This post is a bit long, so if you are a type A reader in a hurry, here’s the executive summary: I am finally back on-line after five days.
If you are still interested in how that came to be and have decided to read on, please don’t message me or leave comments with advice about what I did wrong or what I could do better next time. Believe me, I have already heard or thought of it already! I was debating about whether to name this post Misadventure in Malawi, but decided to save that snappy subtitle for something truly tragic.
On Saturday, August 3 afternoon, I was walking to the Game department store, about a 35-minute walk from my house, to join Kathy and Chris Beach for some weekend shopping. The usual people were around: happy young kids waving and yelling “Hello!, how are you?”, the groups of men, the pretty young girls, the mothers with young children tied to their backs, sometimes with slightly older children – a typical Saturday afternoon crowd. On the street, I know that I stand out and am getting used to attracting attention when I am walking, but still find it heartbreaking when a begging child follows me persistently.
I was just a few minutes away from the shopping center when a man started loudly talking what I assumed was Chichewa (but probably was his version of nonsense) and was only a few inches from my face, while making hand motions that I assumed were strident demands for a contribution. This was confusing, as the Malawian people are usually reserved and quiet and I was trying hard to get away from him. A few yards later, I slowly realized he was probably distracting me and a quick look at my backpack confirmed that it had been opened, but only my phone on the top had been taken.
If you have any connection with your phone, you will probably recognize the panic and sadness I felt.
I couldn’t call my friends to find them when I got to the shopping center, so I wandered through the store, until I found Chris and Kathy, who offered me sympathy, support, and the use of their pre-arranged taxi after shopping. Bright (don’t you love that name?), our taxi driver, took us to the main police station in town, where the police woman took my my information and told me to call on Monday to see if the police report was available to pick up then. Bright and the Beaches dropped me at my house and I realized how lonely I was without my phone.
I had also been using my phones’ data as a hot spot when I wanted to use the internet, so I was now effectively without any electronic communication for the weekend.
Shelley Brandstetter, still living in the guesthouse next door, let me use some of her data to send an email to my boss and my daughter Jessica about what had happened, and Kathy texted the Seed office in Lilongwe to notify them that I was not electronically available. I used Find My Phone app on my iPad to erase all the data from my erstwhile phone, but since it hadn’t backed up for a month, the app showed me a map of Granite Bay and my phone was nowhere on that map to be found. I went home, and since I couldn’t do any of my on-line work or streaming, decided to clean!
The next morning, Gerald Chibwana, the Operations Office from the Lilongwe Seed office, happened to be in Blantyre visiting family and was gracious enough to pick me up and take me shopping to try to find a phone, a task made harder since I was hoping to buy an iPhone and Apple products are uncommon here. (The cheaper Chinese brand phones are a much better deal.) Since it was Sunday, the AirTel (phone company) shop was closed, as were most of the stores that might carry cell phones. Luckily, Gerald led me from store to closed-electronics-store until we found one that was open and it had a used iPhone 6 in stock! I was very happy to buy their phone and was whipping out my credit card before Gerald could coolly attempt to bargain for a better price for me (the shop owners are not fools – I’m afraid my excitement undermined his efforts to save me a little money).
I brought the phone home and realized that it wasn’t much use without a SIM card or the internet, but I did have a phone again and it was a start. I did my laundry (which I do by hand, in a basin), walked to the grocery store (my shopping list had been on my phone so I worked with the memory of what I had needed). This time, I didn’t use my backpack for shopping and the quiescent phone stayed home. That evening, I read most of a book for entertainment.
At Monday morning report, my colleagues Dr. Gladys Gadama and Dr. Priscilla Mvula were sympathetic and had lots of ideas about how I could avoid being targeted again. The younger registrars were incredulous that I had ever let my cellphone leave my hands! Morning report is when the complicated patients from the day before are presented by the registrars and the list is usually long. Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital is the referral hospital for Malawi’s southern region and so the sickest patients are seen here. Each morning, we hear stories of mothers or babies dying, malaria, HIV, severe anemia, schistosomiasis, seizures – when all the hard work that the department does is noted, your only rational reaction is humility. My stolen phone was not a big problem.
Dr. Gadama helped me call the police station for follow-up. After three calls, we found out that the responsible person was out of the office, but would be available that afternoon. (As of this writing, I still haven’t collected my police report, mostly because I couldn’t contact them.)
After morning report, my colleagues recommended I start off to the AirTel office and get a new SIM card. Maybe I could even invest in a WiFi connection while I was there, to have a better back-up plan next time? I walked to the office, with my hand firmly on my purse the entire time. I told my story to the customer service rep, who arranged for me to continue with my same phone number and told me that the SIM card would start working in 10 or 15 minutes. I joined another line to buy the WiFi modem and then another line for its SIM card. One of the reps lent me the paper clip to open up my phone’s SIM card slot and I crossed my fingers.
Twenty minutes later the AirTel sign showed up in the upper left corner of my phone! I tried to use it – but no luck. Another consultation with the rep – maybe it was because I hadn’t yet signed this phone into my Apple account? I took the phone to the electronics store where I had bought it, hoping it would be an easy fix. The shopkeeper remembered me and let me use his WiFi so I could sign into my new phone, but Apple wouldn’t let me sign into my new phone with my Apple ID unless I verified my account with one of my trusted other accounts and I hadn’t thought to bring my iPad along with me.
I was feeling frustrated, so went for lunch. Fish shawarma sounded like a new adventure, so I tried it to distract myself. After eating, the phone still wasn’t working, my frustration mounted and I felt like I needed a win. Since I couldn’t watch funny animal videos or send kissy face emoji messages to Jessica, it was time for retail therapy. I went to ShopRIte and bought the overpriced dish drainer I had been thinking about buying for a while. I was more excited about the dish drainer after I walked home, since I could use it right away and I was feeling pessimistic about my phone ever working again.
The overpriced dish drainer
Once I got home, the modem needed to be charged before I could use it, so I charged it up. No WiFi meant I still couldn’t sign into my phone. That evening, Shelley came to my WiFi data rescue again and I signed into my Apple account, but sadly, the phone refused to call, receive messages, or even allow me to add more money to my account. The modem had refused to respond to my repeated efforts to get it to work as well. My electronic life was a big error message. I went home and washed dishes. At least the dish drainer continued to bring me joy.
The next morning, it was clear that not being available by phone or WhatsApp was a problem for my job. After Tuesday’s morning report, Dr. Gladys Gadama came to find me and take me to a meeting that had been announced by a WhatsApp group chat that I had missed. I had offered to work with Dr. Mvula while she was on call that day, but she wasn’t able to contact me when I was needed, so that wasn’t working. There was a big political demonstration scheduled on Tuesday and all the shops in town were closed, so the next visit to AirTel would have to wait. I stayed on the College of Medicine campus and went to an exams meeting and attended a very busy afternoon Gyn clinic. During the day, each one of my colleagues tried various remedies to make my new phone work, but it stubbornly continued its error message ways. I was secretly relieved that its problem wasn’t me.
Wednesday morning, I packed up everything that I might need at the AirTel store: all my receipts, SIM cards, modem, phone, cords, and my passport. After morning report, I walked to the AIrTel office and found a small crowd waiting for it to open at 10. Apparently, the day after the demonstrations is a busy day for all the stores. After standing in four lines and talking to five customer service reps, a little over an hour later, I walked out with a working phone and modem! I had more than a 100 emails to answer and 23 WhatsApp messages to catch up. It’s good to be connected again!
Now maybe I can get back to work.