Well, something awful happened. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, but it was still rather horrible.
I hit a man with my vehicle.
It happened like this:
I was driving from Lusaka to Petauke with Sean and seven visitors from the US. It was a Sunday, and getting towards evening – about 5pm. We were less than an hour from home.
It’s tough to describe driving conditions in Zambia for those who haven’t been here. The roads are narrow, poorly-maintained, and treacherous. There are no guard rails or sidewalks, and vehicles travel at highway speeds just inches from pedestrians, bicyclists, vendors, and farm animals. These photos don’t do it justice, since they were taken in a sparsely-populated part of Lusaka province where they have lines on the road and fewer potholes. Add a handful of bicycles (some with women and babies balanced on the back), a dozen pedestrians, a couple of goats, and a few potholes – and subtract about a half-metre of crumbling pavement on either side – and you get a clearer picture of what it’s like to drive in Eastern province.
Anyway, we were passing through a small town, with shops and people close on both sides of the road. There are no speed humps or guard rails to protect people – just their common sense not to trespass on the roadway. I was doing about 90 km/h (55-60 mph). We were rounding a shallow curve.
As we came upon the most-densely peopled part of town, I saw a man run into the road from the right-hand side, running right-to-left straight across my path. (Remember, we drive UK-style here: on the left side of the road, from the right side of the car.) The man was staggering in the characteristic been-at-the-bar-all-afternoon way that one often sees on Sunday afternoons in Zambia. He was only a second or two from the truck at this point, and clearly had no idea I was coming.
I laid on the horn, braked hard without skidding, and gently veered right (into the oncoming lane), aiming for a spot behind where the man was running as he crossed in front of us. I distinctly remember reaching a point where it looked like our trajectories would not overlap – he had managed to run/stagger far enough that he passed the centreline, and the truck would just manage to pass by him on the right as we passed.
Then he turned around.
I don’t know if he was confused by the horn, or had just realised he was in the road and should really go back, or if he was intentionally trying to be hit. But at the last second, he turned around and stepped back into the path of the truck.
Then I hit him.
He took the impact on his right side (now moving left-to-right across my path). His body bent in half and his head bounced forward, rebounding so hard off the hood of the truck that he left a large dent. Then he crumpled and disappeared under the truck. I have no idea how fast I was going at that point.
I pulled off the right side of the road, exchanged a horrified glance with my left-seat passenger, turned on my flashers, and pulled the parking brake. I told everyone to stay in the vehicle. Then I got out.
I knew the man must be dead. Even now, as I replay the impact in my mind, and see his limbs and head all askew, bouncing off the bull-bar on the front of the Land Cruiser, I knew that the person who took that impact must be dead.
By the time I got out of the vehicle, a huge crowd had rushed to the scene. A woman way lying in the road next to the man’s body, wailing. A lot of the man’s fellow bar-patrons had come on the scene as well, most as drunk as he had been. There was a huge commotion and noise. I stood at the side, hands on top of my head, trying to breathe. I had just hit a man with my vehicle.
Because of my “experience” with the Germans, I knew what happened in motor-vehicle fatalities. One waited at the scene for the police to arrive. I took out my phone and tried to call my police-officer neighbour. No signal. I handed my phone to one of my passengers and told him to keep trying to call Mr Chisha.
By this time, a large crowd of people were approaching me – angrily – and a few had run up to grab me by the arm and drag me toward the body. It was loud and hot and close and smelled strongly of local beer. I was pulled toward the man’s body, the man I had hit. And finally I realised what everyone was saying to me.
He wasn’t dead.
I had hit a man with my vehicle, but he wasn’t dead. Quickly, I ran back to the truck and told my visitors that they and all their luggage had to come out, now. There are no ambulances in rural Zambia – or, more correctly, the vehicle which causes the accident becomes the ambulance. We had to get the man to the hospital.
So, with my visitors and their stuff unceremoniously dumped by the roadside, I turned the truck around on the narrow road. Five people loaded the injured man into the back and piled in with him. The village headman joined me in the front seat. The nearest hospital was a half-hour drive back the way we had come.
The drive to the hospital was awful for me, but I’m sure it was a lot worse for the man who had been hit. He didn’t lose consciousness, but moaned and screamed and babbled the whole way, while the people riding with him (his wife, his mother, and several others) tried to comfort him. I hope he doesn’t remember the trip. I do.
I realised about five minutes in that I had left my phone with the visitors, so I had no way to contact anybody. I asked one of the riders to dial my number, and after several attempts we got through to them. Another motorist, an Indian man, had been right behind us and seen the whole thing. He piled my visitors and their luggage into his pickup, and they were on their way to Petauke. I told them to have dinner at Chimwemwe Lodge, where our translation office is located, and wait for me there. Sean was with them to show them the way.
After passing by the police station, we were told to go to the hospital. There the man was lifted out of the truck by his friends and put into a wheelchair and taken to the receptionist. There his mother answered a bunch of questions about identity, a description of the accident, etc. The village headman kept me informed about what I couldn’t follow. The man still sat, in pain and still pretty drunk, but able to answer yes-no questions and recognize voices. It took about 10 minutes for “check-in,” and then he finally got to see a doctor.
At this point we went back to the police. I told my story. The headman backed me up. Apparently the part I didn’t know was that the man had been fighting in the bar, been knocked unconscious, and upon awakening was chased into the road by four guys who weren’t finished beating him yet.
To make a long story short, I was told that if the man died, there would be charges filed, and I – or at least my truck, as “evidence” – would have to stay in Nyimba that night. I begged the policeman to let me go and see to my visitors, who were locked out of my house and probably very worried (this being their first full day in Zambia!). I offered to leave my national registration card, and promised to return first thing in the morning. Upon learning that the vehicle was registered to the Lutheran Mission in Zambia, the inspector agreed.
We went back to the hospital to check on the man again – who, miraculously, was still not dead – and to leave some money so that his relatives could buy food and any supplies the doctors might need to care for him. Then I took a couple other men from the village back to their houses, being instructed by the police to drop them before the accident site so I didn’t risk an encounter with the probably-angry and now-even-drunker friends of the man.
It was a long, dark, prayerful drive home. I found the group in Petauke at the lodge, well-fed and safe but pretty worried about me. I shakily recounted all that had happened since I dumped them, and asked for prayers that the man would recover – not only for his sake, but also for mine.
Finally re-united with my phone, I called my good friend in Chipata, my colleagues at the mission in Lusaka, and also my pastor. Assuring them that nothing could be done that night except pray, I told them I’d let them know what happened when I returned to the police in the morning.
My pastor insisted on accompanying me to the Nyimba police. It would be wise to have an African friend with me, especially a pastor. And I didn’t want to make the drive alone so soon over those same roads again.
To make a short story long, I spent all of three minutes at the Nyimba police station that morning. I was told that the man was “improving,” and that therefore no charges were going to be filed. In fact, the police were pursuing a case against the four men who beat the man and chased him into the road in the first place. The man’s sister had come and given an official statement about the fight and the accident, even confirming the part that the man had doubled-back after it looked like I would miss him. I got my NRC back and was told I could leave.
On the way back home, I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted. The man wasn’t dead; in fact, he was improving. I wasn’t in jail. The programme for the American visitors would not be disrupted. I wasn’t in jail. The sun seemed to be shining particularly brightly for me.
It occurred to me that it’s a bit strange – even though God tells us not to worry, that He will take care of everything, sometimes it’s not God’s Word we trust, but the word of a police officer, or a doctor. The fact is that God was taking care of everything from the moment that man stepped into the road, and before, and after – but I didn’t believe that everything would be fine until I heard it, not from God, but from some human authority. I’m not exactly sure what to make of that, except to say that sometimes it is the job of the policeman, or the doctor, or the pastor, to act in the place of God in our lives, and remind us that He is taking care of everything, always.
To God alone be the glory!