Sunday, August 7, 2011

Of Bribes and Border Gates

So, here we are again in Zimbabwe.  Because of the two new volunteers, we had another round of tourist activities, the same, in fact, as the ones we did before: Kruger National Park, God’s window, Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park.  And that is where our story begins:

The two volunteers will be leaving on Sunday to go back to the States from Zimbabwe, and so, part of the schedule was to go to Zimbabwe via car, show them Victoria Falls, do a safari in Botswana, and then let them go back with a whole bunch of awesome pictures and experiences outside of helping out in the village in South Africa.  The trip to Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls is a two day trip.  The first day has us go through the border gate to cross into Zimbabwe, and then stay in Bulawayo and Hlekweni, the service project in Zimbabwe where the Foundation has an HIV/AIDS support group.

We had some problems, unfortunately, with the Foundation’s van on the first day that we tried to go to Zimbabwe.  In a town called Tzaneen, which is about halfway between where we were staying (Hoedspruit), and Bulawayo, a strange sound started coming from the car after accelerating after a prolonged stop at a signal.  After a number of people stopped by to see what was wrong, offering their help, going to three or four different dealerships/mechanics, still no prognosis on what caused the problem in the first place.  Some people said it was the transmission, some said it had something to do with the tire or the axle, and others said it was something with ball bearings and the engine.  Needless to say, no real cause was found, and as the sound had disappeared as soon as we starting driving to the first place, no one could really say what was wrong.  And so, back to Hoedspruit we went.  Nomvimbi, the director of the Meriwether Foundation, was going to just book flights for her and the other two volunteers, to take them to Zimbabwe and the tourist attractions, while those left behind would continue working at the village, and would take the van to the closest Toyota dealership to get a second opinion to find out what was wrong. 

As it turns out, there was something seriously wrong with the van, and the flights were going to be quite pricy.  Due to a fortuitous connection to a local police office with a 14 passenger van available to lend to us, we were able to use this vehicle while our car got fixed.  And that turned out to be our downfall.  In South Africa, vehicles are often stolen and transported across the border to Zimbabwe, and can be found all around Africa, from Tanzania up to Egypt.  As a result, the border gates between South Africa and Zimbabwe are closely monitored to make sure that all the vehicles have the proper paperwork and registration.  Because we were traveling in a vehicle that did not belong to any of us, we needed to have a letter from the owner, stating that he was okay with us driving it across the border. 

The way the borders work in Africa is like this: Basically we first go through immigration and customs for South Africa, in order to officially “exit” the country.  Then in order to enter the next country, in this case, Zimbabwe, we go through another set of border gates, immigration and customs.  At both of these gates, you need to clear your vehicle and get your passport stamped.  For the country you are entering, any visas that are required will also be paid for at the immigration counter.

The border officials at the South African border were not convinced by the paperwork we provided, and actually thought that we were trying to trap them.  They wanted us to have a notarized letter, as well as a note from the bank that partially owned the vehicle as well, all of which we did not have.  The bank would never provide that kind of documentation to anyone, and since we were already far from our original location, we had to resort to other means of persuading them to let us through to Zimbabwe: Bribery.

Now, bribery and corruption are commonplace in most African countries, and as much as it is looked down upon, there still is a good amount of it that happens behind closed doors, so to speak.  Government employees are not paid much, similar to the United States, but these individuals seem to believe that this entitles them to make a little money on the side, and people know it.  For a little extra money, they are willing to look the other way, or if the opportunity presents itself (i.e. that there are Americans who have money, and are willing to pay for seemingly small breach of standard operating protocols), they are willing to propose a monetary amount that will smooth things over.

And so, a “service fee” of 1000 rands was paid to the border officials in South Africa to let us go through to Zimbabwe, with the added incentive that the majority of the people in our car were American citizens, of course.  The exchange rate is about 6.5 rands to the US dollar, which amounts to about a $153 charge to get us through the border.  Apparently, during the negotiations of our “service fee” to the police officers, one of them took a liking to me, so someone joked that if only I had flirted a little more, perhaps we could have paid a little less, or maybe, nothing at all.  But that was not to be, and we passed through the first border with no other problems, and the feeling that because we had overcome this obstacle, the next border gate to enter Zimbabwe would be relatively easy, minus the wait in line.  Our last visit to Zimbabwe had us standing two hours in line before we even got into the building to purchase our visas and get our passports stamped.

This time, the line was relatively short, and we completed the necessary paperwork, paid for the visas, and got stamped, all within 30 minutes or so.  Our real problem came again with clearing our car.  The border officials in Zimbabwe had the same problem with our paperwork as those in South Africa, and had the gall to charge ask for 1600 rand, or the equivalent of $246.  By this time, our collective pool of available cash had run almost dry, not only having to pay for the visas, but also the “fee” at the first border gate.  We also needed to have some cash on hand to pay for gas, as gas stations were few and far between in Zimbabwe.  As it turned out, we had just enough: 1500 rand plus $20.

So there you have it!  An adventure in itself just to get to another country, and it only cost us a few extra dollars, and 4 hours of our time.  And because it took us so long to get through our problematic papers, we didn’t leave the Zimbabwe border until 1 am, which meant that we had to drive through the night in order for us to reach Bulawayo by morning for us to arrive at Victoria Falls by the next evening.  And so it was:  I spent around 24 hours in a car and pulled the closest to an all-nighter since college.  Hopefully, we won’t have the same problems on our way back, but then again, who knows!

It’s sad that this type of thing is normal here, and that it is so widely accepted as a means to any problems you may encounter with any authority figure.  It is true that corruption is rampant in the African continent, if the current problems with Egypt and Libya are any indication.  At the same time, it does give a picture of the state of mind of the people here, in that people here will do what they can to make sure they get ahead.  There is a little in the sense of working for the greater good or helping out another person, and it’s in this attitude that causes a lot of the problems when organizations try to get some community involvement and sustainability after they leave.  People are loath to help out or volunteer their time and services, unless they know that they are getting something out of it.  Even though they see the good that can come of it, people are always asking for something to compensate for their time, and it's here that changes need to be made, so that these communities can be empowered to continue improving their own situation and livelihoods, without the assistance and crutch of foreign and visiting organizations.

Anyways, on to pictures!! These are just a compilation of stuff that's happened within the past few weeks - homemade pancakes and lettuce wraps, elephant ride, cheetahs and walking where lions were, a leopard spotting in the Kruger National Park (although you can't really see it), and some tomatoes that have been growing in the village in South Africa.  The internet is pretty slow in uploading pictures, so I'll just leave these as a teaser.


Until the next time - one month and counting...

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