Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bribery, unemployment, and other consequences of bathing

Saturday morning I woke up mostly deaf in my left ear. At first I thought it was just residual water from some reckless bucket bathing the previous evening, but after failing at all attempts to empty my ear canal I began to worry that it was a side effect of the malaria prophylaxis I’ve been on for the past 2.5 years—a very real and very frightening possibility. (It wasn’t.)

An hour later I found myself in the waiting room at Aga Khan Regional Medical Center in Iringa, my brand new Tanzanian Government Medical Card in one hand and To Kill a Mockingbird in the other. The nurse called my name (“Chestina Amosi” according to my medical card) and escorted me down the hall into Doctors Room 1. The room looked strangely like my dormitory at UKZN in South Africa—the one where I could touch all 4 walls from the comfort of my half-twin-sized bed. There was a cot-like green plastic-coated bed attached to the wall, a broken-down desk at its foot, a built-in wardrobe/closet, a rust-stained sink, and a tiny barred window mostly devoid of glass. A white coat-clad doctor sat at the desk, so fully engaged in some horrible Nigerian soap opera that he didn’t acknowledge my presence for a good 30 seconds after I sat down. Finally he got around to the normal “what’s wrong with you?” doctor questions and scribbled my answers illegibly inside my patient file. He looked into my ear with an ear thingy of questionable cleanliness, petted my hair quite inappropriately while whispering things that in the US would result in a sexual harassment lawsuit, and said “Yes, there’s something in your ear. Give me 30,000 Shillings and I’ll get it out for you.” (30,000/= is $20.)

Me: “Excuse me?” I’d been told that the 1500/= I’d paid at reception was the only charge.

Him: “The fee for the procedure you need is 30,000/=.” He sat back down at his desk and tucked his ear thingy back into its case without cleaning it.

Me: “I don’t even HAVE 30,000/=!” This was absolutely true—I’m on a budget for my last week in Tanzania, and I hadn’t budgeted for an ear debris removal.

Him: “Well then how much can you pay?”

When I saw that he was willing to bargain I knew he was lying. I showed him the lone 4000/= in my wallet, asked him if he could write me a receipt, explained to him that I was a lowly student/volunteer and tried to impress him with my Kiswahili in hopes that he’d help me without paying a bribe…you know, like he’s paid to do. I was polite but confident, and firm in my refusal to pay for anything I wouldn’t get a receipt for.

When he saw that bribery wasn’t going to work, he changed tactics. He got mean. “That is the fee when I treat Wazungu,” he told me. “If you want to be treated like everyone else, you should go to Arusha where all the other Wazungu live and you can see an Mzungu doctor. Or go back to your own country because we don’t want you here.” Then he insulted me by saying, amongst other things, that I was a bad person and a liar, that I was dressed like a man, and that my family should be ashamed of me for wearing jeans and not covering my hair.

I’m stared at him in disbelief, trying to read the nametag clipped to his jacket. He noticed and threw it in his desk drawer. “You’re wasting my time,” he said, resuming his Nigerian soap on his computer and tossing my medical chart into a pile on the window sill. “Leave.”

The Kiswahili word he used to tell me to leave is a vulgar word generally reserved for animals or attempted pickpockets, and would more accurately translate as “f*** off.” I was angry. “What’s your name?” I asked. He ignored me. “I would like to know your name so that I can report your behavior to your boss.”

Him: “I have things to do. You are wasting my time. Leave.”

I found my way down the hallway to the Hospital Administrator’s Office and barged in on a Board Meeting full of Italian(?) nuns and brownish non-Tanzanian men most likely of Yemeni descent. (Iringa is full of Yemenis.) I was given a seat at the table and relayed my list of complaints in impressively fluent Kiswahili while the woman at the head of the table shook her head in disbelief. Apparently, they’d had lots of complaints about this particular doctor, especially from foreigners, and this was going to be the last one. They handed me some paper and asked me to write a formal letter of complaint (in English) while they finished their meeting.

Four hours and a lengthy discussion with the Hospital Administrator later, I left the hospital no less deaf than I’d arrived. Instead, I’d gotten a formal apology, a free bottle of completely ineffectual ear drops, and the satisfaction of knowing that the rude, dishonest, extortionist of a doctor had been fired. Booyah.

If you’re keeping score, that’s Justine: 2, Tanzanian Corruption: 0.

Economists say that the cost of corruption in African countries is as much as 50% of GDP. If my experiences thus far in Tanzania are in any way representative of the country (or continent?) as a whole, I believe it. Another example:

In November TANESCO, the government-run electricity company, began rationing electricity by instituting scheduled power blackouts throughout the Iringa region. My neighborhood had no electricity between 8am and 8pm on Sundays and Thursdays, there was no power in town on Tuesdays and Fridays, and the local radio station (when it had power) announced additional power cuts for other days and evenings on a daily basis. It was extremely inconvenient, both for my computer- and internet-loving self and for every business in town. Government offices were closed on blackout days, butchers’ meat rotted, restaurants stopped selling dairy products and frozen things, and every other business in town was either dark or closed.

Then, last week, the blackouts suddenly stopped after one of the local newspapers exposed the corruption behind the whole ordeal. Apparently the head TANESCO office in Dodoma (the capital city) didn’t even know about these supposedly government-sanctioned blackouts. The fake power shortage had been created by the dishonest employees of the Iringa Regional TANESCO who were looking for unofficial year-end bonuses: any business willing to pay a couple hundred thousand Shillings to the brilliant scheming TANESCO employees flipping the switches wasn’t subject to the power cuts. For the big tobacco, clothing, cooking oil, and candy factories just outside of town, a couple million shillings in bribe money was considerable savings compared to lost days of production at the peak of the consumer season. But while the employees of TANESCO were lining their pockets every other business in town was losing money.

And the costs of corruption aren’t purely economic. Police officers who take bribes in exchange for allowing un-roadworthy and overcrowded public buses and dala-dalas (mini-buses) to continue operating are endangering the lives of everyone taking public transportation. Driving schools that “pass” students in exchange for 100,000/= without any instruction at all fill the roads with horribly unsafe, unlicensed drivers who endanger everyone. In the local police force, the most coveted job is that of traffic patrol on the Ipogoro Highway that connects Dar Es Salaam with the southern parts of Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia, because the bribes paid by drug smugglers, human traffickers, and overloaded 18-wheelers in a single day can amount to more than an average police officer’s annual salary. Plus, government employees, doctors, and other persons of official capacity who become accustomed to being bribed end up refusing to do their job unless they’re paid a bribe, meaning that law-abiding citizens refusing (or unable) to pay bribes can’t get passports or electricity or debris removed from their ear canals by paying the official price.

In my most recent semi-victory, the non-monetary cost of corruption at the Aga Khan Regional Medical Center is my hearing. After my whole ordeal on Saturday, I learned that the hospital doesn’t even have the tools to remove foreign objects from ear canals, so I actually wouldn’t be any better off had I paid the doctor his 30,000/=. Monday I visited a very friendly non-extortionist doctor at the local public hospital, who helped me for FREE despite the fact that he’s paid about 90% less than the doctors at Aga Khan. He said it was probably just wax (or possibly a dead bug) and gave me some other ear drops and an excuse to lie in bed all afternoon and watch re-run episodes of Scrubs on my computer with my ear full of medicine. (And he assured me that it’s not from the malaria meds, which means it’s not permanent. That’s important to me.) So far, though, nothing’s changed. And it’s super frustrating being half-deaf in a country where, under the best circumstances, I only understand about 50% of what’s going on.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time, either. Since this is my last week in Tanzania, I’ve got a 3-hour oral exam on Thursday which will be recorded and kept on file by the school in case I ever need proof that I speak/understand Kiswahili. Hopefully by then I’ll at least be able to tell how loudly I’m talking and understand all of the examiner’s questions. We’ll see…

Other than my Thursday exam, my last week in Tanzania is shaping up to be just like each of the past 11 weeks. I’ve got 2 days of classroom time, 1 afternoon trip to a local children’s home where a bunch of German doctors are repairing cleft palates (maybe they can fix my ear?), and 2 Tanzanian cooking classes. Then, Sunday morning, I’ll begin a 2-day trip consisting of a 10-hour bus ride to Dar Es Salaam, an overnight in the airport, a red-eye flight to Jo’burg, and a 6-hour bus ride ending in my glorious return to Swaziland.

I’m so excited to be back in the Swaz that I’m already packed for the trip (except for my computer, my Kiswahili books, and 6 meters of wax print fabric that I have yet to buy), and I’ve already sold all of my clothes, blankets, furniture, and other non-essentials that I’ll be leaving behind. I’m giddily eager to see my host family and friends and Eliza, to see the result of my big Partnership Project 4 months later, to visit Jenn and the kids at Pasture Valley Children’s Home, and just to be Phindile Simelane again. I’m going to eat cream cheese and multi-grain Cheerios, drink cheap red wine, and ride 15-passenger mini-buses with less than 30 people on them. Compared to Iringa, Swaziland is a veritable land land of plenty. (Maybe I’ll even find an honest doctor to remove the debris from my ear!)

Then, in 24 short days I’ll be home!


Dad said...

You go Girl!! Good job fighting corruption. You're like a superhero... you could be the Amazing Chestina. Love you.

Anonymous said...

i think that doctor is a FAT JORK!!! HE dont deserve to be a doctor for all i know

Anonymous said...

Why I support a thorough vetting process for immigration, I don't want animals brought into my country -we have enough here already