So if you didn’t know already from facebook or word-of-parents’-mouth, I was in a car accident a week ago. No serious injuries, but it was still pretty ugly. Just in case a PC Malawi admin happens to be an avid follower of this blog, I’m gonna leave out a few details to protect the innocent. But they probably aren’t or I’d have been kicked out by now for being out of site illegally for practically half my service. But, just in case…
I was coming home from a lovely Thanksgiving at Lukwe. There’s usually only one car going home on Saturdays and none on Sundays. So, it being Saturday, I was anxious to get to Mzuzu on time to catch it. Luckily (well, unluckily in hindsight), I was having fantastic hitching luck. Grade A hitching, dude. Get to Mzuzu right on time. But the pick-up scheduled to make the trek is PACKED. We’re used to unsafely packed motor vehicles over here, and usually board them without a second though, but this was nuts by any standard. Even my buddy the Reverend (who, as it happens, was also with me on my last major Chikwina transport adventure when we broke down in the rain in the middle of the night and had to hike 10km in the mud) was saying he’d probably sit this one out and wait until Monday if a second car wasn’t recruited. Smart man, that one.
Anyway, I cram myself in between a man and a woman with her baby. I manage to keep myself from drowning in the stacks of maize sacks and buckets and keep my head clear of the sheet metal strapped on top of the truck. Katundu is everywhere, with people on top, standing wherever they could fit a single foot or sitting on top of the cab. I raise my eyebrows as they try to shove even MORE people into the truck bed. I actually say out loud, “wait, this is crazy…” If your gut is telling you something is crazy so loudly that your mouth says it too, it’s probably crazy.
The old scrap-metal truck can’t take it. First, it refuses to start. Then, hills prove to be such a struggle that bicyclists are passing us (at this point, the driver is getting jeers from his passengers). This is exacerbated by the fact that our goodwill from other countries since Joyce Banda has taken the presidency has run out, along with their supply of goodwill petrol. We’re back to petrol crisis mode and drivers refuse to put more petrol into their tanks than is absolutely necessary (or even less than necessary, which might have added to this particular journey’s downfall). Thus, it takes us an hour to go fifteen km. 25km to go. We’re all dying in the back, being choked to death by the discomfort of numb feet and butts and a newfound hatred of everything. It’s gonna be a long ride.
Finally, FINALLY we all sigh in relief as we pass over a bridge that marks the last leg of the trip. 5km to go and one hill. One single hill! It’s a notorious hill, however, with switchbacks, sheer drops off the road, and a particularly steep turn. Last year in rainy season I thought that one turn would be the end of me as we slid uncontrollably in the mud down it (that was the LAST time I traveled out of site in rainy season in a village car, thank you very much). Well, as you can imagine, the Little Engine that Could just couldn’t. We stalled on the uphill, and lucky us, the brakes weren’t working. We rolled backwards, just slowly enough that everyone could work up a good panic as we saw the edge of a 10-foot ditch approach.
The men that were standing desperately tried to scramble out, but there wasn’t time. Everyone else was too wedged in to even move. I remember hearing screaming women and apparently (I was informed after the fact) I said something intelligent like “Oh. Shit.” I saw the right back tire take a sudden dip over the edge and that’s all I remember until I was trying to stand up (memory loss courtesy of my Brand New Concussion!).
People were everywhere, sprawled out on the ground, on top of each other, yelling each other’s names, covered in glass. One old lady found herself on the bottom of a dog pile and looked like she couldn’t move, someone screaming her name. I thought the worst, but she was just stunned and managed to get herself up. I think she ended up with a broken hand. The mom and baby sitting next to me were perfectly fine, having landed on the top of the old-lady-dog-pile. Another lady seemed to have been thrown during the fall and had to be hauled out, I think with a broken arm or rib. A small boy, maybe 8 years old, definitely had it the worst. He face planted when we went down. Both eyes, his right cheek, and a massive bump on his head swelled up immediately. I mean a massive bump, like a second head. Unbelievably (well, I’m sure it was just major shock), he just pulled himself up onto a ledge and sat there, not making a sound the whole time. That is, until we tried to get him into a car going to the hospital. He was NOT ok with getting into a car that didn’t lead to home. I’ve never SEEN such a tantrum. That poor little kid, man! Luckily, I had splurged in Mzuzu on some frozen chicken, which he held to his face to ease the swelling. Also had some advil to pass out for people in the most pain and THANK THE LORD BABY JESUS the health center’s medical assistant was in the truck too and was able to perform African Bush First Aid a hell of a lot better than I could, with my expired lifeguarding credentials… and a concussion.
I got off pretty easy. Just a bruised cut to the leg, some scrapes, and a cut on my foot from stepping in glass, whiplash and a small head injury. I wasn’t worried about the head injury until my vision went blurry and I got nauseous and after a call to a PC nurse friend who said I shouldn’t go to sleep or be alone.
Help arrived unbelievably quickly to the scene. Two MUCH better trucks came to the rescue from Chikwina faster than any ambulance response I’ve ever heard of in America. We were trucked up to the Chikwina Health Center within fifteen minutes, where the Nurse was already waiting. Then the really injured people were loaded up and taken to Mzuzu Hospital. The Peace Corps Med Office bade me stay overnight in the hospital and then called me to Lilongwe the next day for a CT scan and a neurological exam (both clean. But let me tell you, the LAST thing you want to do after an accident, sore from whiplash and jonesing for your own bed, is get in a crowded African bus for 5 hours. MAN, that sucked hard). I went back to the scene later to take a picture, but they'd already hauled it out. I'd draw a picture, but my artistry is abysmal.
We got really lucky though. Really Freaking Lucky. That crash could have been so much worse. We could have rolled off the other side of the road, which leads into a deep valley, in which case we would have rolled and all died. The ditch was perfectly truck-shaped, but if we were going any faster, the truck could have easily tipped over to rest on the other side of the cliff and trapped us.
The worst part by FAR was just how insanely shaken up and scared I was. I was crazy shaking after the accident, from shock. But after that, I refused to think or feel anything about it until a few days later, in Lilongwe. I mean, we talked and debriefed and exchanged thoughts on it, but eventually, when I was far enough away from the incident, physically and chronologically, I was overwhelmed by my feelings of lack of control over the whole situation. Just total helplessness. I couldn’t chose my transport method. It was that matola or wait another two days to go home, and even then, I still might be in the same situation. There was no phone service, no way to call 911, no option for a seat belt, no way to free myself from a doomed car once in motion, completely at the mercy of the man driving up a road that isn't a road, just a dirt path, in a car that could barely handle tarmac. And this is every time I have to leave or come back to site. It's enough to send you into a panic every time. And after all that, I'm STILL not in control of my own existence. I was informed by the Med Office that I WILL go to Mzuzu for observation, I WILL come to Lilongwe for a head scan. Fine, I probably would do that in America. But that's another story. Going to the hospital in America is a walk in the park. Do you understand how hard it is physically and emotionally to travel 40km back down to Mzuzu, and then another 5 hours in a bus to the nearest passable health care? I knew I was fine, I just wanted to go home. But I, again, had no control over my transport and no control over my healthcare, which was impossibly far away. I know this is a Malawian’s reality, it’s all they have, no other option. Which is terrible. But if this crash had been serious, it would have been devastating. And there was nothing anyone could have done about it. If my injuries had been any worse I would STILL have to make that same 2-day journey to Lilongwe. And that scares the hell out of me. Probably also scared the waiter at the chinese restaurant, where I finally broke down and started crying at the table while he was trying to take my order.
Something to be thankful for in America - more control over our own disasters.