Just Another Day In Africa
I heaved a sigh of relief as the aging Russian built turboprop of the no-name national airline that I had flown in on from the last frontier of Africa, to here – beyond all known frontiers of Africa, finally managed a hard landing, I suspect bursting a tyre. After a mere half an hour wait for the airport ground staff to find a set of passenger stairs, they eventually gave up. But this being ever resourceful Africa they do manage to find a wooden ladder, allowing all 5 passengers to disembark onto the tarmac of Dustsville.
As we walk towards the corrugated iron shed that passes for an arrivals terminal, the national flag hangs limp in the windless humidity, but I can identify the national colours. Red for the revolution, green for the freedom that the revolution had given them and black for the oppression and poverty that the corrupt revolutionary rule has brought to the good people of Zombaland. An Airbus A300 of undetermined vintage is parked on the ramp, proudly emblazoned with the “The Republic of Zombaland” in faded gold script. This is clearly the President’s personal aircraft as I notice it had a set of passenger stairs set against a closed entrance door, which were obviously not to be used for plebs like us. It also has one engine nacelle missing and flat tyres on the port side, giving it almost a jaunty lopsided appearance. I suspect that it had not flown in the last 20 odd years.
At the immigration desk, I notice an A1 sized faded colour picture of the His Excellency President for life, Zumpty Bankrollie Mogarbage. The Immigration officer greets me with a warm African, “hello, are you Mr Anthony?”, which he has obviously established from a cunningly thorough examination of my passport that I had just presented to him, which amazingly details me in all its glorious colour. Answering in the affirmative, he tells me that the visa stamped in my passport in “most definitely not very correct”. However this is evidently not a problem as he, my friend, will in my case make an exception and provide me with the correct and official visa – for a small sum of course. On enquiring how small a sum this will be, he magnanimously allows me to set my own price with the standard “how much USD do you got?” question. A George Washington note is passed over, whereupon he disappears into a back room emerging some 20 minutes later and smilingly hands back my passport, with a warm African, “Welcome to Zombaland Mr Anthony, have a nice time” greeting. On examining my new visa, I am unsurprised to find that it is in fact an exact duplicate of the original already in my passport.
After waiting a mere two hours for my baggage, which is transported from the hold of the Russian wreck by the baggage trailer, in this case ingeniously a wheelchair. Having finally navigated my way through the grand international airport of Dustville, I emerge landside from the un air conditioned shack terminal. I am a tad frazzled after a three day journey from the 21st century through a time portal, finally having been deposited here in the African class city of Dustville. I have enjoyed two missed connections on planes older than me, spent many hours sitting on the floor of other African airports awaiting planes that never come, only to discover that Dustville is closed on Sundays, and therefore there is nobody to collect me. On enquiry, I establish that that my hotel is four day’s per diem (local currency not accepted) taxi ride from the airport. Of course I was told that taxis are plentiful and cheap.
I am booked in the best 5 star hotel, they have my reservation, but predictably request a deposit of a mere $1,000 for ‘extras’, and “no sorry we don’t take credit or debit cards only cash … and only in USD please!”
I am finally shown to my room, unpack and exhausted, pass out on the bed, sinking deep into the deep valley that many African bodies and time has created. On awakening I decide a refreshing shower or bath would perk me up – this proves a tad difficult as there is no water.
So I move rooms into what appears to be a converted cupboard – however there is water, albeit only scalding hot. In fact there is no cold water in the entire hotel as the water pipes run over the roof which has baked all day in the tropical sun. The TV only shows endless reruns of the local ZBC propaganda speeches. Amazingly the internet works (at dial up type speeds of course). So I unpack and decide to take a look out of the window – the view is a bit surprising as it is a view of a badly laid brick wall – the window has been bricked up!
The next room seems OK but this time I check for water (still no cold) internet and TV – none of either – but at least this time I’ve had the sense not to unpack. Room number 4 is next, which is probably the best of a bad lot. It would have been good if they had offered me this the first time around, but I suppose my activities brighten up a hotel receptionist’s otherwise boring day. I therefore decide to stay where I am and finally unpack for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately the 2 years past its sell-by date can of beer from the minibar is about the same temperature as the bath water, as electricity is only available between the hours of 03.20 and 04.15 on alternate Thursdays when there is an ‘r’ in the month, unless the preceding Wednesday corresponds with the birthday of a member of the Presidential family.
The next day, after a depressingly unappetising breakfast of black very hard boiled eggs, stale bread and an distinctly dodgy looking flavourless pineapple, I make my way outside, where ‘my friend’ the immigration officer (I now find he is my designated driver) is waiting to transport me to the training facility in his extremely ancient Peugeot 404, sitting atop 4 mismatched wheels, but at least all four tyres match – all as bald as a baby’s bottom. It is artfully adorned with rust holes in the floor and an opaque plastic sheet for a back window. The venue is in a government office in the only brick and mortar built building in Dustville. It has a smartly uniformed security guard who won’t let me in because he can’t read my letter of invitation. That is why I carry a good supply of pens, branded lapel pins and a pocket full of small US $1 notes.
My driver is also Zomba’s chief training executive as well as immigration officer, check in agent, baggage handler, security guard. He is also Zombaland’s Immigration Minister and Customs Controller. He welcomes me to this grand edifice with a warm smile and leads me to the room which has been set up for the training, with 6 chairs and 5 small tables. No computers or overhead projector (no good anyway due to the lack of electricity), but that can be overcome, as 4 pencils and 8 notepads (already part used) are thoughtfully provided.
I am expecting 15 delegates, but an additional 7 arrive, supplemented at irregular intervals further arrivals over the course of the next 3 hours. Eventually those delegates that are there crowd in, four and a bit to a desk, some sitting two a chair, some sitting on the floor, whilst others stand. The additions do not faze me, as I know that there will be a an ebb and flow of attendees throughout, with natural attrition over the duration of the course and anticipate that we will probably end up with marginally less than the originally planned number of 15. The delegates have only known about the course for the last 3 months, so in fairness they really haven’t had sufficient time to organise their lives around it.
I ask for extra copies of the training manuals (I did bring a few extra, just to be sure). They tell me that photocopying is sent out to a firm in Evendustierville some 300 kms away and normally takes 9 days. But no matter, I’m sure that with some improvisation, 3 or 4 can easily share one book between them. I didn’t even bother to enquire if the ones I sent via DHL had arrived, because I knew instinctively that even if DHL had managed to get them to the right part of the world and on time, they would be stuck in customs waiting for some ‘clearance’ document to arrive. The document would of course be a large quantity of George Washington notes … but last time I did this the client told me that it wasn’t allowed to be claimed back through expenses, so I’m not going down that road again!
I did enquire if there was wifi, which ‘my friend’ the driver and general factotum proudly tells me that “yes, of course we do”. Regretfully it’s turned off this week, as the man that controls it has had to travel ‘up-country’ to attend the funeral of his sister who has died yet again – for the 12th time !
So after reconciling myself to no mobile phone or internet connections for the duration of my stay, I introduce myself to the class, we are only 2 hours late in the scheduled start time, so I am optimistic. Much ceremony is made of serving me a cup of the local herbal ‘tea’, accompanied by a strange green greasy substance which I am told is a local speciality for honoured guests (justification for carrying a good supply of Alka Seltzer and Imodium)
I begin to explain the objectives of the course and realise that there are some puzzled faces. I subsequently discover that the majority of delegates are from the local customer service department, supplemented with some unnamed attendees, one of whom I’m sure was the illiterate security guard from outside, another is clearly the manager in charge of tea making as he was the one that served me the ‘tea’ and strange green greasy sustenance. As I have been retained to deliver a programme on advanced strategic planning course, I too am a tad puzzled as to its relevance to this particular audience. However being the whore that I am, I grit my teeth and soldier on. I pause and ask for questions – there are none, just a sea of grinning blank black faces. I look more closely at the glazed expressions on the faces of the delegates and realise that some are already asleep, which normally only happens after the first half hour … I am clearly losing my touch. The theory of corporate strategic planning is clearly not an arresting topic in their book ! Some have clearly not been exposed to soap and water for several days, as I can now hear the smelling, others are showing obvious signs of serious substance abuse, which makes me think back to that strange tasting beverage and the green greasy substance they gave me, and I begin to understand why it was green!
The temperature in the room rises rapidly as there is no air conditioning, the smelling is now reaching the level and toxicity of mustard gas and the sound of snoring echoes off the walls. A tropical bird flies in through the open window, chirping merrily and settles on the lampshade to finish breakfasting on a small insect whose tail is hanging out of its mouth. As it too nods off, it deposits a large part of its partly digested meal on the head of one the delegates at the desk below, who does not move. A giant cockroach crawls lethargically over my notes and a large and vicious looking multi-coloured lizard is climbing up the back wall, disappearing into one of the many cracks adoring it. Africa is always ready and able to surprise with its wildlife, as suddenly a bat flies out of a pile of discarded boxes stacked at the back of the room. I welcome the new visitor as miraculously my sleeping class is now awake and immediately sets out on a bat hunt. The poor creature is finally subdued with a well aimed smack from one of the few available training manuals, which is greeted with loud cheering and hearty congratulations to the bat slayer.
Once the brief excitement is over, the class quietly returns to its slumbers. Lulled by the increasing heat, humidity, smell of unwashed bodies and snores, I am beginning to feel woozy and finding it hard to concentrate.
Fortunately I have given this course so many times before that I am now on autopilot. My voice sounds distant and disembodied, my body sluggish, which is OK, as few are even awake at this stage. I enjoy a brief respite at lunchtime, when lunch is provided by the local 5 star hotel, it is predictably the same 60 year old chicken and rice that I had declined the previous evening. Somehow I get through Day 1, and as Zombaland’s chief executive, a.k.a. my driver has gone home (it is after all, 3pm) I find my own way back to the hotel past the crumbling and derelict colonial ruins, navigate the many street vendors selling blacked bananas, nameless roots and bunches of green leaves (reminding me of the green substance of the morning) step carefully over the open sewers and weave my way past the corrugated iron, wooden shacks that pass for shops, houses – who knows what. On arrival back to the sanctity of my 5 star room I collapse, exhausted, into the armchair in my room, which, in turn, collapses under me in a cloud of dust, eaten away by wood termites.
I go down to the bar hoping to find at least a cold beer, and to enquire about dinner, but after the green greasy affair of the morning am somewhat pessimistic about being adventurous enough to try any food that may/may not be on offer. On discovering that the beer is still warm due to the lack of electricity and there is only the ever lasting 60 year old chicken and rice on for sustenance, I return to my room to await the promised ice cold beer. However I fall asleep fully clothed, awakening in the in the middle of the night, (sans beer) only because I am being eaten alive by the largest mosquitoes in creation, who are intent on turning me into a human kebab.
Just another day in Africa. I think the next day can only be better. How wrong I am in my trusting innocence….
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