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Crazy Day(s)

March 27, 2013

I’ve spent the majority of the last 36 hours helping to keep a German tourist out of African jail.

So, there’s this young German man who is volunteering at an NGO run by some friends of ours in Chipata, a city about 2 hours away. This young man had some visitors come from Germany to visit – his brother, his aunt, and his grandfather. They were on their way driving to Lusaka, the capitol city, located about 5 hours from us in the opposite direction from Chipata. (So the Chipata-Lusaka drive should be about 6-7 hours, with Petauke about the 2-hour point.)

About 7:50 yesterday morning, Janine calls me at work. She says that our friends in Chipata called her, and said there had been a serious traffic accident involving this German worker and his family. The wreck happened just past the turnoff to our town, so we were much closer than they were. So, could I go and check things out, and help the Germans until Enrico arrived from Chipata? No problem.

I arrived at the accident site to find several dozen people standing beside the road, looking at an upside-down truck. There was also a Police vehicle, and several other stopped cars. There was also, sadly, the body of an African man who had been struck when the vehicle had left the road, lying in a ditch.

A day when you don’t have to see a dead body is a good day.

The young German man found me right away. His arm was bloody, but he was unhurt. Panicked and shocked, but unhurt. He was talking on the phone in nonstop German. His younger brother looked even more shocked.

What had happened was this: the grandfather had been driving. As he was going along, a large pig walked out onto the road in front of him (this happens more than you’d want it to here in Zambia). The grandfather swerved to avoid the pig. As he did so, he lost control of the car, skidded a bit, and the next thing everyone knows, they’re in the ditch, upside down. They crawl out of the vehicle, and they find that the aunt has been thrown from the back seat, and is lying about 3 meters from the car. She is unconscious, breathing with difficulty, and bleeding from her nose and mouth. They quickly flag down a passing car that had stopped to help, load the aunt and grandfather into it (he was bleeding from a head wound that looked worse than it was), and send them off to the nearest hospital (no ambulances here).

Then they start to survey the damage. The car is trashed. Stuff is strewn along the trail that it cut through the bush as it flipped off the road. As the brothers walk along, they discover the body. No one in the vehicle had seen him at all.

By now, there are many villagers starting to come out to the scene. The man is making calls to the people he knows, all of whom live in Chipata, about 3 hours away. One of them calls me, and I am on the scene in about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, the police arrive and start to assess the situation.

The grandfather and aunt are taken to a nearby mission hospital, which is operating without its doctor that day. So they go on to the hospital in Petauke.

Anyway, I get there. The police are handling the body. I help the German and his brother load their luggage and stuff into my truck. I talk to the police, who all know me from the hooking incident last year. We look for some glasses that have been lost in the bush. About 20 guys get together to roll the truck back onto its wheels. We arrange for some locals to guard it, so no one messes with the wreck. Then we go to Petauke police station.

When we get to the station, we see the grandfather standing outside. He has just been informed that his accident killed someone. He is, of course, very distraught. He starts talking to me in German before he realizes I’m not following. His grandsons comfort him as best they can before he is taken away to give his statement to the police.

I went with the brothers across the street to the hospital. We found the ward where the aunt was. She was still not really awake, just lying on a bed in a crowded ward with a thin blanket and an IV. A Zambian woman was sitting next to her, holding her hand. The brothers said hello quickly, then had to go and get their own injuries treated.

Skipping a bit of hospital unpleasantness, the older brother just had a few cuts and the younger brother two cracked ribs. The aunt’s condition was still unknown – no doctors had yet been to see her. But she was a little more awake, and as the brothers chatted with her, the Zambian woman who had been with her came to talk to me. She was a woman from the village where the accident had occurred, who had gotten in the truck to ride with the aunt to the hospital. One doesn’t go to an African hospital alone, and this woman had decided that the foreign woman needed someone to come with her. So she did. When she saw that the family had arrived, she asked if she could go, and I gave her taxi money back to her village (and a little extra).

By the time we got back to the police station for the brothers to give their statements, the friends from Chipata had arrived. It should be noted at this time that I was the only native speaker of English involved in the whole affair. There were the four Germans from the car, a German liaison from the organization, a bunch of Zambian police officers, the dead man’s family, and the Italian employer of the German man. And me. Communication was a bit problematic.

Nevertheless, one thing was clear: charges were going to be filed. The grandfather, a 72 year-old German tourist, was to be charged with “Causing a Death by Means of Reckless Operation of a Motor Vehicle.” Explaining to him how he went from the victim of a terrible car accident, from which his daughter was still in the hospital in unknown condition, to a criminal possibly facing jail time, was difficult.

So, to wrap up the story in something vaguely-approximating the length of an effective blog post, this is what happened the rest of yesterday afternoon:

  • Everyone involved gave long statements to the police, taken down by hand and fraught with misunderstandings. Eventually a clear picture emerged. A few drawings were made.
  • The family received money to cover the funeral expenses, including transport, a coffin, and food for the guests
  • Many frustrated/frustrating phone calls were made to people on the “outside” looking for advice. Lawyers, embassies, international organizations and the like were all less-helpful than would have been hoped.
  • The aunt made a slow-but-sure recovery and walked out of the hospital on her own by late afternoon
  • The grandfather was charged, arrested and released into “my custody” to sleep at my house instead of the holding cells
  • Janine made dinner and sleeping places on short notice for our three surprise guests, and everyone got to sleep a little bit before our 0730 court appointment the next day

The highlight of the day was talking to the aunt. She told me, “This woman kept staying by the bed. She held my hand, brought me water, and took care of me. I don’t know who she was. Where did she go?” When I told her she had come from the village with her in the truck in order to just help, her eyes got wide. “That’s how people are here, though, isn’t it? If you need something, they will help you.” Indeed.

Day Two mostly centered around the grandfather’s court appearance. The magistrate made special arrangements to come to Petauke today, owing to the visitor and the coming holiday. To make another long story short, bail was set and the grandfather allowed to keep his passport. We spent all morning arranging the bail money, determining if anyone else would have to surrender their passports in “surety” for the grandfather, and trying to figure out how many times he would have to return to Zambia for the court proceedings (at one point, “the first Monday of every month, until the High Court can take the case, which might be up to two years” was a possibility…). Now it looks like possibly two times. We have been told that the worst he is facing would be a stiff fine; no jail time for vehicular manslaughter.

So, the grandfather’s return to Zambia for a preliminary hearing (kind of like a Grand Jury, I think?) is guaranteed by three signatures and about US$12,000 bail money. He does have to come back to Petauke again tomorrow to assist the Road Transport people with their investigation of the wreck and crash site. He probably won’t make it to Vic Falls (at least on this visit). But he gets to go home with his family, which is better than his worst fears were telling him this morning.

Everyone is much wiser for the events of the last few days. As the grandfather told me over coffee last night, “What I have learned is, that your life can change completely in just an instant.”

Another important take-away is this: Bacon is good. Don’t swerve. Hit the pig. Seriously. You might feel bad hitting an animal. You might feel awful taking away such a valuable resource from people who have so little. But hit the pig. The alternative can be much, much worse.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Lawrenz permalink
    March 27, 2013 2:51 pm

    Wednesday, March 27, 2013.

    Chris,

    Thanks for sharing. It’s quite an interesting account. You sure do write well.

    Steve Lawrenz, Blantyre, Malawi.

  2. william Tembo permalink
    March 27, 2013 10:41 pm

    Got the news on radio; sad indeed, thank God we did not lose more lives. May God continue protecting our Germany friends. Pledgers keep up the good and divine work. You came as a translater but now are your hands a full of life issues helping others. God bless your works.

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