Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Corruption and the clash of cultures at the Iringa Regional Immigration Office

94 days ago I got a 90 day visa for a 108 day long stay in Tanzania. Standing at the immigration counter in the Dar Es Salaam airport, sweating profusely and exhausted from fourteen hours of travel, this 18 day discrepancy seemed much less important than taking a cold shower and finding a horizontal place suitable for sleeping. I didn’t worry about it again until about a month ago, when I paid my first visit to the regional immigration office in Iringa.

On my first visit the official on duty told me I didn’t need another visa, despite the fact that my current one would expire 18 days before my flight back to Swaziland; he recommended that I overstay my visa and beg forgiveness at the airport. The next week I went back in search of a more legal answer and was told I could either get a $200 student visa or spend a weekend in Malawi and renew my multiple entry visa by default at the border. On my third visit, after explaining my situation the official launched into a tirade about the theft of culture, which I was clearly guilty of. I smiled, nodded, and pretended to be listening while contemplating the feasibility of a weekend trip to Malawi.

But it got me thinking about the export of culture. For better or worse the internet, cell phones, television, air travel, and technology in general have made the world a much smaller place than it was just a decade ago. Fashion trends, political systems, religion, language, music, cuisine— things once confined to a specific country or culture are now available throughout the world. Many African radio stations broadcast American Evangelists’ sermons and programs like “Focus on the Family,” and in the afternoon every TV in Tanzania is tuned into Spanish soap operas dubbed into English with Swahili subtitles. Muslim women in Zanzibar have Gmail accounts. Swazi grocery stores sell Danish butter cookies made in Dubai and Kellog’s Corn Flakes, and just about everybody wants to learn English. While accusing me of the intellectual theft of his mother tongue, the angry immigration official was wearing dark wash Levi’s with a big knock-off Calvin Klein belt buckle and making notes with a Bic pen imported from Thailand by a South African company.

But even more than dark wash jeans and corn flakes, what amazes (and sometimes appalls) me is the IDEAS that are exported together with all of these THINGS. In Swaziland, people who watch the TV broadcast of the American Bishop T.D. Jakes’ sermon think that America is full of racist Christian fundamentalists; Swazis who watch WWE wrestling think all American women have gigantic boobs encased in vinyl like big pornographic sausages, and that all American men have funny mustaches and fight each other with folding chairs while wearing spandex. A Tanzanian woman who had seen an episode of MTV’s “Cribs” featuring the ridiculous mansion and car collection of the rapper 50 Cent asked me how many Lamborghinis my parents owned, and I have a really hard time convincing people that not everybody in America is white and wealthy. A couple months ago, when walking down the street in wide leg jeans and a ribbed tank top, an older Muslim woman asked me why I was “wearing the uniform of the prostitute,” because clearly anyone who wears pants is a hooker. The understanding of American culture that’s exported around the world is that we’re all gluttonous, wasteful fatties with mattresses stuffed with Dollars where we sleep with a different partner every night and talk about how much we hate Black people.

Every day I spend in Africa I find myself fighting this perception of Americans. Countless times, I’ve explained that not all Americans are White or rich or wear suits to work every day. I’ve explained that not all Americans are Christian, and that American culture is not monolithic; that the US is a country of immigrants and diversity and multiple political parties and socio-economic classes. I’ve tried to explain that if I knew a bunch of multi-millionaires eager to fund the higher education of strangers I wouldn’t be spending my weekends writing essays for scholarship applications, and I try to dispel myths of selfishness and gluttony through my behavior. But as I compete with the TV shows like “Cops,” bags of free food labeled “Aid from the American people,” and the ridiculously short skirts of celebrities in the Entertainment section of the newspaper, sometimes it feels like a losing battle.

In my immigration office standoff, though, I was victorious. After several return trips and many hours of practicing the argumentative tense of Kiswahili, the Regional Immigration Director locked my passport in his desk drawer and demanded that I pay him $100 to get it back. I pulled my other passport out of my bag (I have 2—one that Peace Corps gave me and my personal one) and shrugged off his threat as I showed myself to the door. Ten minutes later, I had a free 30 day visa extension and a mug of sugary tea and biscuits. And now at least one immigration official in Tanzanian knows that Americans are smart, persistent and refuse to pay bribes. Even while wearing a prostitute uniform. That’s me doing my part.

1 comment:

Micaela said...

hahaha... absolutely amazing!