Friday, August 6, 2010

Adventures in customer service, etc.

Banks in Africa, much like post offices, are a constant source of stress, disappointment, and frustration. To illustrate this, I present to you the extremely boring story of my Wednesday morning:

I walked into the Nhlangano Standard Bank just before 10:00 am, assuming that the 90 minutes before my 11:30 meeting would be long enough to make a withdrawal to pay the contractor for the borehole for my big project. The place was bustling with its normal activity: two tellers working, two sitting eating boiled peanuts and watching soccer on TV, a very obese man reading the newspaper behind the window marked "Bureau de Change," a long line of frustrated-looking people waiting in an hour-long line to make small deposits and withdrawals. Familiar with this part of the bank experience, I'd packed a bottle of Orangina, a Kit-Kat and a bag of gummy snacks to keep myself sane.

My bank adventure started at the "Enquiries" counter, which is where anybody wanting to do anything at the bank has to go and enquire about how to do it. You know how in American banks there are little tables with bolted-down pens and calculators and deposits slips and whatnot? Well, that arrangement is just too logical for Africa, so instead I waited 20 minutes in line at the Enquiries counter to get a withdrawal slip. After filling in all the ridiculous questions (Why do they need to know my PO Box? Or my cell phone number? Or my employer? It's MY bank account, don't they already have all that info?), I settled into the general queue for the tellers, munching under the "No Food or Drink" sign to pass the time (my way of quietly protesting my having to be there).

Forty minutes later, the teller informs me that I can't withdraw E52,850 (the contractor's invoiced amount) anywhere but in Mbabane because they can't confirm that I have that much money in my account. My response: "Um, you're sitting in front of a computer that says how much I have in my account." He didn't understand how this fact was relevant and kept telling me that the only place I'm allowed to take out more than E5000 in one shot is at the main bank in Mbabane...3 hours away.

I pulled an Angry White Person (looking frustrated, being politely outraged at the inefficiency of the system, stating repeatedly how things work in America, emphasizing the importance of the project you're doing, looking at your watch like you don't have time for foolishness), and they decided they could maybe fax the Mbabane branch and ask for permission to give me my money. (Yes, fax. It's like 1995.) So I wrote a brief cover letter explaining the problem, and they copied it all together with my passport and Kansas drivers' license and Peace Corps ID and my withdrawl slip, and they sent it off to Mbabane. And I went next door for another Kit-Kat while I waited...for 30 more minutes.

Finally, the Mbabane branch called the Enquiries desk and asked for my phone number (you know, the one that's already on the withdrawal slip, and already in my file) to confirm that I was, in fact, the Justine that owned the account. So the guy on the phone asks me my number, then the lady from Mbabane calls me to confirm that I'm me. This part didn't make sense to me. If I HAD been someone else pretending to be Justine Amos, I'd just have given the lady my own phone number and then said "yes" when she asked me if I was Justine. This is what passes for a security check in Swaziland.

Anyway, I got permission. So, letter of permission in hand, I re-joined the massive line for the tellers. Another 40 minutes later, I made it to the teller. On the withdrawal slip, I'd marked the "bank cheque" box to indicate that I would prefer one small, secure slip of paper to a huge bag of cash money, but apparently this, too, was more complicated than it should have been. She could give me the cash, she said, but then I would risk getting robbed of a HUGE bag of money (E52,850 is about $7140, or 5285 100-Emalangeni notes). Otherwise, I had to go BACK to the Enquiries desk and request a "Bank Cheque Request Application." Fine.

Twenty more minutes in line later, I got the form, filled it out, and faxed it to Mbabane to request permission to issue a cheque, etc. Complicated, complicated. (More complicated by the fact that the contractor only has a South African account, so it had to be issued in Rand rather than Emalangeni, which is a pegged currency and should be easy but isn't.) Then I visited the "business banker" (a special teller in a suit who had previously been eating peanuts and watching TV), who actually issued me the stupid cheque and to whom I paid an exorbitant amount of money for "processing."

But, 2 and a half hours, 6 lines later, and approximately 3000 calories later, I got my stupid cheque, showed up late to my meeting, and, eventually, paid my contractor. And I only had to pull the Angry White Person like 3 times.


The project is swiftly moving forward. All the trees in the path of our underground water system have been chopped down and the grasses burned, and the trench digging crew (a hired crew of 6 men) arrive at 7:30am on Monday morning to begin digging the trench. The contractor came out on Thursday and finalized plans for everything, and the pump test confirmed that there's enough water for all our grand plans (approximately 45 gallons per minute). Plus, this week the Regional Administrator for Development called to inform us that the fence and things we requested a million years ago has been approved and will be ready for pick-up by mid-August. I'm not holding my breath, but I'm holding back on buying fence until I see for sure whether it comes through. Amazing if it does, not surprising if it doesn't. Either way, I've got to get all of MY part of the project finished up by the 16th of August when all the paperwork is due. I'm confident it will be done in time.

In other news, the Group 8 trainees finally found out their permanent sites and did their first visits to see what their lives would be like for the next year. After, two trainees--Kris and Lauren--came to stay the night with me to ask a million questions about Peace Corps and Swaziland and vacation options for the next two years. It was a pretty fantastic time and it's always nice to have company (slash an excuse to drink wine and cook actual meals!). They will be officially sworn in as volunteers on 23 August, then move to their permanent sites later that week to start their 2 years of service. In a way, I'm kind of jealous. But, on the other hand...

I move to Zanzibar in just over 3 weeks. Who could possibly be upset about THAT?

This weekend I'm heading up to Mbabane to help with a presentation on recycled art for Bambanani at a Recycling Day sponsored by some other NGOs and the Ministry of Something, and to help Michelle with selling stuff for Bambanani at a monthly craft fair. Then, Saturday night, there's an "anything but clothes"-themed party at the backpackers where I usually stay, which means that you can wear anything not intended to be worn. I've made a cute strapless maxi dress out of feed sacks (they say "Nambitsa chicken chunks" and have red, blue, and yellow roosters on them) and scraps of African print fabric, which I'll wear with leggings (which I'm calling "undergarments" so that it's allowed) and some jewelry made from washers and paper beads and heels. It's like college all over again, and I'm excited.

Anyway, I'll post some photos of the project's progress and whatnot next week. You know, after we've made progress you can actually photograph. Until then...

Love from the Swaz!


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Anonymous said...

Wow, living in Zanzibar in 3 weeks - wow! What's that about? (I LOVED Zanzibar).. and yeah, the banks. I was there in the Bank Stone Age (77-80 - pre-computers and pre-fax! for Swaz) and everything was written in by hand, so I would always take a large novel to read whenever I went to the bank. Thanks for your blog to read!!

Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading about your adventures and I check it every morninng.
I hope you have a wonderful Birthday. Looking forward to seeing you when you get back to the USA.
Love and miss you