Tuesday, 23 August 2005


You know it's time for a holiday when the vagaries of life leave you wanting to land a punch to the face of everyone you meet.

Our esteemed and beloved leader President Levy Mwanawasa, democratically elected ruler of Zambia, has decided that when he leaves office he would like to take a large wodge of cash with him, to the tune of £80,000 equivalent or thereabouts. Well, wouldn't we all like to take that home with us? How marvellous. This has been announced out of the blue. He somehow feels he deserves a big payoff, despite the fact that he is already entitled to a presidential pension and perks such as secretarial services (that always amuses me), car, house, international flights, yada yada yada when he departs his position.

Before he went into politics he was a qualified solicitor with his own practice. It's not like he couldn't work if he wanted to top up his already substantial pension. The newspapers have been fairly neutral in their reporting of this latest development, probably because it is a criminal offence in Zambia to criticise El Presidente. It's one thing to let the government off the hook with their lack of support for primary needs such as food, healthcare and education when they literally do not have any money. It's quite another to see Zambia reach HIPC point, have all kinds of promises made to them for debt to be written off, and then the first thing the leader of the country does is announce that he'd like to write himself a big fat cheque.

Yesterday I went to Some Town in Zambia. There was an infamous green slip at the post office, indicating there was a parcel for me. I tried to collect it but was told that they couldn't release it as Customs wanted to open it and inspect it. Great. You would think that as long as a parcel didn't contain something dangerous such as bomb-making equipment that if it's addressed to you, legally it's yours and they can't hold it. Pah!

"Ok, so where is my parcel?" I ask Post Office Man.
"Oh it's here. But I can't give it to you. Customs must inspect it."
"Right. How do we do that?"
"Oh, sometimes the Customs Lady is at the post office, but sometimes not. You will have to go and fetch her."
"Excuse me?"
"You will have to go and fetch her."
"What, you mean drive there and pick her up and bring her back here?"
"Are you serious? She will just get in our vehicle and come with us?"
"She will come, surely."

I turn to Johnson our driver. He shrugs his shoulders. You couldn't make this stuff up. We drive across town to the Zambian Revenue Authority. The offices are full of flashy computers and filing cabinets, smart desks and workstations. It's pretty much empty of people though.

A woman strolls out of an office.
"Excuse me," I say, "we're looking for the Customs Lady."
The woman gives me a disdainful look. "Ah, she is coming."
How very helpful, not.

After about 20 minutes the woman wanders back again. She gestures for us to come into her office. A sign on her desk indicates she is in charge of licensing. She asks for my name and shuffles through some papers. She thrusts something at me, saying, "We were supposed to post this to you. You have to pay us money." Excellent.

Eventually Customs Lady wanders into the office she shares with Licensing Lady. Customs Lady chews on a doughnut. For half an hour she chats with Licensing Lady, shows off her new handbag, packs up her things in a giant bag la la la. Eventually she says hello to us. Or rather, what she says is "You have to pay me money."

The problem seems to be stemming from the fact that as well as drawing materials for the school and books for the library, the parcel contains 3 mobile phones to be given out to the community.

"What are you doing with these phones? You have to pay duty on them."

What makes me mad is that these people in government offices are Power Mad. There is no recourse to make complaints or ask for a supervisor because they are all crap. They call all the shots and you have to go along with it. They make some random decision and you are not allowed to dispute it. Johnson and I explain that we work for an NGO, the phones are donations, we are helping some of the poorest people in the country, as an NGO we are exempt from such charges etc etc. She doesn't give a rat's ass.

"This parcel is addressed to you. You must give me money."

Her colleague, the Licensing Lady, who actually has absolutely nothing to do with Customs apart from sharing an office with the doughnut-muncher, is insistent that I am charged for the phones. Licensing Lady is puzzlingly vitriolic in her insistence to her colleague.

Johnson turns to me and whispers, "Ah, she is Lozi that one. Those people are not friendly." Whatever. This is just insanity.

Customs Lady follows us to our vehicle. Licensing Lady also jumps in. Does anyone actually do any work at the ZRA? We drive to the post office. Where ensues further argument.

I wouldn't mind if there were rules, laws, things written down. If something is a certain way in a country I am happy to abide by it. But where is a written list of items which are subject to duty? Where is an explanation of why they are subject to duty? Something official on paper to show how they calculate what that duty is? Information for NGOs on how they get around paying this? Nothing, nada, simply another official with not so much a chip on her shoulder as a great big sack of potatoes. She is quite possibly the most unhelpful woman I have met here, and that's saying something. She opens the box and examines everything s..l…o…w…l…y.

"Are you at a school?"
"We are providing education to over 800 kids as well as many other projects."
"Ha! Well, this is a small box of pencils. How can you give it to 800 children?"
Actually right now I would prefer to shove them up your nostrils.
I mutter something at her.
"How much are you going to pay me for these phones?"
See what I mean? Shouldn't she be telling me?
"Give me £30."
"I'll give you £3."
She is outraged. "I am only doing my job."
"So am I. Any money you take from me means less money to those who need it."
"Phones are not essential items, not like food." She wipes a doughnut crumb off her lip.

Phones ruddy well are essential if you live out in the bush. And who is she to make such a decision? If a community member has access to a phone they can call town to check what price produce is going for, if there is a demand, ask someone to help them transport their goods, so they can sell it, so they can pay school fees and buy clothes for their children.

I barter her down to £15 duty payable. It is a figure plucked from thin air. Yes, she is only doing her job, but as there appears to be absolutely no guidelines what is to stop her from saying 'Oh look, these are old and broken phones, no duty chargeable' instead of clawing money from people who need it?

I tell Customs Lady I will pay the duty and then figure out how to claim it back. A smug smile crawls over her face.

"Oh with this receipt you can't claim back. For duty exemption you must ship things, and get the government to pay the shipping agent."

This is a really helpful tip. Because the one and only time we shipped things they took six months instead of the promised 30 days, and were opened and pilfered by customs officials in over 3 countries.

She takes an inordinate length of time to write my receipt. And then she says,"Now you must take me back to my office."

I grasp my parcel firmly in my arms. "You want a lift? No problem. The charge will be £15." I turn on my heel and walk out. She doesn't follow.

I need a holiday. Communing with elephants. While someone else cooks on a twig fire because it's been six weeks and there is no gas in the entire country because believe me we've tried everywhere. Apparently there is a 'national crisis'. Still on fuel shortages, and bare shelves in the supermarket. Never mind, it is excellent practice, because, Rest of World, these fuel crises are coming your way and they ain't pretty.