Everything is not what it seems…*

Forty-two years ago in Tanzania, I experienced my one and only ever in my life meltdown in public.  It was in a bank in Dar-Es-Salaam.  I don’t remember what the transaction was, probably the cashing of a traveler’s check.  I know it was not a complicated transaction, like a wire transfer, heaven forbid.  No, it was something straightforward but, for some reason, we were going in circles about it.  I remember trying to explain it over and over, to no avail.  Finally, I could contain myself no longer and my frustration got the better of me.  I burst into tears.  Interestingly enough, once this occurred, they were suddenly able to complete the transaction!   Perhaps they thought I was crazy and wanted to get me out of the bank as quickly as possible.

Not being one who is prone to hysterics, nor one to use such displays of emotion to manipulate people into doing what I want, I wondered if there are people in the world who would do this type of thing on purpose to get what they wanted.  It certainly seemed to work.   I never was able to figure out how my crying oiled the cogs of the wheel that the drivers of the transaction were refusing to turn but oil them it did.  I mean, if they really  couldn’t do what they said they couldn’t do (despite my knowing perfectly well that they could), then why were they suddenly able to do it just because I cried?   Forty years later, it finally occurs to me.  Perhaps they were looking for some sort of “tip”, that is, perhaps they were waiting for a bribe.

Banking in Rwanda is an experience unto itself.  My salary is deposited into a particular bank which doesn’t have that many branches around the country.  And, since I prefer to deal with people, and word on our grapevine has been that our ATM cards don’t work anyway, I always go in person when it is time to draw cash for the month.  I travel either to Kigali or to Huye, although, soon to be a new resident of Huye, this will probably be the last time I enter the branch of my bank where I found myself today.

In the U.S. our banks have tellers and windows, or windowless stalls, and usually one line forms in front of them that feeds into them.  Some banks even put up cords to help us organize ourselves as we wait for our turn to make a transaction.    In Rwanda, there are also tellers and windows, although invariably, there are  more of the later; empty teller windows appear to be a norm, regardless of how many dozens of people are waiting.  But there is no central line.  Instead there are rows of chairs in which people sit to wait their turn.  How you know when it is your turn mystified me in the beginning.  I would come in, wait, then someone in one of the chairs would gesture to me to go to the open window because, apparently, it was my turn.   Sometimes the system was fairly straightforward.   So, for example, when there are only 3 or 4 people, even I could keep track of who was there before me and could easily make sure that the people who were there before  me went to an open window before I did.  In fact, so successful I had been for my last few bank trips, I thought I had the system all figured out.  Until today….

Today I went to the Kigali branch of my bank that is near my hotel.   My usual hotel has numerous advantages over others, including proximity to my bank, a fabulous breakfast buffet, a fridge in the room upon request, and a no-charge late check-out time of 5 p.m.!!   Yes, indeed, you can spend an extra day in Kigali at no extra charge, as long as you leave by 5.   Since I have to be home by dark, this luxurious late check out policy has been perfect for me.  The price, given the location, right in the center of downtown, is also not bad.  Everything, except the Peace Corps office is within walking distance.

The situation at the bank today was unusual in that there were a LOT of people sitting on the three rows of benches, and people were going to a terminal of sorts, punching something in, and getting a number that told them what place in line they had.  I arrived around 4 p.m.  When I went up to it and pushed the option marked English, I got four more options in French. Eventually, however, the machine spit out a piece of paper with my number on it.  #56.  According to the screen over the teller window, they were now serving #38.   There were only two tellers, and one of them was in a booth where the “customer being served” screen had  stopped at #8.   I wasn’t sure how one got a turn at that window.   Still, I wasn’t worried.  Since banks keep their doors open until 8 p.m. and still serve anyone inside at that time before they actually close, I knew I had plenty of time.

Fifteen minutes after I arrived, they were still serving #38.    I realized that I should probably pocket my ticket, and go do my other errands, since it would get dark at 6 and it was highly unlikely that they would get to #56 from #38 in time for me to be able to go anywhere else.   The next time I came through the bank,  perhaps 40 minutes later, they were on #44. However,  there were fewer people sitting on the benches, a promising sign, I thought.     Still #56 was a long way from #44 when the average transaction time is 15″,  something I have observed in the past.  Judging from the gap that still existed between my number and the number on the screen, it was true again today.    So I went to my hotel to drop off my packages.  I checked my email, responded to a couple of them, and then strolled back.  When I got back, they were on #46.   It was, by then, 6:15 p.m.  I then realized that the shop where I bought my meat would close at 7, so off again I went, fully prepared to lose my place in line.

When I returned, it was dark, and they were on  #49. I decided to wait.  It was crowded again, there were no seats.  People were holding numbers like #61, #78, and #88.   I stood to the side  to wait.  Lucky for me, I also start to observe more closely what was happening.  #49 became #50, and I took pleasure in noting that I was on the home stretch.   My joy was short-lived.  When the counter rolled into #51,  the woman holding #61 jumped up and went to the window, and was served, despite the paper in her hand being fully visible to the teller.   Hmmm, I realized, things were not what they appeared to be.  People were no longer looking after one another.  Instead, they were looking out for themselves.   I realized that I had to adapt myself to this new territory, if I were to ever have any hope of getting my salary.

There is a common phenomenon in Africa which has to do with how foreign technologies are adapted to the local context.  Bathroom plumbing is a case in point.  European toilets are installed in many places but are not utilized as they are intended.  So, for example, when they no longer flush, rather than being repaired, a large container of water appears, along with cup or pitcher, so you can pour water down the toilet after you use it.  Water is also used to rinse oneself off, rather than toilet paper.  Toilet paper holders are, more often than not, empty.   This is how most outhouses work in Rwanda, where you have a hole in the ground and splash water over yourself when finished.    That is, once modern technology fails, everyone simply uses the Western device according to traditions associated with whatever system pre-dated the later one.  There are many examples of this.  As far as I can tell, no one ever fixes anything, the plumbing at my house being a case in point. There, although both the toilet and sink plumbing work, they can’t be used because there is a leak where the pipes connect to the wall.  So, like everyone else, I have my plastic bin of water and my cup to dip, and have had this arrangement since I arrived.

Things have changed in my kitchen, however.   There, I used to be able to turn my water in the kitchen off and on with the handle on the faucet.  It started to wear out, so I could no longer turn it completely off.  I called for help, someone came and took off the handle so we could see that it was worn.  It looked like we just needed a new handle and someone was, I thought, dispatched to get one.  Two weeks later and I still have no new handle.  But I have discovered that I can use the old one by first putting it on in one direction to turn the water on, and then taking it off and putting it back on in the opposite direction to turn the water off.   The process is slow but, for the most part, effective unless, like today, I forgot to turn it off when filling my wash bin and water was spilling over the edges while I struggled to get the handle off, and then replace it in the opposite direction so I could turn the water off.

Now, the electronic customer tracking device at the bank was, like my kitchen, working, but in a fashion known only to its local users.  Adaptations had had to be made since it only seemed to be working for one teller window.   Besides that, the ticket system was still in conflict with the system that was currently active in other banks, including branches of this one, where people would keep an eye on one another and keep mental track  one another’s places in line. The new default strategy was to take a number, but grab a chance to go to the window whenever you decided that you had waited long enough.  Perhaps this strategy was only called into use only when customers are too numerous for the average person to mentally track.   Certainly, the last time I went to this same branch of the bank, the usual wait-and-look-after-one-another approach had been in use.  On that occasion, the ticket machine sat, lonely and unused, in its place on the wall.   Whatever the case was then, I now knew that the ticket in my hand did not mean what I thought it meant.   In light of this new information, I had to reassess the situation and figure what I needed to do to actually get myself up to a teller window before all the people with numbers in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  I had missed my chance once, I wasn’t about to miss it again.

I seated myself more centrally, waited, ready to pounce like a cat stalking a mouse.  When #61 left the window, the counter rolled to #52, and someone else jumped up.  The teller for the window frozen at #8 was now standing at the back of the cubicle for the other teller so we were down to only one open window.  I noticed the man next to me, holding #75, caught the eye of the teller and held up his number so she could see.  I did the same.  He did it again, so did I.   At which point, he looked  at my number, and then at his, and said “Oh,  well then, your number is lower, you’re ahead of me, you need to go first”.   It reminded me of the process whereby passengers on Southwest flights line up to board. I laughed and pointed out that #61 had jumped the cue already.  He laughed as well, his English comprehension was quite good.  I was grateful, I would have been at a loss as to how to make that comment in Kinyarwanda.

#52 rolled to #53 and a man seated in front of me jumped up.  This time, however, I did not hesitate.  I did not pause.   I jumped as well, gambling that the number he held in his hand was higher than my #56.   My learning curve may have previously been slow but, now, I was ready to fight for what was rightfully mine!  I followed him up to the window, with my  precious ticket clutched in my hand.    Sure enough, he had  # 69!   I held up my number for the teller to see, she looked at my ticket, then at his, the light dawned, and a lengthy discussion between her and #69 ensued.     Although I couldn’t understand the words, the meaning was clear.  She was telling him that I was ahead of him and he was trying to argue his way to the head of the fictitious cue.   At one point, he noticed that the ticket #61 was sitting on the counter where the previous interloper had left it and waved it at her.  Presumably, he was pointing out that, since the teller had already served #61 ahead of #56, that she should do so again.   I wondered what would have happened if I had been more savvy when #61 took her chance   Perhaps I would already be back at my hotel eating my dinner.      In the end, the teller waited on me first.  I made a mental note that navigating this particular bank branch seemed to require skills that I normally reserve for getting on a bus, and added electronic customer ticketing systems  to my list of modern technologies  adapted for other uses in Rwanda.

I actually enjoy very much seeing unique uses of modern technologies in Africa.  My most favorite one of all my time here is Rwanda is watching a woman walking along the side of the road with a backpack perched precariously (it seemed to me) on her head.   It was perfectly straight, with the top zipper at the top and the base sat squarely on her head.  She looked regal, but I knew that this use of this particular sample of modern technology was not what the manufacturer had in mind when it was created.   Still, I asked myself, why not use it that way?   It worked great!

While I am on the subject of modern technologies metamorphizing into something new, I perhaps should bring up the subject of television.   It is  worthwhile to note I always stay at the same hotel so, in theory, I would expect the same channels to be on the TV each time I come.  This has turned out not to be the case.  When I first started coming here, CNN was a choice, and I was able to get caught up on the most recent antics of our president, as well as catch up on other U.S. and international news.   Then CNN vanished, never, at least not so far, to be seen again.  However, a movie channel appeared, with Arabic subtitles so I presume it was coming in via satellite from somewhere like Dubai.  It has very good American movies.  I looked forward to each stay.  However, the last time I came, all that I found was an African news channel, and, the next time, there was a French channel playing American sitcoms, such as Divorce and Black-ish, all dubbed in French.  Today, there is an Indian Bollywood station showing movies, the first one had Arabic subtitles, the next one did not.   Needless to say I am at a loss as to how to explain this anomaly.  Perhaps, in time, I’ll figure it out.   But, for the moment, my learning curve concerning how television works is completely flat.

There is never a shortage of things to wonder about when you live in another culture.   Life is a continuous movie full of twists and turns, some surprising, and some not,  and, every day, you have the opportunity to become a new story turned back on yourself.

Speaking of surprises, in case some of you missed it, a Japanese (of course) company has just invented the first machine that will wash, iron and fold your clothes for you!  The Laundroid now costs a whopping 16K, and the hey are targeting the wealthy, in the hopes that the income generated will give them time to figure out how to reduce the cost for making the machines.  They hope, eventually, to get the cost down to $1500, not much more than a washer and dryer combo.  Imagine a world where you no longer have to fold your laundry.     Of course, in this case,  you’d have to have 25 pieces of extra clothing that you didn’t need to wear in order to use it.  I am already speculating on other uses for might evolve for this machine once it hits the African continent.






*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.

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