Archive for December, 2007

It’s corruption that’s the problem, not poverty

December 9, 2007

The officials at the immigration department here have requested an audience with my husband. Not because he is working here illegally; he’s not. It’s something, they hint ominously, to do with your last job.

The one where we were shafted by the American boss and finally gave up after working without a salary for nine months. The one where despite my husband’s best efforts, the workforce remained similarly unpaid, The one where my husband was dragged through the local courts as scapegoat for elusive US shareholders. The one where a colleauge and fellow Englishman made threats on our lives then sold company assets for almost a quarter of a million bucks and fled.

The job which we resigned from twelve months ago but which, by virtue of the fact we’re still here, could cost us in bribes – chai as it’s euphemistically referred to here. Especially around christmas; nobody wants to spend time in jail over Christmas. Immigration know that: they know that we know that protesting our innocence of whatever charge might be levelled at us is futile; only cash will get us off whatever hook it is they’ve invented.

And it’s not because we’re white, not because we ‘aliens’, not even because it’s assumed we can afford to pay a bribe. It’s because we live here and if you live here, no matter how hard you try to side step the system, corruption is going to trip you up in the end. 

The wheels of Africa’s economies are lubricated by the oil that is corruption as much as it bleeds her dry.

I watched a television program last night. And witnessed a poor woman in Kenya being forced to pay a bribe in the local clinic before a doctor would agree to see her sick baby. I witnessed men hungry for work – any work – being thwarted in their efforts because they didn’t have the necessary to bribe their way onto a job. I witnessed aid agencies being bribed to set up bogus charities.

Ten days ago, whilst in Kenya, I had a conversation with a cab driver in the capital, Nairobi. I asked him what he thought of the country’s imminent elections.  Who would he vote for, I asked?  

”Oh what does it matter”, he responded glumly, ”no matter who gets in, nothing’s going to change: they don’t care about the people. They just care about making money for themselves”.

I asked him what he thought ought to be done about that.

”we need European governance”, he said, ”like the settlers: look – this road we are driving on? Built by the settlers, and our independent governments have done nothing to maintain it in fifty years. Why should I pay my taxes if I do not benefit?”

What? No benefit at all – but what about government hospitals and schools? I pressed

Hah! scoffed the cab driver: ”government schools teach our children nothing and in the hospitals women are having their babies stolen”.

Stolen?!

Yes, he says, ”if a woman has a daughter and wants a son, her family will pay the doctors or nurses to steal her a new baby boy”.

Such exhortation is at every level. It’s endemic, and like a perpeutally evolving and lethal virus it’s impossible to avoid infection.

If those who talk about making poverty history are serious, they’d better implement a cure for corruption first.

Rain, rain go away!

December 8, 2007

When I first moved to the Outpost and – especially – when I began to optimisitically consider the idea of a lawn, I anticipated the debut of the annual Rains gleefully.

As I lay hotly under a single sheet at night wishing the fan puffing tepid air across me in apathetic little sighs would take its job more seriously, I listened to the after dark sounds willing the roll of thunder to join the evening chorus of local discos, the muezzin, the odd stray dog and eternal hollow shriek of trains. It never did though.

Until two days ago.

I sat sweltering watching the sky and witnessing the fattening of black clouds form as a scrum on a distant horizon. By nightfall those clouds had begun to dump their delicious cargo upon the Outpost. The sound of rain on the tin roof was music to my ears, the sight of jagged shards of lightening ripping holes in a dirty grey sky a spectacle to behold.

How wonderful for the lawn I kept saying. I even crept out in barefeet to inspect my vegetable garden and imagined the rocket leaves and delicate coriander rejoicing right down to their roots.

Two days later though and I am sick of it. The garden is sodden. The laundry heaped in wet piles in the kitchen. The rocket and coriander miserably floundering in mud.  I can’t walk the dogs not because I fear getting wet but because a sortie to the dam would likely leave me up to the axles in a quagmire. And by February, for we are unlikely to enjoy much of a reprieve until then, the roads out of the Outpost will be such that we are landlocked.

Rain’s all very well – and when stricken with drought we consider its arrival in poetic terms.

But if only one could turn it off.

Only in Africa …

December 6, 2007

Husband – along with several dozen others including a handful of earnest Japanese who are here to plant trees and simultaneously save Africa – spent yesterday in company of Minister for Environment . 

How was your day I enquired politely as I poured him a beer – in manner of dutiful 1950’s wife – when he got home (I’d have got his slippers too were living in the Outpost not reminiscent of residing inside at kiln at present).

Crap, he said.

Oh.

It started late because we all had to wait for the Minister to finish eating his breakfast, then we piled into about 23 Land Cruisers and tore across the bush – so much for the Environment – and then one idiot, driving much too fast in his shiny new 4×4, rolled which slowed up the proceedings all over again.

Oh gosh, I say, was anybody hurt?

No, but there were a few dazed, confused and dusty Japanese rubbing their heads.

The Long Way Home

December 3, 2007

 

Travelling by air ought, given the crow’s flight abbreviation it affords not to mention the speed, be swifter than journeying by road.  Unless – of course – you live in Africa and especially – of course – if you have the misfortune not to have any domestic commercial aviation choice other than the not at all precise Precision Air.

9am Sunday: depart from host’s house in Arusha bound for the airport, Hat and I anticipate a long day: a total of four hours flying and a few necessary hours in transit, but we expect to be home in time for tea (Hat) and a cold beer (me).

11am Sunday: our flight, due to leave now, is delayed. We only know this because there are no planes on the apron outside the terminal, not because any Precision ground staff has enlightened us thus. I approach one.

Where’s our plane, I ask.

It’s coming.

So is Christmas. Literally. And quite possibly sooner, given Precision’s reputation.

When? I press.

The lady to whom I am addressing my not unreasonable question scowls.

I don’t know.

Could you find out do you think?

She slopes off, she doesn’t pick her feet up so her shoes slap the floor crossly.

Shortly afterwards there’s an announcement over the tannoy.

Our flight is delayed.

No! Who’d have thought?

We can expect to depart at 12.10.

At 12.10 there is still no plane on the runway. Just a few birds. And some abandoned luggage.

I approach the grumpily slip-slopping airline rep again:

Our plane? I enquire sweetly.

It’s coming, she says, and focuses her gaze beyond me to distant high heavens, whether because she hopes to see it or in an effort to pretend I’m not there, I can’t tell.

So I do the same. I can’t see a thing. Only a big blue empty sky.

Shortly after half twelve a plane does actually appear. It has arrived from Nairobi and is bound for Mwanza on Lake Victoria. Ordinarily Mwanza passengers would remain on board and continue with their journey once Nairobi passengers had disembarked.

Instead Precision hijacks its own plane and everybody on it, including the poor passengers who thought they were safely on their way to Mwanza, gets off. I want to feel sorry for them. But having sat through an almost two hour delay myself I uncharitably presume its somebody else’s turn to pick up Precision’s considerable slack.

We dash to the vacated plane as soon as the gate is open and precisely (the only precision I encountered in more than 30 hours) two hours after we should have departed, we take off bound for Zanzibar and Dar.

By the time we reach Zanzibar I am getting anxious we might not make our connection for the Outpost and articulate my concerns to the air steward who similarly articulates to somebody else and so on until we have a game of Chinese whispers circulating the plane until for all I know the message that reaches Dar – or doesn’t given the airline’s misnomer – might be, ‘there is a pink elephant on board who wants to go shopping in Doha’. (The elephant would – I discovered later – have had more chance).

We finally get to Dar, two hours late, and Hat and I hurtle through the airport intent on making our flight home. We endure our 12th security check of the day. For the 12th time I am asked to remove the armful of silver bangles which I have worn for so long I don’t think I could get them off even if I tried (and I don’t anymore). And for the 12th time the mace spray in my handbag is ignored.

We congratulate ourselves on making the departure lounge before they call our flight (but in time to hear them making a final boarding announcement for Doha – lucky elephant). The time of our 3.15 flight comes and goes. Ominously I can see no indication of a flight to the Outpost on the Departures board. Finally I am approached by another of less than accurate Precision’s ground staff: ‘Your flight has been cancelled’, she tells me, ‘until tomorrow’, she adds helpfully.

This is the point when you can either cry, scream, stamp your feet, throw a hissy fit of note, play at being a Diva Extraordinaire or – if you’ve lived in Tanzania for as long as I have and had the misfortune to be exposed to Presicion’s erratic timing as often as I have – meekly accept your fate whilst swearing under your breath. As I do.

The few other unfortunates who’d optimistically hoped to get home that day are rounded up and hotel and taxi arrangements made. We are told to report for a flight at 6am the following morning. As we leave, however, plans are changed: not 6am but 7.30 we are told, for a 9am flight.

I don’t like the look of the hotel when we arrive. And I don’t like the sound of the disco blaring next door. I decide Hat and I will manipulate a bad experience into a better one. I decide we will find a nice hotel with a pool so that we can swim off our disappointment and our frustration. I decide to commandeer the services of a cab driver and make him trail around Dar but what I fail to remember – it’s already been a long day and I missed lunch so my brain’s a little addled – is that I have next to no cash and my credit card, courtesy of three weeks playing truant and Christmas shopping, is maxed out.

Two hours of an enforced insider’s guide to the less salubrious hotels of the city and I’m back where I started, in the hotel the airline handpicked for us. Hat and I drag our five pieces of baggage in and I – a little shamefacedly – admit I do need a room at Precision’s expense. I also need a beer. At Precision’s expense. And Hat needs a chicken curry. And then we both need a shower and bed. What we don’t need, but get anyway, is a deafening disco outside our room until the wee hours.

We’re up by 6 the next morning – this morning – ready to make our way back to the airport for our 9am flight.

Until we get downstairs to the hotel lobby and are told that in fact our flight isn’t until half past one.

Now I’m cross. Really cross. I call the airline to demand an explanation of the delay.

It’s not a delay apparently. It’s re-scheduling I am told.

Go back to your room suggests the hotel reception, less out of concern for us than concern for fellow hotel residents who might be put off by dawn tirade.

Hat and I slink off. Hat orders a chicken sandwich for breakfast. From room service.

You pay extra for room service she tells me worriedly as she puts the phone down.

Good, I say, Precision’s paying: let’s order tea too. And juice.

Back in the airport now and it’s almost midday.  Our flight home should be leaving in a little under two hours. We’ll see. At this point we have been travelling for 27 hours. It would have taken us just nine to drive home.

So much for the speed of flight. We really have taken the long way round. Next time – all the next times, in fact – its by road. Hat agrees.

PS 4.00 pm. Monday: We are home. It took us 31 hours door to door.