Every now and then, back in Mozambique, we help get some of our friends access to medical care across the border in Malawi. There’s one hospital in particular about 20km from the border post where they have a new digital xray machine (granted it only works at certain hours of the day when the power isn’t off / not delivering on all phases?), ultrasound machine and a Malawian doctor who takes time to explain things to his patients – amazing huh!
So this one particular day, I had arranged to take three friends. They were all paying for their own treatment and costs of getting into the country and so I’d agreed to drive and help navigate the hospital experience. Two of them were pregnant – one just wanted to have an ultrasound just because she could really. One was pregnant but experiencing a lot of pain and wanted to see if everything was ok. The other had had an accident falling off her bike months before and was still experiencing pain and swelling and wanted to get it checked out properly.
Getting across the border is every now and then a relatively easy and quick experience but most of the time there’s some complication that takes an inordinate amount of time. It’s usually on the Malawi side where they’ve fairly recently switched to a computerised system for entering all of the vehicle details to get a temporary import permit. Thing is, computers don’t work so well without power. And in Malawi, the power rarely works well.
Leading up to this trip, I was hearing reports from friends that the system that we had been using to duck across to Malawi for the day was being abolished and instead of writing your name on a scrap piece of paper and getting that stamped, every leaving the country needed proper ID and the correct permit. I was secretly hoping that they’d still let us through with just the scrap paper but just to be sure, I also asked my three friends to make sure that they had all of correct documentation.
They needed about $5, their ID (thankfully they all had one of those) and then 2 passport photos. No probs… just duck down to the post office and get passport photos take right? Nope. On hearing about the passport photos, I just about gave up! In my mind, that was going to require a 90 km drive to Lichinga to go to Kodak! But no, would you believe there is a guy in a village near us who has a mobile passport photo taking business! So cool.
He rocked up to our house to take one of the lady’s photos with his camera that could also print? Once he’d taken the photos, he cut them out perfectly then cut up a sheet of paper to make a tweency little envelope to put them in and then sticky taped it shut. I was a little bit blown away.
So, we were ready! It was a Thursday morning at 6am when we set out. I was pretty stoked that we’d managed to sort out all the logistics, I had my passport, I’d spoken to the Dr who was going to give us a hand getting through all the tests quickly – it was looking good.
It was looking even better when we got to the Mozambique side of the border and I took in a scrap piece of paper with our four names and the car rego written on it and asked if we could get it stamped, telling the guys we were just going across to the hospital and would be back the next day. No worries they said! Woohoo! I went back to the car and we all rejoiced – God was clearly with us on this trip.
We got to the Malawi side and followed the same procedure. It was all going well until… the immigration guy who was checking my passport for MY Malawi visa told me that it had expired. You must be wrong I told him, I’m sure it’s ok. He checked again… nope, no valid visa. I asked if I could have a look and to my embarrassment, he was right – it had expired a few days earlier!
We can buy Malawi visas at the border without too much trouble usually. A single enrty costs $80 USD and a year long, multi-entry costs $250 USD. It really wasn’t worth me buying a single entry visa – we go there all the time, in fact I had to go back again the very next day. I couldn’t bear the though of wasting $80 and guess how much USD I had with me… $200. Not quite enough.
I find the best way to get immigration people to help you out is to pretend as though you have all the time in world, gently ask questions and hope for the best. I started asking if we could work out some sort of deferred payment plan – I’d give them the $50 the following day. I received a hard no. I asked if they could just let me go through without a visa, I was only going to be a few hours. Another hard no. They told me that I had to wait until the boss got back and then speak to him. They had no idea how long that would be.
I decided I’d try plan C. I went outside and asked the money changers if they could loan me $50 USD. It’s funny because I distinctly remember the first time that I went through that border I was pretty intimidated by / terrified of those guys. As soon as you arrive, they start waving Kwacha in your face and yelling out their best exchange rate for the day. There are quite a few groups all in competition and they scared me. Now, we all get along super well. They really wanted to help me out they said but they didn’t actually have any USD on them – I’d have to drive back across the border to their mate in Mandimba and get it from him. No worries I said, I’d work out another way.
I explained to my friends what was going on. It was a little funny that after all of the debacle getting their documents in order, it turned out to be me who stuffed it all up! So many great ways to stay humble in cross cultural work! After quite a while, the boss came back and I explained my situation to him. I told him I was completely in the wrong and I was at his mercy. Worst case I could have paid the $80 extra. But the patient waiting paid off again. He said that if I left my passport with them at the border, I could go through and then just pick it up on the way back.
(I realise that’s not really the correct way of getting into a country but I couldn’t see how it was dodgy on their part, possibly stupid on mine if something went wrong?) Anyway, it all worked out and we all lived happily ever after. Two super healthy babies and no metal bike parts left in a leg wound!
If you’d like to help us cover the costs of our Malawian visas – we’re looking to raise $1875 / year over the next three years. You can make a donation here – Beeck’s Malawi Visas .