Lilongwe, Malawi … Many of us remember as children being told problems come in threes. This was just an old saying passed down through generations, and had little or no foundation in medicine, science, or religion. However, from time to time when major problems did occur in a sequence of three, it would bring to life the saying, and people would pick it up and move it forward again.

            In Malawi this idea of problems (or disasters) coming in groups of three is alive and well and coming in numbers even larger than three. This time it is hitting with the force of four or more. One must realize words and phrases mean different things in different parts of the world. This is especially true in Malawi. Here are some examples.

Food Shortage

            The first is a “food shortage.” In American this means there are not many of these items on the shelf, or it means one must go to more than one store to obtain the number of items desired. In Malawi the word means, “out,” “gone,” “none,” anywhere for a long time. It means people are suffering from critical malnutrition and throughout the nation people are dying from the lack of nutrition. Children are eating bugs and digging up roots to find some amount of food value. Old people lay quietly in dingy huts and cry out in pain while some of them eat leaves to try to stay alive.

Fuel Shortage

            The second is a “fuel shortage.” America has not suffered from major, national fuel shortages since the 70’s when OPEC curtailed fuel output over disputes with the U.S. position with the nation of Israel. While from time to time the U.S. and western nations experience short term fuel shortages there has been nothing like the shortages of the 70’s since that time. In Malawi long lines have waited for the arrival of a fuel truck for days at a time. Travel has been curtailed for months and there is no end in sight to the situation.

Medical Supply Shortage

            The next is a “medical supply shortfall.”  This phrase is almost the same as the one about food. In the U. S. and other first world nations this means a medical facility might be “almost” out of some critically needed supplies. For everyone’s benefit the needed items usually arrive on the next delivery, in a few hours by special courier, or at least by the next day. In Malawi that can mean, “days,” or “even weeks.” In one newspaper report it was noted a major hospital was requiring patients bring their own syringes, while another has closed its labor and delivery theatres because they did not have the necessary supplies. Other reports indicated health professionals could not resuscitate patients needing oxygen therapy, conduct deliveries, or carry out other needed procedures because of electrical blackouts. Hospitals lacked the funds to own generators, or if they did, they could not afford to buy fuel to keep them running.

Electrical Outage

            The final is an “electrical outage needing load sharing.” In the west this means “a transformer has blown, and you may be out of electricity for one to three hours,” or “a tree has fallen on a line and the power may be out overnight.” In Malawi this means the country does not have the ability to produce the electricity it needs. Solving this problem is far in the distance. You may be out of electricity “for 6 hours a day (or more) for the next three to six months or more.” This means streetlights in the major cities are not operating, leading to gridlock and confusion. It means hospitals cannot operate much of their equipment and as a result people suffer and die. It means food cannot be properly prepared in restaurants, hotels, and homes, especially those in the city. It means children cannot see to study, and it means those who wish to do harm have an open door for literally hours each day while cities are plunged into long periods of darkness.

            Perhaps this will help one to understand the definition of terms is not the same in different parts of the world, and the meaning of these phrases has a vastly different reality depending on where you live. Now you will understand somewhat better when we say …

… Malawi is “experiencing a critical “food shortage” nationwide, you will see in your mind’s eye old people laying on bamboo mats in mud huts, waiting for death to arrive as the pains of hunger eat deeper into their hearts and minds. You will see children digging up the roots of small shrubs seeking enough nutrition to last another day.

When we say the “fuel shortage” is growing worse, you will imagine cars and large buses abandoned along the roadways with people walking along sweltering pavement, or rocky, dusty paths toward a distant destination. You will envision critically needed food and medicine sitting in the backs of trucks unable to reach their destinations.

            When we talk about an “electrical outage,” you will think of women laying in hospital beds trying to deliver babies with no supplies and a lack of surgical equipment that is needed to save their lives and those of their babies. You will imagine an elderly man with a breathing problem gasping for breath while an oxygen mask and breathing equipment lay useless by his side You will imagine an operating room with patients lined up outside writhing in pain waiting for surgery that cannot be performed in the darkened surgical suite.

            This is when you will realize different terms mean different things in different parts of the world.

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