A few years ago I walked into an internet café at the corner of Harare’s Samora Machel Avenue and Julius Nyerere Way. The place was part of a chain called Quick & Easy Internet Cafes. Of course, I was about to learn that nothing in that place was quick nor easy.
I had an urgent meeting I was headed to and I needed to print a three-page concept so I could do my presentation. I walked into Quick and Easy just before 8am.
“I would like to print three pages,” I said. The woman at the desk by the door pointed to a computer I could use amongst the rows of workstations there. But she indicated I had to pay upfront first. I duly handed over some extortionate amount.
I plugged in my flash-stick and did all the correct clicks until I came to selection of printer.
“Should I just press print,” I asked. She said yes. I heard the whirring sound of the printer and glanced towards the woman’s desk. The pages were coming out. I closed my document and pulled out my stick. I walked over to the printer and retrieved the three pages. To my consternation they were blank – not a single spot of black ink was there.
“But nothing has been printed here?”
The response was enough to cause a tsunami right in the middle of a city I had known in my childhood as Salisbury.
“Haina toner.” The printer cartridge was empty. So what was the point of this whole charade? Why had she taken my money?
“We do not do refunds.”
I was fury personified.
“Yangu munondidzorera. You have inconvenienced me enough. Give me back my money.” I closed the café door and walked towards her. She saw the light and did the sensible thing.
The absurdity of the above story is the staple of the African seeking service anywhere on this continent. It could be the humiliation of the five different queues you need to follow at Zimbabwe’s Beitbridge port of entry just for you to have your passport stamped and be allowed to drive back into your own country. At the heart of Africa’s customer service is an inexplicable malevolent sadism – some kind of desire to inflict pain and make you feel and acknowledge where power resides.
Just recently I had to apply for new passports for myself and two children at the Zimbabwean consulate in Johannesburg. Let me qualify that. You actually don’t apply for a passport there. You stand in 5 different queues in the burning December sun just to obtain a passport form for ZAR250 (USD20) and to have your forms signed off and you can now proceed to Zimbabwe to lodge the application(s). But to get that form you should have original and Xeroxed copies of your birth certificate, your national ID card, your current passport, two colour passport photographs and your SA residence papers.
The first snaking queue I joined was the one for payment of ZAR250 to obtain the form. My documents were checked and the officer advised:
“Your daughter is wearing a necklace in this photo. You will have to take a new set outside.” I decided I could do the photos the following day. But the officer is not yet done: “This one will have to get an ID in Harare first before applying for a passport.” This in reference to my 17-year old son.
For today it was critical to obtain those expensive forms. In that slow moving queue no one is quite sure what the whole process entails. Everyone whispers and asks their neighbour. Slowly we move like cattle. From standing in the queue in the sun we move into the main building and now move from one seat to the next. A ticker tape above the counters reads a message:
“Welcome to the Zimbabwe Consulate.”
At one of the windows is a man who does not seem to be doing anything other than staring at us and chewing gum. He is an elderly fellow with toadish features. I silently nickname him Toad. It’s my only revenge as we are squeezed on the benches that should sit four in a row but we have been instructed to be five. We obey.
Another officer is advising: “This Consulate is open throughout the year – Monday to Friday. You should not wait till December to apply for birth certificates or passports …”
Sound advice. “Kuno kuSouth Africa. It’s food for work. The amount they will dock from your wages just for a day off is too much,” retorts the gentleman to my left but in a whisper that can barely be heard. Someone agrees with him.
Finally the woman to my right gets to the counter. There is anticipation on my part. But for the woman it is a nightmare. She cannot purchase a passport form without a copy of her national ID (and it has to be the new plastic one that replaced the metal). She must go to Bulawayo first to get her ID.
My turn comes. The officer takes in my papers and my money (ZAR750 for three application forms). She writes out a receipt which she hands to me.
I must now join a shorter queue where I will get the prized forms. My receipt is checked, stamped, taken away and I get the three forms. I must now fill in these following the clear instructions pasted on a wall in the courtyard.
The next day I am back but now with the two children in tow. I had tried to spare them a glimpse of the nightmare that is my country but today they have to be with me. There are three queues for today. One is for sticking passport photos inside the form and signing it; the other is for fingerprints; and the final one is for verification of all information and the signing off of same by an officer.
It is a hot day. We have just come from outside to redo the passport photos for my daughter. The ingenious photographer operates under a tree by the wall of someone’s property. He has painted a large white square on the wall. A small stool is where you sit and the guy shoots. Next to the photographer is his mate who does photocopying. His copier is powered by a car battery. Business is thriving this December if the queue here is anything to go by.
The day before, when I decided to redo my own passport photos the guy ran out of gloss printing paper. He then had to send someone to the Eastgate Mall – less than a kilometer away – to buy paper. He was not particularly perturbed that he was delaying us.
Today he has paper and soon my daughter’s photos are out and we head into the consulate.
At 10am the multiple queues are already as long as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. We inch stoically towards the fingerprints guy until finally we are before this lord.
“Open your forms to the pages for photos and signature,” he orders me. I obey.
“Your signature should be inside the red box and should not touch the line.” I duly sign. My son signs. My daughter decides to sign with some flourish and we are damned. Her signature has touched the red line of the box.
“Go back inside and buy another form.” My heart sinks.
Anyway, dear reader, we will spare you the pain. We now have all the forms signed and ready for submission in my country of birth. All we know is that the outcome is totally unpredictable.
This is Africa. Chipping away at another African’s dignity is a matter of course for the sadists in a government office or some tuckshop by the street corner.