Wednesday, 22 December 2004

A Parcel For Me, Surely You Jest?

So when we went to the doctor in town last week, we also went to the post office, clutching a Little Green Slip, which indicated that there was a parcel for me awaiting collection. In fact, anything bigger than a DL envelope gets locked away in The Parcel Vault, so it’s best not to get too excited about the Little Green Slip.

There are two counters in the post office where you can collect your goods. The signs are not really helpful – after all, how can you know if you should be in the line for the ‘small packets’ or ‘registered parcels’ when the Little Green Slip doesn’t tell you? Generally though, if you pass your LGS over to one of these two counters, someone will fetch your parcel for you.

The first counter has a big ‘Closed’ sign on it. I queue up at the other one. For half an hour. I finally come face to face with Big Bertha and I know I am on to a losing streak. I can almost hear the clang of bars as Bertha slams shut her Friendly Face and opens up Screw-You Central. I push the LGS across the counter.

“Good afternoon, how are you, can I have this parcel please?”

Big Bertha pushes the LGS back across the counter at me. "This is for the gentleman at the next counter.”

“Yes, but it’s closed. Can you get it please?”

Menacingly “He is the only one with the key.” We lock eyes.

I have met many Big Berthas on my African travels. Giant ladies working in Public Service who sit Buddah-like on their petty thrones, their sole aim to move as little as possible throughout the day and piss off as many customers as they can. Actually, no, as few customers as possible. To say ‘many’ implies that there might be speed involved.

I look at Bertha. She looks at me. I know damn well she probably has a key but is too lazy to get off her ass and go to The Parcel Vault. But I know which battles to fight and when to withdraw. You don’t cross Bertha, you have to go round her.

“When will this other gentleman return?”

“He’s at lunch. Come back at 14.30.” It was now 14.00.

The Husband and I decided to go to the supermarket to pass the time. We like hell, we do.

We know that 14.30 is an African estimate so we return to the post office at 15.00. Counter 5 is still closed. Big Bertha is still ensconced at Counter 6. I am not going there. There is a weird prefab-style mini office plonked in the middle of the post office lobby. A hand-written sign declares ‘Customer Service Agent’. It looks promising. I knock and go in.

“Hello, how are you, is this Customer Services?”

MARIA hums and haws. “Not exactly.”

I press on, regardless. I ask her to find someone to fetch my parcel. Maria is very nice. She goes off to find someone.

A queue of men with briefcases line up outside Maria’s door.

“Has she gone to get you money?” one of them barks at me.


Maria returns, talking animatedly on her mobile phone. In one deft movement she snatches a bundle of papers from First Briefcase Man, motions for me to sit down, tells me that someone is getting my parcel, and proceeds towards a white machine in the corner. It dawns on me why Maria was reluctant to accept the tag of Customer Service Agent. She is The Photocopy Lady. Maria carries on an extremely lascivious conversation with a bloke on her mobile. I try to tune out as she discusses the things they can do to each other online later. The photocopier whirrs, but doesn’t interrupt her flow. Maria is polite and lovely, but as the minutes turn into half an hour I begin to doubt the loveliness of her colleagues, in particular the mystery man who is fetching my parcel. He wanders past.

“There he is!” yells Maria.

I thank her and rush out after a man who is wearing a woollen waistcoat in the searing heat. It is not a good omen. He runs away and hides behind the steel bars at Counter 4. I repeat my request to collect my parcel.

“The man at Counter 5 is at lunch.”

“Yes, well how long exactly does he get for lunch? He was missing over an hour ago.”

“Er…let me just check.”

At this point The Husband has decided it is too hot to wait in the vehicle and has wandered in to the post office. I bring him up to date. The Husband is the world’s biggest stirrer in situations like this, and delights in pointing out the absurd.

“Hold on, are you telling us that only one person in this building has the key to The Parcel Vault?”


“And he’s left the premises with it?”


“What happens if he gets run over?”


“Or runs away?”


“Or loses the key?”


“Or steals the parcels and then runs away?”


“Surely there is another set of keys?”

“Well yes. But they’re not kept at this premises.”

“Well send for them.” Someone is despatched.

We wait. And wait. I lay my fevered malarial brow on the counter in front of Woolly Waistcoat and tap my passport loudly on the counter, hoping to drive him as insane as I feel.

Back at Big Bertha’s counter there is a twisted version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire going on. A well-spoken young man has come to collect some money via the SwiftCash system. He has dubbed it GoSlowMoney. He has been at the post office longer than we have. His name is listed as a recipient of wired cash. He has proper photo id, the amount due to him, and the post office that it’s coming from. But the sender’s name doesn’t tally. He argues the point that his aunt, the sender, may have sent someone else to do the transaction, but what does it matter as long as he is the genuine recipient? They refuse to give him the money.

“My aunt’s name is Gwendoline Kasunga.”

“No, wrong name.”

“Ok, maybe she used Gwen. Gwen Kasunga.”

“No, guess again.”

“Maybe she sent her secretary.”

“Sorry, try again.”

I have a sudden urge to leap across the counter and snatch the paper from Bertha. The argument goes on, back and forth like slow tennis.

There is no sign of either the second set of keys or The Man From Counter 5. I disturb Woolly Waistcoat who is very busy dusting his pens.

“Ok, there’s no sign of these other keys, seriously, when is this Man From Counter 5 due back from lunch?”

“Oh he’s not at lunch.”
Count. Calmly. Do not shout. “Where is he?”

“He’s in a meeting.”



Breathe. No shouting. “Well, why don’t you go upstairs, knock on the door, go into the meeting, get the key, and then fetch my parcel?”

Woolly Waistcoat disappears.

Another half hour passes. The post office is now deserted, apart from the young man battling Big Bertha. The post office has long wide counters near the windows for customers to sort their post on. The malarial fever is bad at this point. I contemplate draping myself over one of the counters, in the manner of one of those ridiculous Vogue photoshoots where they go to a ‘Third World Country’. I don’t though. I am not a model. Nor do I want to see the inside of a Zambian insane asylum. Although, thinking about it, it’s probably not much different from the post office.

Two new customers arrive, clutching Little Green Slips. I vainly hope that extra numbers will increase the pressure. The Husband has had enough. He goes upstairs to see The Manager. He takes the GoSlowMoney boy with him. One of the new customers wails that he has been trying since 9.00 with his LGS. I daren’t ask him which day.

A sheepish looking man then appears behind Counter 5. The key, the key!! Both 9am Man and I shove our LGSs over the counter. Sheepish Man goes to The Vault. He comes back with a small padded envelope and a large box covered in my mother’s handwriting. He is in such a flap that he mixes up the LGSs and pushes MY box towards 9am Man. It is the last straw.

I clamp down on my box and run. As I left, 9am Man stretched for his envelope.

“Oh, I’m sorry sir. You can’t have this. It says ‘Mrs’ on the envelope and clearly you are a mister.”

The Husband reappears. I wave the box at him. The Manager has released the boy’s GoSlowMoney. We all beat a hasty retreat.

Congratulations! If you have read this far without slitting your wrists from tedium, then you have the stamina to survive in Zambia. Welcome! ZamPost welcomes you!