If you’re from North America, you’ve probably grown up learning how to call 911. Your parents drill it into you from an early age, it is reinforced in schools, and it’s a toll-free call from every phone. Cellphones even have an emergency call setting which you can use when you are out of the network coverage area.
But what do you do in a foreign country where you aren’t familiar with the local numbers to reach emergency services? What if you are faced with a medical emergency or a life-threatening situation? On Saturday night something similar happened to me, when from the window of a taxi I witnessed a man physically assault a woman in a well-to-do neighbourhood of Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi.
Known as “Area 3”, it is a borough of the city which includes the popular “Old Town”, large tree-lined streets, wealthy homes and backpacker hostels. Many visitors to the city choose to stay here as it’s easy to get around on foot and see an “urban” part of Lilongwe if there is one. I consider it to be fairly safe and although I wouldn’t recommend walking around alone at night, it’s certainly a lot safer than other parts of the city.
Now, back to my story. Certain circumstances suggested that this woman was in serious trouble. My taxi driver and I tried to intervene and were threatened by the man, who put his hand under his shirt as if to suggest that he might pull out a weapon. The woman, who had obviously been in distress, came between us and asked me to leave, saying she was okay and they were “just” fighting. I could smell the alcohol on her breath. The man paced back and forth, hurling insults and taunts at me, as if daring me to provoke him to do something. From the look on his face I could see he wasn’t afraid and I had no idea what he might be hiding under that shirt. I stood there, facing off against him for what seemed like an eternity, considering how to handle the situation. Again, the woman spoke calmly, calling the man by name and telling him to back off and asking me to please leave. I felt my taxi driver place his hand on my wrist and pull me gently back into the car. Finally, I did back down and we got into the car. As we drove away, a second man appeared from the shadows and joined the couple who had started yelling at each other again.
Now, my backup plan was to call the Malawi Police. And this is where things became a different kind of scary. When I asked my taxi driver how to reach the police, he didn’t know the number. When I arrived at my hotel, the manager suggested that even if we reached the police, they likely wouldn’t be able to do anything since they often don’t have a car to travel to the scene of a crime. But I felt obliged to report it and besides, civic duty right?
So, using the hotel’s telephone, we twice tried calling the Malawi toll-free emergency services number “997” and got no answer. Totally dumbfounded, I asked the hotel manager if he had any suggestions. He produced a copy of the local telephone directory and we flipped through to the government services section. There was a list of land line telephone numbers for the police in Lilongwe (see inset). He suggested that we call the mobile patrol office. Twice more we tried and still there was no answer. Faced with a set of circumstances that suggested no possible positive outcome, I reluctantly gave up.
Two things struck me from this experience:
- Newcomers or tourists to Lilongwe might not know how to call for help if they need it.
- If they do call emergency services, they may not be able to reach them, and they should have a backup plan.
The experience of trying to unsuccessfully reach emergency services is what has prodded me to write this blog post. Until this past weekend, I can’t recall ever needing immediate, emergency police assistance during my travels. Call it dumb luck. But if you’re living overseas or have a friend who does, let this be a reminder of how important these numbers are, knowing who to call and what to do if you need help. Print out the numbers for the city and country you live in and carry them with you in your wallet, your backpack and the glove compartment of your car. And have a backup plan!
Postscript: On Monday August 27 two police officers happened to visit my hotel and I had a chance to inform them of the story. They took my number and said they would check their logs to see if any incidents had been reported that corresponded to my experience. Also I discovered this website, which allows Malawi residents to submit anonymous information on crimes. Perhaps a resource to keep in mind if you find yourself the witness of a crime and no one to report it to. Finally, I learned from Wikipedia that from many countries dialing 911 will connect you to the local emergency services – this seems to work from Malawi!