How to Tell the Difference Between a Problem & an Inconveneince

I learned this when I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi, in the early 1990s.

I worked with  the Chewa speakers, who are very much like the Tonga  described by Elizabeth Colson  and the Timbuka described by Monica Wilson.  There people  traditionally lived at the subsistence level, so had very little in the way of  material culture compared to the African ethnics living on the coasts of the continent.

However—they were known for their quick wit.  Their culture blended  seamlessly with he overlay of the British Colonial elites.  Some became pseudo elites, people of a ‘false consciousness’ (as described by Karl Marx and Franz Fanon.  In fact, it was  chilling to live the prophesy that Fanon described in The Wretched of the Earth.

Malawi was a classic example of  the lack of oversight of foreign aid, but no matter.

I worked with 2  counterparts in the Town Planning Department for the City of Blantyre.  Loudon Luka & Anthony Nkoma.  They had known each other in school, and had been geography majors.

Our lives were pretty dull, but one day, Nkoma came in to work about  1/2 hour late. He came in, sat down  at his desk, and heaved a sigh.

“What’s wrong?”  I asked him.

He hesitated.  Well, my roommates’s girlfriend’s uncle came into town, and they were up partying all night.  & I gave the fellow my bed, and got no sleep.”

“Why did you give him YOUR bed?”  I asked, wondering why the roommate & girlfriend didn’t give up THEIR BED…

“It would have been rude to not have. He’s an elder.” Nkoma said, & Luka nodded.  I did not understand, but no matter.

The next day, Nkoma was late again and clearly tired.  “When is the elder leaving?”  I asked.

“I don’t know. It would be rude to ask,” Nkoma said.

“Do you want to come to my place?  I have a guest room with a bed,”  I told him.

“No, it would be rude to not come home.”

The next day, Nkoma comes in late, again, & flops down in his chair, and looks at me.

“What? What?”  I ask.

“This guy. They were up all night partying, and when I woke up, the guy was passed out in my bed, and he had vomited all over my bed.”

I gasped.

Luka commiserated, “Ah yes, it’s a serious inconvenience when someone vomits in your bed.”


They both looked at me, and Luka said, “Why yes.  What would you say?”

I had to laugh at the horror. “Bummer!  Oh shit!  something like that.  What are you going to do?”  I asked, addressing Nkoma.

“I don’t know.  I’ll take care of it when I get home.”

The next day, Nkoma came in, on time, smiling.  “He cleaned it all up & he left.  I guess he realized that he had   his welcome.”

A couple years later, when I was back in the U.S., the water pump on my care  busted as I was traveling to house sit on the 4th of July.  No cell phones back then.  I walked to a gas station, that  only pumped gas, and a customer offered to drive me to the police station.  The police were of no help, of course, but the let me use their phone.  The guy who gave me the ride said to me, “Lady, you have a problem.”

I thought back to Nkoma, & told the guy, “No I have an inconvenience, and not even a serious inconvenience.”

Because…now I know the difference.


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