The mysterious art of choosing one’s battles

I have been more irritable than usual of late. As the irritability slowly ramped up, I mostly knew “the cause,” having previously experienced this before when living outside of Canada. I can best describe the cause as follows:

Problematic situations that seem like they can be addressed, but somehow, are never resolved.

Interestingly, my irritability is less about the nature or severity of the problematic situations; instead, it is more about the elusive possibility of resolution. I see friends who notice the same problems but accept them as unchangeable realities. These friends do not seem as irritable as me. And then of course, there are the people for whom these situations are simply not problems – also in generally better moods than me.

“So,” you ask, “what type of situations are you talking about here?”

The answer: It’s a long list.

Some of these are directly related to my work; whereas others are extra-curricular. I think I will skip talking about the work ones because they need to be handled delicately and effectively – and blogging about them at this stage could be counterproductive.

Some of these situations are problematic for moral reasons, whereas others are pragmatic dilemmas. Sometimes the morals and the pragmatics intertwine in ways that point in different, even opposite, directions.

To finally be specific about the types of things I am talking about, here are a few from my list:

1) Transportation.

In a strange way, not being a car driver here is less of a penalty than when in Canada, since there are fewer people who own cars. Nonetheless, the privately-owned and independently-operated public transit is a haphazard patchwork of confusion and frustration. Tackling this situation was the inspiration for the first blog I ever made – a small act of resistance that at least made the situation more palatable. Meanwhile, just as I thought I was managing to organize myself around transportation realities, they changed. Like last week, when a 15% fuel hike caused local shared taxi drivers shorten their standard route. Because of this, what was typically a 5-10 minute walk to get a car in the morning is now around 25 minutes – first making me repeatedly late for work, until I adjusted my schedule to the longer (and more drudgerous) schedule.

This is an example of a situation that can be improved, but without certainty, and with constant effort.


2) Patriarchy.

If I tried to cover this situation comprehensively, even from my perspective as a man, it would extend well beyond blog post length. Also, I need to emphasize that it’s not like “Zambia has patriarchy, whereas Canada does not.” No. Instead, there’s a specific expression of it that has been knocking me sideways – particularly because friends of mine are among the perpetrators: the practice of men with money lying to and cheating on their partners. These same guys often throw temper tantrums if they cannot reach their girlfriends at all times, accusing all sorts of fabrications for anything less than on-call behaviour.

This is a situation involving people who are reasonable in most facets of life, but despicable in at least one facet; I wish they would respond differently to my protests, but they don’t – leaving me to weigh principles versus friendships.


3) Drunk driving.

Having been a teenager in urban Canada in the 1990s – possibly in the first generation of Canadians to intuitively denounce drunk driving – the ubiquity of said practice in Zambia is shocking. It is in this situation that morals and pragmatics conflict most clearly.

As stated above, my transportation options are limited: I do not drive, instead traveling by foot of public transport. These options work well in some places and at some times (like in daylight) but do not work well other times. Often enough, I am faced with the dilemma of either choosing to ride with a drunk driver, or not being able to reach a destination (i.e., home).

In response to this dilemma, you might reject the dichotomous response set and propose a third option. “Take a taxi” you might say. And here’s a catch: especially at night, there is no certainty that the taxi drivers are sober. But this is not a segment to lament drunk driving among taxi and bus drivers, as tragic as that is; instead, this is a segment to condemn this behaviour among my peers.

This is a situation involving multiple strategies – staying home, vetting taxi drivers, refusing rides, advocating an unpopular opinion among friends – in combination the strategies are more effective than any one in isolation, but that combination is still inadequate, while being a drain to implement.

Recently, I might have hit a low-water mark on this situation, while accepting a ride from a friend-of-a-friend. Initially, I did not notice the open beer when I entered the vehicle; it was only when the driver opted to disclose “I’m a police officer. You know, there’s not much to do around here, so sometimes we just drink and drive around.”

Of course, it is with the greatest hope that the absurdity of that anecdote is indeed the low-water mark on my interaction with drunk driving in Zambia. The possibility of a lower mark crosses my mind on occasion; and was the incentive to write this post.


That irritability that I mentioned above? Yeah, it ebbs and flows, and the recent past has involved significant ebbing. Sometimes the flow occurs when I am able to chalk some strategic successes; at other times it is a result of higher levels of acceptance. But I think you will agree that not all of these situations should be accepted. But here’s the thing: even the exercise of choosing one’s battles can be exhausting at times.

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