One of the challenges of living in a land-locked developing country is that we often have to cope with shortages.
Generally, this means there is no 2% milk for two months, or that we can’t find penne pasta. It is usually a shortage of a luxury item and while it’s fun to whine about it (where is that shipment of camembert cheese?! ) it’s not a big deal.
In fact, it builds a sort of camaraderie. I know that if I ever see cream cheese or sour cream, I should buy it for Jen. If I find brown bread flour, I buy it for Arani. Watching the stock increase and decrease at Shoprite or Game becomes a little hobby. We wait eagerly for new wine shipments and keep careful tabs on the status of the Tete bridge in Mozambique where many of our much-anticipated tractor trailers can get held up.
In reality, we never really go without necessities. We’re just spoiled by the American instant gratification culture and the 170 different types of cheese one can buy at Whole Foods.
Recently, though, we have faced severe shortages of fuel – both petrol and diesel. Fuel shortages are serious. We have had fuel shortages before – I remember a time when friends were stranded at the lake and couldn’t get home due to a lack of fuel.
But it’s never been this bad before. I used to think of fuel shortages and how they affect me. Oh, this means we can’t go to the lake this weekend. But when there is a queue of tractors lined up three miles long at the closest BP, you quickly learn that a nation-wide lack of fuel has far reaching consequences. It affects everyone, everything, and sends this peace loving nation into a panic.
It means no trucks for importing or exporting. (No new shipments of fancy cheese). No ambulances, no project vehicles (NGOs are having to ground their fleets), thousands of people walking to work because there are no minibuses, and many other severe consequences.
The little petrol and diesel that has trickled into Blantyre causes a major rush. Friends text each other or let each other know about new fuel shipments on facebook. We get desperate enough to follow fuel tankers around hoping to be the first in line when they refuel a station. Some of our friends have waited in line for three hours, finally gotten to the front of the line only to learn that there is no more. We jostle and try desperately to hold our place in line, watching helplessly as hundreds of 5 liter jerry cans are filled at the pump. There is a line of buses and trucks that have been parked at one gas station for three weeks. We heard last night that one guy has been camping out at the local BP for a week (and I’m sure he’s not the only one.) Yesterday, friends waiting in line for diesel for two hours and only moved up in line two feet.
This experience has completely changed the way I look at fuel (for the better). I’ve caught myself eyeing friend’s fuel gauge with actual envy and googleing “how to reduce fuel consumption” . When a friend asked if we wanted him to bring us 20 liters of diesel up from the south, we almost cried with excitement. It’s one of the best presents we’ve ever gotten. I never thought I would look upon a bright yellow plastic jerry can with such pure, unadulterated happiness.
We also never thought we would have to manually pour fuel into our car (which Sandy and two of his colleagues did yesterday with a funnel jerry rigged from a plastic bottle). Sandy was tempted to soak up the little bit that spilled with a sponge and squeeze every drop into our tank.
People are saying that this fuel crisis will continue throughout the year. The rumors are flying, including that there will be no diesel or petrol the whole month of August. We are told that there are various reasons for the shortage – it’s less of a shortage, more of a total-lack-of – but it’s hard to really understand and everyone is passing the buck. There is a nation-wide sense of panic and desperation.
And yet – there has been no real violence. There have been a few small demonstrations, one scuffle at a BP, and one instance in which a mob literally picked up a car from the ruling political party and moved it out of line. But all in all, I’ve marveled that despite the intense level of frustration, people are being as calm and courteous as possible. I have to think that if this was happening in the US, we’d all have our guns drawn…