How to Cope with Political Instability

Zambia, Sept. 2011 - Globe & Mail photo

During the last 2 months, I’ve left 3 countries because of fears of political violence: Egypt, Zambia & Malawi.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), I’m fine-tuning my radar to detect sticky political situations – those incidents that have the capacity to spiral out of control. Here’s my barometer for getting the Hell out of Dodge:

In Egypt

Last July I left Cairo in favor of the Sinai. (At the time, Egypt’s Sinai desert was perceived to be safer because it was Egypt’s urban areas that demonstrated the most unrest.) Here’s what I saw that encouraged me to leave:

At the U.S. Embassy: (where I was getting extra pages in my passport) – I overheard one of the diplomats telling staff that if they want to leave — now is the time. That tells me that it also might be a good time for me to hit the road.

Crowds in the Streets: In the cab going to the embassy, there were huge crowds of people in the streets (and Cairo streets are nuts enough on a typical day). Apparently government offices had dismissed their employees in expectations of riots. So both foreign and local governments were giving their employees the chance to leave the city.

Frenzied Crowds. Riding again in the taxi, people were milling all around. I locked my doors and rolled up the windows despite the stifling summer heat. The crowds spilling out into the streets were yelling and waving their arms and generally acting pretty excited.

It was too much excitement for me and within 36 hours, I was off to the Sinai to escape the craziness that is Cairo these days.

In Zambia

Malawi Protests, July 2011 - Kansas City Star photo

I was in Zambia the week before the country’s September 20 tripartite elections (in which there were riots). Here’s what I saw that encouraged me to leave:

Crowded Pick Up Trucks: Trucks fitted with loud speakers were blaring political slogans. The trunk beds were filled with youth wildly gesticulating and chanting. Last time I saw this was 5 years ago just before the elections in Kenya (which erupted in violence as well).

Uncontrollable Mobs: One political rally in the border town of Chipata surrounded our bus (a large Greyhound-style one), making the driver detour our route off the main street. Again, the crowds were very loud, animated, wearing political colors and openly fighting in the streets.

Local Concern: Several of my friends in Livingstone expressed grave concerns about possible election violence. When a nun tells me she’s worried, I listen to the nun.

In Malawi

In mid-September, a few days before the scheduled protests to contest last year’s elections, I checked the political temperature in the capital of Lilongwe. Here’s what I saw that encouraged me to leave:

No Tourists: I usually find myself off the beaten track, so this doesn’t always alarm me. But in Lilongwe I met a fellow traveler who told me that he was the only tourist coming from the Mozambique side (where I was heading). And when I stopped at a tour agency to enquire about group tours to Lake Malawi (I was thinking safety in numbers), he said there were none. No tours and no tourists? No good.

Aid Workers Evacuated: In the showers at the hostel I met an aid agency worker who was being evacuated. She also told me that if I was going to stay in the capital, it’s best not to go outside at all during the day of the scheduled protests, but instead to hunker down. Hmmmmmm.

No Economic Necessities: When the country is running out of vital necessities, it’s a worry.

  • No FX – U.S. dollars are always hard to come by. Most times to change money I need to go to 3-4 difference banks / money changers even to get about $200 in US notes. But here in the capital of Lilongwe there were no U.S. dollars to be had. Not at the banks and not on the black market.
  • No Fuel – Cars were lining up around the corner to get fuel – waiting for 3-4-5- hours in lines at least 25 cars deep. And still there was simply no gas available at most fuel stations.
  • No Coca Cola – As in “the local Coke manufacturer can’t get the ingredients to make its secret addictive Coke receipt.” Now, I think the world may very well be coming to an end when you can’t buy a Coke. Seriously, this might have freaked me out the most.

Dig In or Get Out?

So while in Lilongwe I bought some extra supplies: water, fruit and breakfast bars and phone cards and internet access cards and prepared myself to “hunker down in Lilongwe.” But then I asked myself: Why? So I could get to Lake Malawi for a 3-day cruise, which no one else would be on?

Something’s wrong with this picture. I need not “hunker down.” This isn’t my country, and while I’m trying to do good work along the way, I’m essentially just a tourist. I’m choosing to be here. And I can choose not to be here.

So I paid a hugely expensive plane ticket on the next flight out of Malawi to South Africa the day before the scheduled protests. As my good friend Lisa reminded me, there are all kinds of adventures. I don’t need to stay in an unsafe place just so I sail Lake Malawi (even though I really really want to).

So I swapped scuba diving Lake Malawi with a2-day pony trek in the stunning Drankensberg Mountains in Kingdom of Lesotho. I think it’s a good trade!

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This entry was posted on Monday, October 3rd, 2011 and is filed under How to Cope.

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