Lilongwe, Malawi … In 1970 Joni Mitchell released the song, Big Yellow Taxi. In it was this refrain, “You don’t what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

I know she was not talking about what I recently experienced, but every time I think about my encounters in Malawi, I recall that song. My situation took place when I needed to go to that room… You know “that” one. In the west, it is called the washroom, bathroom, men’s-room, women’s room, powder room, or the like. In Malawi, it is simply the chimbudzi. 

If you are traveling through much of the country and you must stop, you want to make sure there is an ample supply of paper available. In far too many cases there is very little if any available. More than once I have found myself wondering what to do next, trying to decide if I could wait until we reached the next town. Panic to say the least.

In the West we take toilet paper for granted. Stop at a service station, and there it is, a nice big roll of toilet paper. We don’t give it a second thought. It is just always there. Stop at McDonald’s, yep, it’s always there. “You don’t what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

But travel in the sub-Saharan regions where poverty is beyond anything you can imagine and, well, you know. There is nothing available. Not long ago I entered a well-kept village about 50 miles north of the capital. Suddenly I felt the urge and needed to move quickly. I asked for the nearest chimbudzi and one of the people led me down a nearby path and pointed. I entered an outhouse and looked around. Suddenly I realized “it” was missing, the toilet paper. Here came the words, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

I have a problem here, I said to the person traveling with me. I need some paper.”

He smiled and handed me two pieces of paper from a spiral notebook. Well, thanks, but writing paper is not the best, and it doesn’t hold much water! Oh, I mean that doesn’t quite do what I would like for it to do. Again, here came the refrain, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

In Malawi this year we had shortages of electricity, petrol, diesel, diet, sugar-free coke, and even milk. But the shortage that worried me more than all the rest was the shortage of paper.  

Such are the difficulties one faces trying to travel in one of the poorest parts of the world, or as one African brother sighs and says with a smile, “That’s Malawi.”

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