Speed traps are the same the world over. That was a lesson drive home to me (pardon the pun) on Saturday as I was coming back to Blantyre from a visit to Mangochi Presbytery, in the northern part of the Synod. I was on the Zomba road, one that I drive regularly. Some time ago I had been warned about radar surveillance by the police on that road, so I have been very careful to slow to the speed as I entered a posted zone nearing a town or market area. This is a conscious practice. The error of my ways came in exiting the restricted zone. The posting to resume speed comes some distance from the market area of the towns in question. The tendency is to begin to resume speed before the posting. That is what I did. About half a kilometer beyond the posted resume sign sat the police, pulling the offenders over, one by one. I was one of the many pulled over. I had no defense. The police had the radar. I could only plead guilty. That did not lessen the fine –MK5,000 (about $33).
The problem was, I did not have the kwacha with me. The expectation is that you pay on the spot or are taken into custody until someone can bring the money for you. There is an officer sitting under a nearby tree, waiting to collect the fine before you are released to go on. I explained my situation to the office who stopped me and asked if there were any way that I could go to Zomba, just a few kilometers down the road, and withdraw the money from the bank there. Maybe it was my clergy collar or maybe my mzungu (white) face, or maybe the officer’s lenient heart, but whatever the reason, he said yes, as long as I surrendered my driver’s license to him until I returned with the money. Under the circumstances, that seemed reasonable. So I handed over the license and carefully headed down the road to withdraw the fine from my local bank’s ATM.
When I arrived at the bank, my heart sank. There was a long line, but not at the machines themselves. Folks were just lined up under the nearby tree, waiting. This could only mean one thing. The ATM was down. I parked and went to inquire about the situation. Yes, the ATM was down and had been for about 3 hours. These patient Malawians who were standing and sitting under the tree were willing to wait for however long it took for the machine to come back to life. I wasn’t. I am not that patient. I needed to get to Blantyre before dark, if possible. I sat in the car for a moment to assess my options. Who could I call for help? My friend Silas is in the States at present, so he was out. Maybe my former colleague Takuzi Chitsulo could help. It was worth asking, but I was not hopefully. That is a large some for a poor pastor and college lecturer to have on hand late on a Saturday afternoon. I prayed and called. Takuzi answered immediately. After the usually greetings and formalities of asking about one another’s health, I posed the problem to him. Yes, he said, it just so happened that he did have it. If I drove to his house, he would be happy to help me, so off I went, praising God and thanking Takuzi. As I pulled up to the house, he came out with his customary smile and greeting. He teased me a bit, only right under the circumstances, and then we made arrangements for me to deposit the money into his account on Monday, once the bank was open. That is a common practice here in Malawi, so I took his banking information (something we would never give out in the US), I thanked him repeatedly and drove off to pay my fine and retrieve my license.
The officer under the tree was patiently waiting for those of us caught to pay up. He was pleasant about it, at least. While he was writing my receipt, another officer came to return my license to me. The officer who stopped me was busy writing up another offender caught in the same trap. A whole line of drivers sat in their cars, waiting their turn to collect their citations. As I stood waiting for my receipt, I noticed that only one out of every four cars proceeded past the officers. The other three were stopped, as I had been. This was a lucrative day for the Malawi police treasury.
I collected my receipt and accepted the admonition from the teller-officer to drive carefully. As I got in my car to proceed home, I thought I had learned a costly lesson about posted speed in Malawi. I was also grateful to God for a good friend to “bail me out” with the money. You can be certain that I will be careful with my speed, especially as I exit the market area, waiting for the posted sign before I even begin to resume speed. Once caught, carefully taught.