay a MWK 10,000 fine (approximately $20 Canadian). This could take hours, given the Malawian police system. So much for a quick trip to do some last minute Christmas shopping.
The policeman was explaining how to get to the police station and the logistics of him following me there. I was wondering when I would ever get home. Then he asked me if I was in a hurry and where I was heading. I explained that I was heading home, which is near a well-known church, and that my husband is an “Abusa” (minister). His demeanor changed immediately. In most parts of Malawi an Abusa is held in high regard. He returned my driver’s licence and said, “I forgive you. Let this be a warning.”
All of a sudden, I was free! I assured him that I would never do it again, and I drove off.
I can’t remember those words—I forgive you—ever feeling so freeing before. It made me wonder why I had never felt so relieved before by those words, given that I’m a Christian. So I’ve been thinking about how to harness that feeling to apply it to my forgiveness in Christ. I am not one to frequently ponder my sinfulness, but the cross doesn’t mean much if we don’t acknowledge our own sinfulness. I have days when I am dragged down by my sinful nature (self-centeredness, lack of gratitude, envy, lack of faith or the inability to recognize God in my life), and it is good to imagine God saying “I forgive you” and feeling that same sense of freedom I felt when the policeman said those words. One thing that I have always loved about Christianity is the idea of being a new creation in Christ. I want to remember that I am new and free and forgiven, every day.