Civil Servants – a species unto themselves

Little did I realise when I wrote this post in Tanzania back in 2005, just how apt my reference to people working in the public sector as being an ‘endangered species’ was to become. At the time I was merely looking for an outlet for my frustration …

Wednesday, 26 January 2005: They come from a planet of their own; whatever their colour, whatever their nationality – they are all the same – delighting in the little responsibility entrusted them. Is ignorance bliss? Do they realise that through their overzealous wielding of power, they define the limits of their careers, not to mention their social circles?

Is the term “civil servant” PC? It does sound somewhat borderline, as well as inappropriate – serve they most certainly do not! They know nothing about “customer being king”; not that this is a phrase I approve of, however, these people do make me get up on my high horse and become arrogant. Perhaps “customer service” is more suitable.

And do they realise that they are an endangered species? Not only through the technological streamlining of processes but through their provocation of otherwise perfectly affable, tolerant and peace-loving citizens. I think the last time I got a parental whack was due to an incredibly rude outburst directed at one of these self-important, prying intruders who came to our door to ask a lot of personal questions. They make me see red, bring out the Taurus in me!

Aaagh … anyway, I won’t have to go back again before June 2006 … what am I on about? The re-registering of MondoChallenge at the Immigration Office in Dar es Salaam, that’s what. A very frustrating morning and most challenging exercise in self-containment; actually I was quite proud of myself, as I managed to project myself beyond my physical surroundings which helped tremendously – that’s when I decided I want to come back as an eagle in my next life – albeit a vegetarian one, although I would like to eat salmon (goes without saying). Perhaps someone will have managed to gene-manipulate salmon to swim about pre-smoked without any yucky innard bits by then.

Back to the Immigration Office (I.O.). Following the 10 hour bus ride to Dar – true luxury with air conditioning, free soda and ‘D’ listed movies – and a good night’s sleep at Mr Mgoba’s, I was well prepared for what I knew would be a tough day. At the NGO section of the I.O., I calculated approximately 66m of shelving crammed with cardboard files, presumably each of which held the documents of an NGO. Sitting at the one desk, an island in an office of waist-high piles of further files, was a most unappetising looking person.

Although obviously well-educated, the man refused to speak English and spoke to me through Mr Mgoba after ignoring us for 20 minutes while he continued a converation with a colleague. How can someone be so incredibly rude? This is an office dealing with organisations who come to Tanzania to offer support, not profit-making, impersonal, cut-throat organisations who slash jobs! Tanzania has the most NGOs of any African country and I have often wondered why we bother!

Despite holding a certificate issued in June 2003, I was forced to pay annual fees and fines from then through to June 2006, as I didn’t have the original receipt. Furthermore, because I am an mzungu, I had to pay this in US dollars. As the US$ has dropped so dramatically, I was unable to find dollars anywhere in town. I returned to the I.O. to politely ask whether I could pay in Tanzanian Shillings; after queuing for an hour to ask, I was most impolitely refused. Fortunately Mr Mgoba had some dollars at home and was able to help out, so I queued again for the longest time only to be given a quickly scribbled note stating what I had to pay and to then be sent to the cashier’s office.

This lady was enormous, dressed in bright red from top to toe, fingers bearing cheap, ornate, gold and glass rings most of the way up to her nails, which had royal blue metallic varnish slapped across them, her tiny feet encased in shiny red plastic slippers, her face glistening with sweat – it was very hot and humid in there and she was strategically placed between the window and door to trap whatever breeze there might be. I handed over the 180US$, in 10′s; she moved her hand to her face, licked her finger, back to turn the next note, stopped to wipe her brow, resumed … it was amazing, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I’ve never seen anyone move so achingly slowly: she moved like a huge jellyfish, trapped and vulnerable to be pushed and pulled, back and forth, swelling and billowing with gentle, underwater currents. Mr Mgoba told me afterwards that she was delaying in the expectation of being given a bribe, or “chai” (tea) money as it’s commonly known.

I was so relieved to get out of there that I went straight to the Royal Garden Hotel and treated myself to a very expensive cafe latte, costing a whole $2! The hotel has been taken over by Moevenpick so I was hoping for ice cream, but was quite happy to settle for a decent coffee. Believe it or not, I also actually felt very relieved to hear schwyzertuetsch at the next table and initiated a conversation with fellow Swiss. I must admit that there have been many moments when I have felt quite homesick and after my morning at the I.O., this was one of them … perhaps it was the bureaucracy which reminded me of home?;)

To Dar itself, I was pleasantly surprised. I had been expecting a large, noisy, stressfull metropolis of sky scrapers, but found instead a sprawling city of low level, colonial and arabic architecture. The Mgobas live in a district consisting of dirt roads bordered by high white walls which enclose houses and courtyards; together with the bright blue sky, green palms and vibrant bouganvillea, I felt as though I had been transported to somewhere in the Mediteranean. The constant calls to prayer of the many nearby mosques enhanced the mystical and romantic setting.

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