Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Accident, The Headache and The Problem with Grace

Another day in Zambia. Another headache with our vehicle. First, we had our car permitting issues. Then we lost both sets of keys. Now? Nothing too exotic … just your regular, run-of-the-mill, car accident. (Now, before anyone panics, the car accident was a mere fender bender and Diane and I are perfectly fine!) Having all this happen in a country like Zambia, where dealing with anything seems like an absolute gong show, just makes it that much more awesome. Having a car in Zambia was supposed to make life easy on us. While it has definitely had its benefits, it’s also brought on more than its fair share of troubles.

We were driving back home from our regular trip to the grocery store on a Friday evening and were stopped at a red light when all of a sudden we got hit from behind. Before I could gather my senses and figure out what was going on, a minibus swiped alongside the driver’s side of my vehicle and continued to drive off. I started honking repeatedly, as if the threat of my feeble little horn would somehow scare the bus driver into stopping. Left with no other choice, I drove off in pursuit of the minibus, frantically trying to determine what my course of action would be. A few seconds into my pursuit, I noticed another car drive past me with its hazards on and pull in front of the minibus, effectively cutting it off and forcing it to pull over. Did this guy get hit too? Or was he just being an upstanding citizen of Zambia and helping a poor foreigner out in time of need? Obviously, it was the former.

I got out of my car and inspected the damage – a big dent on the rear driver’s side, followed by scratches and blue paint all along the side panel and front bumper and a broken rear view mirror, to boot. I was thankful it wasn’t more serious, that my car could still drive, and that neither Diane nor I were injured. I envisioned myself calmly walking up to the bus driver and planting one square in his teeth. Of course, this didn’t happen. Instead, I got out of the car and yelled, “What the hell is this?!” pointing to my now damaged vehicle. I don’t know what that was supposed to accomplish but it was the best I could manage at the time. “Mechanical failure …” the bus driver murmured. I looked over at the minibus. It was an absolute piece. I soon found out that the driver did not have a driver’s license AND that the bus was uninsured. Sadly, this is typical for many of the minibuses in Zambia. With that in mind, I knew this was going to be a nightmare to deal with.

We waited and waited for the police to arrive. At one point, the driver of the other car that was hit (Nathan) and I had to physically restrain the bus driver as he tried to casually walk away from the scene of the accident to “greet his best friend”. Really? He couldn’t come up with something more clever? Needless to say, the whole situation was a bit disconcerting. After about 20 minutes, a policeman finally arrived. He inspected our vehicles and suggested that we all go back to the police station together. Instead of doing as the officer said, the bus driver jumped back in the bus and took off! The officer, having seen the minibus take off, sat in his car and said to me, “I’m worried that he might be trying to get away,” and proceeded to do absolutely nothing about it. I couldn’t believe it. He just sat there and watched as Nathan got back in his car and chased after the bus. “I think they’ll go back to the police station …” the officer said.

From left to right: bus driver, Nathan, me and the police officer
Of course, I lost the officer as I was trying to follow him to the police station and ended up driving around for 30 minutes before finally locating it. As I finished giving my statement to the police, Nathan showed up at the station and explained that he followed the bus all the way to the bus owner’s (a different individual) residence. The bus driver subsequently got out and ran away, disappearing into the community. Nathan, however, managed to speak with the bus owner and received his assurance that he would make good on the damages caused. While this was welcome news, I wasn’t anywhere close to being relieved. I had no faith in the police to do things right, nor did I have any faith in there being any proper process to follow. After all, this is Zambia.

The police told me to come back on Monday morning to file a police report and gave me instructions on how to prepare an application for a police report, which was basically me taking a blank piece of white paper and writing down my information and explaining the incident. This is about as official as things get around here! I could already foresee that this was going to be one giant headache to deal with and that it would eat up a lot of my coming week. What do you know? My prophecy came true.


I went to the police station in the morning and, after waiting half an hour for the officers to finish their weekly meeting, gave them my application for a police report. The officer told me to return the following morning to pick up my police report. Apparently, it cannot be prepared on the same day. This is Zambia!

In the afternoon, I received a call from the bus owner. He was at the police station with Nathan and, apparently, had already fixed his car. I told the bus owner that I would meet him at the police station the next morning.


I spent the morning driving around town to collect quotes from various panel beaters (Zambian for auto body repair shop). Whether I was to go through insurance or deal with the bus owner privately, I needed quotes to give us an idea of what we were dealing with. There are no shortage of mechanics and panel beaters in Zambia. The challenge is to find ones that actually have their papers and won’t do a bush league job on your car.

The cheapest quote I received came out to 10,000 Kwacha Rebased (KR) (approx. CAD $2,000).  I knew right away that this wasn’t going to go over well with the bus owner. Sure enough, when we showed him the quotes back at the police station, he began posturing at once. He kept calling me “bwana” (meaning “boss”, in Bemba) and begged me over and over again to consider using different panel beaters (read: cheaper panel beaters). He was pouring it on thick. While he never actually got down on his knees, he kept referring to the fact that he was on them, and pleaded with me to deal with him “human being to human being”.

I had sympathy for the bus owner. I really did. He seemed like a nice guy and I appreciated the fact that he was being cooperative in trying to sort the situation out. But I was acting on a matter of principle. I explained to him that while I felt badly that he was in this position, the accident happened through no fault of my own and that, ultimately, I needed to ensure that my vehicle would be restored to the same position it was in before the accident. This meant using only the best panel beaters in town. I also reasoned with him that I was not in a position to compromise or settle because I should not be punished for his failure to obtain proper insurance for his bus.

After more back and forth, the bus owner finally agreed to come to the panel beaters with me, pay 7,000 KR up front (which is all he said he could afford to pay at the time) and then pay the remaining 3,000 KR upon completion of the repairs. I wasn’t entirely confident in his word but he convinced me that he had nowhere to run – the police had all of his information, I had all of his information, and he wasn’t going to attempt to evade the law for 3,000 KR. I handwrote a one-page agreement on a blank sheet of paper and had him sign it (I knew my lawyer skills would come in handy!). I left my vehicle at the panel beaters and went on my way, thinking that everything was settled. If only it had been that simple…

I got a call later in the day from the bus owner saying that I needed to meet him at the police station with my vehicle. I showed up to the station and explained to the officer what we had agreed upon. This is when things got ugly. The bus owner then told the police that he didn’t understand what he was signing at the time but that he was forced into signing the agreement and did so under duress. PARDON?! I almost lost it.

Long story short, the police advised that we go through the proper route of filing a police report and settling through insurance, rather than dealing with it privately. This was no skin off my back. I actually preferred this route but thought that settling it privately would be easier on the bus owner and allow us to get everything sorted out much quicker. I left the police office furious at the bus owner and feeling uneasy about what lay ahead.


I went back to the police station on Wednesday morning to collect my police report. When I met with the officer, she informed me that my insurance covered third-party liability only and was not comprehensive. In other words, my insurance would not cover my vehicle’s damages. Great. The police said I had no choice but to recover from the bus owner personally and that they were “washing their hands clean of the situation”. Basically, we were back at square one and I was left to handle the situation on my own.

The bus owner and I spent the next 3 hours debating and arguing, neither one of us willing to compromise. He kept insisting that all he could afford to pay was 7,000 KR and that paying anything above that amount would cripple him. He also kept trying to convince me that cheaper panel beaters would do just as good a job. I was in no mood to play nice with him anymore, not after he lied to the police about being under duress and forced to sign the contract. To make matters worse, he continued to blatantly lie to my face. At one point, when I berated the bus owner for not having his bus insured, he explained that it was because his bus had been in the garage since 2011. Right. Then, not even 10 minutes later, he tried convincing me that he couldn’t afford to pay above the 7,000 KR because the bus was his only source of income and it had now been impounded by the police. When I called him out on blatantly lying to me, he said that because English was not his first language, there must have been some sort of communication error. What a greasy rat.

Our deadlock continued and we were left at an impasse. I felt I had two options: (1) accept the 7,000 KR and hope that the cheaper panel beater would do a sufficient job; or (2) threaten that I would take him to court. After busting him in the greasy lie described above, I resolved that there was no possible way I was giving into this guy. I was going to discard any shred of compassion or empathy I had and deal with this guy the way he deserved. As a result, I went with option 2. This was a HUGE bluff on my part. There was no way I was going through the Zambian court system to settle this issue. Even if I had the patience or the confidence in the court system, there’s no way I’d be in Zambia long enough to see it through. I was going all in at this point. Fortunately, he bought it. He got on the phone and made some calls. After a brief period, he came back and proposed that he would pay the 7,000 KR to the panel beaters that day and that he would scrounge up the remaining 3,000 KR a few days later. Doing my best to hide my satisfaction, I calmly agreed, and explained that I wouldn’t allow any work to be done on the car until he had paid the amount in full. 

I waited for the bus owner at the panel beaters as he went off to round up his 7,000 KR down payment. A full hour had passed and, still, he had not arrived. Naturally, I began to worry, thinking that I had been duped. Again. Much to my surprise, however, he showed up, head down, eyes to the floor, but with 7,000 KR in hand. He arrived a dejected, defeated man and I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel bad, despite his run-arounds, his lies, and his general wastage of my time. He sorted out the piles of Kwacha bills, counting out the 100’s, 50’s, 20’s, 10’s, 5’s and even 2’s which, you can imagine, took forever. He counted out bill by bill, three times over, slumped in his chair. The painfully slow process only added to my guilt.

As the transaction completed, I walked out of the panel beaters with the bus owner, feeling grateful that this whole ordeal was finally behind us but feeling sheepish that I had left this man a shell of his former self. As we walked to his car, my heart sank. Sitting in his white camping van were his wife and three little girls. The death glare coming from his wife was inescapable. I tried to make nice with the man, thanking him for doing the right thing and he did his best to be cordial. I greeted his wife and children in Bemba, thinking that might score me some brownie points but who was I kidding? The girls, being too young to understand that I had likely just robbed them of their college fund, laughed and giggled at the sound of Bemba words spoken from a Chinaman’s mouth. As I walked back to my car and drove off, the wife’s piercing gaze followed me until I was no longer in sight.

The Problem with Grace

As I spent the next few days thinking about the entire ordeal, I came to realize some deeply humbling things about myself. Initially, I was very pleased with how everything turned out. I was quite proud of the fact that I stood my ground, didn’t get played for a fool, and ended up with the result that I was hoping for. I took pride in handling my business in a foreign country where I knew nothing about the proper process and coming out of it on top. I had, in essence, won. And therein lies the problem.

For those of you who know me, I’m the type of guy that operates very much on principle. It often does not matter how petty something is; if it’s a matter of principle, I will not concede in any way, shape or form. I am insistent on having my rights and will not be denied what is rightfully mine. If somebody wrongs me in any way, I feel justified in becoming incredibly spiteful.

I also have an inordinate amount of pride. When I was at an impasse with the bus owner, I wasn’t so much concerned about the 3,000 KR difference that we couldn’t settle on as I was about being taken advantage of, especially if this man was, in fact, lying to me (which I suspected he was). The vision of the bus owner sitting down with his friends over some beers and telling them about how he conned some Chinaman followed by all of them roaring in laughter at my expense was too much for me to take. Similarly, the thought of having to explain to everyone that I gave in, that I was soft and that I wussed out ate away at me.

Where does this all come from? Why was I so concerned about ‘winning’ when potentially bigger things were at stake? I realized that, in the end, I valued what was “just” and winning this standoff more than I valued the very thing that gives me life. That “thing” is grace.

Some of you may be confused. After reading this story, you may think that all I did was act reasonably, perhaps even wisely, given the situation. All I received was what was owed to me. It’s not like I made out ahead in the situation in any way or acted in a way that compromised my integrity. I was merely doing what was necessary to restore my vehicle to the position it was in before the accident.. Through the world’s standards and through its eyes, I probably did nothing wrong. But, then, why didn’t it feel right?

I believe the one thing that separates Christianity from all other religions in the world is grace. Contrary to popular opinion, Christianity is not based upon obeying a set of rules or commandments out of fear of sinning and being doomed to eternity in the firey pits of hell or, conversely, so that one can ‘earn’ his/her way into heaven. Rather, it’s about recognizing that we are ALL deeply flawed and broken individuals in desperate need of grace. Despite what one may think, no one is in need of any more (or less) grace than the other. It’s binary – you either need grace or you don’t. And we all fit in the former.

This entire concept of grace – the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it – is, as I described above, what gives me life. I freely accept it, acknowledging that it is a beautiful, yet incomprehensible, gift. However, I have come to the realization that I am often so unwilling to extend it to others.

This is precisely where I failed. True, if I had given in, if I had compromised, I very well may have screwed myself. The cheaper panel beaters may have done a terrible job. The value of my car may have decreased. The bus owner could have been a wealthy individual that was just too much of a greasy rat to do the right thing. Given the way everything unfolded, it was certainly reasonable to think so. But all of that is irrelevant when it comes to grace. It’s not about the bus owner getting what he deserved, nor about me getting my rights. In fact, it’s the very opposite. It’s about the bus owner, as much as he deserved his fate, being extended the very grace that I hold on to so dearly. Why? Because on the slight chance that he was telling the truth – that he couldn’t afford the full amount and that paying the full amount would cripple him and his family – my “rights” all of a sudden become irrelevant. And there was enough from the smiles of his three young daughters and the utter look of disdain emanating from his wife’s eyes to cast a shadow of doubt over me on this issue. Regardless of where the truth lies, I was too concerned about my own pride, about the principle behind it all, to see what the potential consequences of my hardened heart. Really, what is 3,000 KR (CAD $600) to me? It’s not an insignificant amount of money, by any means (especially to a missionary!), but it’s fair to say that I am fortunate to be in a position where deducting that money from my personal net worth would have relatively little effect on me. Can the same be said for the bus owner and his family? I’m not so sure.

I’m not necessarily saying that I would go back and change the outcome or how I handled the situation. I replay it over and over in my mind, trying to convince myself that I dealt with it in an appropriate manner. The thing I continue to struggle with, however, is my full-out unwillingness to extend grace to others, despite my full-out willingness to accept it from God. This is not to say that, as Christians, we should remove our backbones and become doormats for everyone to trample over. Definitely not. But it does shed light on the confounding nature of grace and why it’s not as simple as it sounds, despite the word having been popularized and religious-ized to death. There will never be an ideal situation to extend grace. It will never make complete sense. It will never seem completely right. And it will always involve a cost.

Even as I write this, I struggle to make sense of it all, to fully grasp it. But I cannot ignore the conviction in my heart and the message that God has conveyed through it. We are called, as His followers, to model Jesus’ life – the king that was a servant, the savior that was mocked and ridiculed, the son of God that came to Earth to establish his upside down kingdom. What does that mean? It means seeking to serve instead of being served. It means sacrificing your needs and rights to care for the needs and rights of others. It means showing love in ways that know no bounds and have no reason. And, it means extending grace just as we undeservedly accept it.

- Byron

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