Friday, 29 October 2004

Town Things

We got a lift into town with the project vehicle, as I needed to get some hard currency for our impending trip to Wild West Zimbabwe. Let’s just say I started the process at 9am, and didn’t get anywhere until 12.30. None of the banks will change foreign currency unless you hold a hard currency account, which I don’t. (Don’t even go there with asking me why I haven’t opened one of these. Question One on the form asks for proof of residential address, such as a utility bill. Aha. Ahahahahaha. If I bring you a dead snake and some wild fruit will you just take my word for it that we live at The Bush, Bushville, Bushland, Bushy, where the utilitites companies fear to tread?) We tried the Forex desk at the Post Office. There was tumbleweed blowing about in there, I don’t think they’d seen hard currency since about 1952 when you could have gotten shillings. We tried the Bureaux de Change. Nothing. Then I gave up and decided to go the corrupt route and see if I could bribe someone. I went back to A Major International Bank where I bumped into Chief and told him the story.

Chief knows the bank manager very well, as, if you remember, A Major International Bank were the nice people who stole money from the project account. So Chief does the Big Man routine (another post on this later) and I am trailing him round the bank red-cheeked as he wanders about demanding to speak to whoever is in charge. The bank won’t budge and change the money for me. Then Chief remembers that the project has both a sterling and a kwacha account. If I give him the kwacha, he will give me the sterling. This is not ideal, as I don’t think Chief needs to know how much money I am taking on holiday with me to spend on getting totally bladdered at my friends’ wedding, but it seems to be the only option. Chief then cuts in front of the huge queue and goes straight to the teller. By this stage my head is in my boots as I am sure all the people in the queue are pissed off at this Mzungu queue-jumper. Next the teller tries to charge Chief £10 commission for withdrawing the sterling from his own account. Grey hairs appear in the time it takes to argue the toss on that one. Finally the necessary forms are signed and I think we can leave. But no. Apparently the teller now has to send ‘someone’ to fetch the cash. My heart sinks. No doubt the cash is kept in some secret vault 20 kilometres away and I will be at the bank waiting for the rest of my life. Chief obviously thinks so too, as he heads off to do some business with The Husband and they say they will come and pick me up later.

This leaves me about an hour or so to observe the bank. And it is indeed a strange bank. Full of weirdly quiet chaos. I go and sit by the door. I am used to African institutions that are full of pushing shouting people. In such cases it’s a free for all, and I can push and shout like the best of them. In this bank though, the chaos is silent and it’s very unnerving. There is a queue for the tellers. Fine. Apart from that the bank is about the size of an airport lounge. Dotted around this lounge are large desks with computers and comfy chairs. They look as though bank staff should be working at them, but they are all empty. Apart from the customers. Who are draped all over this funiture. Nobody says anything. Are they waiting for a member of staff? For Godot? How do they know which desk a member of staff will appear at? Who is head of the queue in this randomness? Maybe these people have just come in off the street for a quiet sit-down? Are they models, posing, -‘See, if this were a real bank people would be sitting at desks, like this.’ ? The tellers back at the cash counter are all on their mobile phones. I can’t figure out if it’s ok practice here to just natter to your mates on the phone all day at work, or if they are actually inter-departmental phones. The national phone system here is so rubbish that it wouldn’t surprise me. Five chapters of my book later and there is some light tapping. I look up to see the teller beckoning to me. By this stage the people in the original queue who saw me jump to the front have all left, so now a new line of people watch the only white person in the building go to the front. I get the money and slink out the door. That’s one job ticked off my list. These trips to town are interminable.