Larry, the Zimbabwean Watch Man

I think that I’m fucking nuts. Am I nuts? Someone tell me. No other foreigner I know here walks from one end of a city in a developing country to another in a day, savoring the overwhelming human landscape this country has to offer. As far as I can tell, most over 40 white dudes just sit in their hotels in suits, drinking cheap beer and watching sports. It’s a pretty miserable life, and after five minutes in a bar, I get restless in the presence of fat, nowhere foreigners and equally nowhere fat, middle class Malawian business men and want to get out walking as soon as I can. This place is a gold mine of knowledge. Missing out on the opportunity to learn of the resilience and ingenuity of human beings would be a crime.

Downtown Blantyre, the financial capital of Malawi, is like a world upside down, with representatives from just about every occupation on earth, competing to offer the same service as every else, for the same price. After inquiring as to the source of the manic screaming of a Nigerian faith healer, I had a chance to meet Larry from Zimbabwe. He has been fixing watches and cell phones on the same corner in Blantyre for the past 20 years. He’s nearly blind and can’t afford glasses, but appears to fix every manner of watch you can think of.

Malawians are really good at doing the same thing in the same way as everyone else. There’s some variation depending on local demands and conditions, but, in general, wherever you go, people do the same job in the same fashion as everyone other similar entrepreneur. Throughout Malawi, farming is done mostly in the same manner, using the same crops as everyone else, despite the fact that nearly all of the crops originally came from North America. Corn is an example.

Larry the watch-repairer is just one of more than 50 watch and cell phone repair men on his block, who all have identical stands and do the exact same job. Not a single repair man offers special services in order to compete with the other guys. Tailors are much the same, offering the same sewing services with the same 100 year old manual sewing machinery as everyone else. Outside of the radio and television repair people, no one on the street uses electricity.

It makes you wonder how people choose what they buy and from whom they get it, but then when you spend five minutes walking around with a Malawian, you discover that business operates through a vast network of social contacts and family relations, quite similar to that of Japan, another country where multitudes of proprieters offer the exact same services as everyone else. You get introduced to taxi drivers, restaurants where everyone knows one another and food stands where cousins/brothers/aunts and uncles work. Malawians who have been abroad complain that having missed opportunities to build contacts throughout this resource poor country, they are effectively shut out from the job market. Malawi certainly misses incredible opportunities to capitalize on the skills of those who have been educated abroad, justifying the incredible brain-drain that this country experiences. For a foreigner, its equally better and worse, although I’ve pretty much given up on makes inroads here. I just do what I do.

As long as I can keep eating chambo (local tasty, freshwater fish), I’m happy.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

4 responses to “Larry, the Zimbabwean Watch Man”

  1. travelingmad says :

    This sounds interesting. Anywhere in Africa is definitely on my to-do list.
    I hope you continue enjoying your experience.

  2. Kirkpad says :

    Very cool stuff. Nice reads all around.

  3. stumpwater says :

    Pete, you are absolutely stark raving nuts, yes, but exploring cities in third world countries on foot is not what qualifies you as such. That’s a very sane and healthy thing to do (I suppose it would not be sane were you in Somalia, but whatever –different discussion). Great article, btw. Maybe we’ll learn something from the rest of the world one of these days.

  4. Fernando says :

    You will love Philippines! Plenty of good fish!

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