African ATMs

Frustrating, frustrating morning.

Picture this: a stand alone ATM – in other words, not one physically attached to a bank in case of problems, instead it is situated between car park of main supermarket in town (ShopRite – alternatively called ShopWrong, ShopLift, ShopRot on account of shabby produce and exorbitant prices and – indeed – shoplifters and pickpockets inside) and assorted restaurants. The beautiful people do their grocery shopping and then glide to the assorted eateries for a cappuccino, a smoothie or a quick mixed salad, so that they have something to push about their plates. I – on the other hand – am more likely to be seen shovelling contents of crisp bag gracelessly into mouth and slugging water from a bottle I keep in the car.

Anyhow, I approach ATM with same measure of apprehension that I approach all ATMs lest they protest at the amount of money I’m demanding and swallow card. A number of African women are sitting under a tree beside the ATM, I greet them and they smile. I pop card into machine’s greedy mouth, punch in numbers, feel the thrill of imminent spending power as I hear the counters whirring promisingly inside, take my money, count it (this is a Third World country after all) and wait for my card. A red message pops up on the screen: Warning: Your Card Has Been Retained. I gasp in horror and spin round; African women are observing me with quiet satisfaction: the machine ate their cards too, they confess, after dispensing money. Why didn’t they tell me? They shrug. Has anybody reported this, I enquire. Yes, they say, a man whose card was swallowed before theirs has driven to the bank.

I dial the help line indicated on the machine. No such number. I wait for the man who drove to the bank to return with assistance. He never reappears. Several people approach the ATM with cards outstretched, delighted there’s no queue. It’s tempting not to tell them, it’s tempting to see other people’s mornings disintegrate into a waste of time. But my conscience gets the better of me, ‘It ate my card’, I admit, ‘and theirs’, I motion towards the women in the shade, lest they think I’m poor white trash and it’s not a bit surprising I’ve had my card eaten. A few anxious tourists put their cards back into the wallets and walk away. Not the ever optimistic Tanzanians, though; hopeful that the machine just got out of bed the wrong side and its mood will have improved by now (noon), they stick their cards in anyway and then look utterly, profoundly devastated when it swallows it having belched out the requested funds first. They stare at the screen in outrage, punch a few numbers, peer into the slot and look completely gutted. If I weren’t so fed up waiting, I’d laugh.

Having secured the telephone number for the bank itself, I share it with all the Africans who’ve lost their cards and we begin to harangue the manager, demanding when somebody will come and sort the problem out. We are probably half a dozen but with each phone call, the numbers of people waiting grows in proportion to rising impatience: ‘There are at least 30 people here’, says one man, ‘and we are all going to change bank’.

Finally, oh joy, a man appears in a purple pick up. He does not look like a bank official, the only indication that he is remotely connected to the ATM in question is the tiny bank insignia on his T’shirt. He struts to the machine importantly, he has us all at his mercy. We are meekly polite, fearful he’s going to confiscate our cards and subject us to a tedious process of retrieval. He unlocks the machine, gathers up our cards from its innards and begins to call out names and hand them out. As I reach out for mine, he puts it behind his back! Behind his back. Is this a game? I’m too tired for games. Oh please, I beg. I have a flight to London in 30 minutes. That, by the way, is a lie. He reluctantly hands my card over and I escape to my car which is now very, very hot.

Crisps are soggy and water is warm.

Email this morning from Oz editor. She tried to call she says but could not get through. I note from her mail that she tried to call seven hours earlier than we’d agreed. Doubtless she was unable to get me because it was 2 in the morning here and I had cotton wool in my ears in a desperate attempt to get some sleep. She says she cannot commission the piece because I live too far away. Has she not heard how cyberspace has shrunk our world? Does she think only Australians suffer from insomnia? Perhaps she assumes that everybody in Africa lives in a mud hut and kills breakfast with a spear.

Silly cow.

But at least I’ll get some sleep tonight.

2 Responses to “African ATMs”

  1. Just a typical African urban story « Sociolingo’s Africa Says:

    […] Posted by sociolingo on March 24th, 2007 I was searching the tag surfer and a post from reluctantmemsahib caught my eye.  The story that unfolds delightfully in the post is so typical of the frustrations of uban life.  The story happens in Tanzania but it could be almost any African city.  African ATMs […]

  2. Rob Says:

    Hilariously vivid tale of “normal” life in Africa. Keep up the writing.

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