Mobs, car accidents, & privilege.

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

This is a dream, I thought. This must be a dream.

But as I stepped out of the car onto wobbly legs, it was immediately clear that this wasn’t a dream. This was real. My American driving instincts had worked against me in Malawi, a former British colony that drives on the left side of the road. Looking the wrong direction for oncoming traffic, I had plowed right into another vehicle, spinning the borrowed car I was driving off the road. The front of my friend’s little grey Nissan was crushed. Green liquid gushed out of the engine, pooling in the red dirt in a garish swirl of colors. Steam rose from the engine. I was sure it was totaled.

As a crowd started to form, I started sputtering out rapid-fire I’m-sorry’s to the man I hit. The group of men surrounding us were trying to insert themselves into the situation, some poking at the wreckage of the car, some lounging in the grass to observe how this muzungu would extricate herself from the situation. One man was intent on getting the police involved; another shoved a business card into my trembly hands (as a taxi driver, an obviously vehicle-less white girl was a prime business opportunity. I never called him.) The night before, I had learned about Malawian mob justice that’s often enacted after an accident, and the large group of men around me was making me uneasy. I pressed my hands into each other, trying to still the shakes.

“You should call someone,” said the man I had hit. “You seem really upset.”

But there was no one I could call. All of the expat friends I had made were already en route to their home countries for Christmas. None of my Malawian friends owned vehicles. I took a deep breath. I could figure this out on my own, I told myself.

As I thought through the handful of numbers saved in my phone, I realized there was actually someone I could call. One of my housemates was still in the country. I fired off a WhatsApp message, and within an hour, she’d left work to come help me sort everything out. Her boyfriend who, unbeknownst to me owned a mechanic shop, agreed to fix the car without charging me for labor.

After I had settled everything and canceled my interviews for the day, I got back to the house I was living in, curled up into a ball on the couch, and cried.

I thought about the savings group members I’d been spending my days with.  I thought about Lojas, a savings group member whose lifelong dream was to purchase a car so that his community would have easier access to the closest hospital, an hour away from his home. I thought about the pride with which savings group members described saving 5,000 kwacha in a week, the equivalent of a little less than $7. And I grimly realized that in one careless moment, I had blown significantly more than that. And ultimately…it didn’t affect me.

That was the part that stung and disturbed me the most. Despite having a smaller amount of money in my bank account, I still had more than enough for what I needed. I’ve never realized how privilege insulates us from the consequences of our mistakes–a luxury that those without a financial buffer don’t have.

It’s been a month since the accident, and the unfairness of it all is still what lingers. The cars have been fixed, the money’s been settled, the bruises have faded, the migraines from my self-diagnosed concussion have dissipated.  And still, I find myself wondering: What would that scenario have looked like if I hadn’t been a “wealthy” white American?

I wasn’t driving on a Malawian license (unclear if my American license qualified me to drive there). The car was insured, but I wasn’t insured as a driver there. I could have been in some serious legal trouble if the man I hit had chosen to involve the police. And though I later learned that mob justice is usually reserved for accidents involving a pedestrian or biker, I also learned that I, as a white foreigner, I wouldn’t have been in any danger of the mob. I had social connections to people who had resources to help me, and I had enough cash on hand to pay the man I hit right away. Not to mention the privilege of driving itself–something only a small percent of Malawians will ever do.

It was the first time I realized, truly realized, that I was born into power, privilege, and security that isn’t fair.

I felt whispers of the same injustice when I was recovering from malaria in Uganda in 2013. As awful as the sickness was, I recovered quickly. I was able to easily (and cheaply) get the medication needed to get better. As I downed (and puked) the malaria meds, I thought about how an estimated 1 million people die every year from a disease that can be cured for less than what I spend on lattes.

Can I be thankful for protection in situations like these, even if it’s the result of an unjust power structure? I’m honestly not sure.

Mere gratitude for what I’ve been handed doesn’t feel like enough. Perhaps it’s enough, for now, to recognize that I am the beneficiary of inequality. And that should feel uncomfortable.

“What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” 1 Corinthians 4:7

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Sarah Ann Schultz

writer + editor + dad jokes aficionado