A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
Guest blogger Rik Jongenelen studies in the MA African Studies programme and is currently in Zambia.
My head keeps nodding up and down as I am focusing on the mumbling voice of the young interpreter that is sitting next to me. She is looking at her own feet while translating for her friend. The wooden bench that has been provided by the school is barely wide enough for me and the interpreter to sit on. I try not to move, since it will most possibly crack under our weight. It is my 5th week in Zambia and I am visiting Twatasha Community School in the town of Kafue. It is mostly famous for the homonymous national park, that houses growling felines and trumpeting elephants. However, Kafue National Park is closed during the current rain season and the only cries that reach my eardrums are those of yelling school children. An unkempt man on crutches has joined the interview without being asked. I have an idea where this is going and I ask for his intentions. “I came to ask if you are willing to help me” he replies: my suspicions were right. There are many persons with disabilities in this district and the demand for financial and material sponsorship is considerable, so he is not the first to ask. I explain to him that I am here as a researcher, that I am not working for an NGO and that I am not in the position to support him. He leaves and hereby gives me the opportunity to resume my interview.
The soft beep of my voice recorder announces the end of today’s final interview. Although it did not seem tiring at first, the bumpy bus ride and the continuous concentration make me feel drowsy. Just as during my previous visits to this school, the caretaker of the boarding school offers me and my Dutch research partner Lindsay to join for lunch. Both students from the school as well as some of their mothers have gathered in a simple stone building. A pot of boiling water is resting on a charcoal stove while one of the mothers is cutting rape leaves to smaller pieces. I am offered to cook nshima, Zambia’s staple food whose main ingredient is maize flour. The more flour is being added to the pot, the heavier it becomes to stir the wooden ladle through the thick substance. When the sweat starts to bead on my forehead, the lady in charge cannot stand it any longer and takes the ladle from my hand. With the greatest of ease she starts mixing like a whirlwind: there goes my manliness. The other woman is laughing out loudly, making her heavy bosom shake on the rhythm.
A couple of weeks later. The sound of my sigh is being merged into the noisy, clammy office room. A long line of office desks are loaded with dozens of computer cables, cardboard boxes, paper stacks and passports. Staff members are either discussing with the many expats or playing Candy Crush on their smartphones. “The Immigration Service is one of the most corrupt agencies in Zambia” thus said my local supervisor. It is part of the Ministry of Home Affairs, which also houses the national police and customs. It is said that one of the former presidents of Zambia did not want to realise a salary raise for this ministry. “You work with the people, so why should I give you a raise?” his answer was said to be. According to some, that is where the misery started. Finally it is my turn and I report at one of the desks, where a uniformed lady is scribbling on a crumpled calendar. She opens her hand from a distance without turning her eyes away from the calendar. I put my passport and payment receipt in it and she browses through my passport pages. “It is done in ten days” she eventually replies. I place my hands on the desk and explain to her that my entry stamp is already expiring next Tuesday, which is in only five days. My supervisor has joined us in the meantime. “Next Tuesday” she suddenly responds. “I will be out of town on Monday” I say. She remains silent for a few seconds, carelessly gives my passport back and starts sliding a banknote into her drawer. “Monday” she barks at me, after which she starts checking a Zimbabwean passport. I look at my supervisor and he smiles back. Did he just…? Yes, he did. Apparently, this is the way to deal with civil servants in Zambia.