It’s never good to lose patience in Africa. It’s not like in the United States, where if you are receiving terrible service you blow up and demand to talk to the manager and are likely to get what you want. Here, if you lose your cool, everything screeches to a halt and you never get anywhere.
I pulled a total mzungu today, although I am proud to say I didn’t actually yell.
It all began two weeks ago, when I was trying to make reservations for lodging on Lamu Island, Kenya.
If you are trying to do this pretty much anywhere else in the world outside of Africa, it is a piece of cake. You get on their website, punch in the dates you want to come, and put in your credit card number when they ask for it. Bam – you’re done, reserved, and you know they will have a room waiting for you. The whole process takes about 5-10 minutes and you never have to leave your desk.
Now, try that same process in Africa.
First, I spent about an hour on-line trying to find a phone number, website, or any way to contact the place I wanted to stay. I finally found a website that allowed me to make the reservation, but gave me no indication of the price. So then I had to track down an e-mail address and say “I just made a reservation with you, but can you let me know the price so that I can confirm if we want it?”
Two days later I got an e-mail with the price. $224 for three nights. I decided to go for it. To pay, I needed to do a wire transfer to their account at Barclay’s Bank. (Credit card? Uh, no.)
To make a wire transfer from our account in the United States, we need to be there in person to sign the paperwork and give them all of the information for the bank in Kenya. Obviously, that wasn’t an option.
But since it is a Barclay’s account, I should just be able to go into any branch and make a deposit into their account, right? No.
To put money into anybody’s Barclay’s account, you need to have a Barclay’s account. So I had to go home to get my passport and a passport picture and spent about an hour and a half at the bank to set up an account just to make this hotel reservation.
Unfortunately, the one person who can actually set up an account and make transfers wasn’t there. So I had to sign all of the papers and leave $300 (the extra was to cover any extra charges) with some guy who was apparently able to almost set up my account.
A week later (today), I went back to close the account and get my remaining balance. $300 – $224 = $76. When I got to the desk, I was told that I had $35.07 in the account. That meant that the wire transfer charges were over $40. Ouch! That’s nearly 20% of the amount.
Whatever. Screw it. Just give me my $35 back.
Teller: “We need you to write a letter to the bank manager stating that you want to close the account.”
Me: “OK – can you please give me a piece of paper?” surprisingly, he did and I scribbled out a note.
Teller (several minutes later): “We need you to say in the letter why you are closing the account.”
Teller: “Now you need to bring the letter to that lady over there.”
Me: “OK.” wait…wait…wait…20 minutes later she is available
That Lady: “Why do you want to close your account?”
Me: “I think your charges are ridiculous. I just paid $40 for a $200 transfer.”
That Lady: “Hmmm…I’ll have to see if we can close it…” staring at her computer screen…inputting my account number three times…staring… “OK – go up to the counter and withdraw the $35 before I can close the account”
I fill out another withdrawal sheet. As I’m waiting in line again to get the money, That Lady calls me back over.
That Lady: “I see that there’s a $20 charge to close the account, so you will withdraw $15.”
Me (getting more frustrated): “Are you serious? That’s ridiculous.” So I fill out another withdrawal sheet, this time for $15 and wait in line some more, until she calls me back one more time.
That Lady: “Actually, there is a $10 charge for a withdrawal, so you will only withdraw $5.”
I was pretty much losing it at this point. I had just spent well over an hour of very frustrating time to get five freaking dollars back!!!
That’s when I just turned around and walked out. I knew that if I didn’t, I was going to explode (and I’m a pretty mellow guy – it’s not easy to push me to the edge). I have no idea if my account is closed or not.
So, to make a $224 hotel reservation took me two weeks, lots of time in the bank, and an extra $75. And who knows if we will have a room when we get there?
This is happening concurrently with me trying to make a simple change to my wife’s and my cell phone service. Today I went across town for the second time in three days to the MTN offices, and I still need to go back again on Monday to (hopefully) finalize it. This is a very simple change that any 16-year-old at a cash register in the United States could take care of in a matter of minutes.
Sometimes living in Africa is like raising a difficult child. You love it to death, but MAN – there are days when you just want to…
A.W.A. – Africa Wins Again
Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala