Monday, 14 May 2012

Playing Chicken

My email this morning informed me that a legitimate transaction I made with my credit card had been declined for “security reasons”. No problem, I thought—I’ll just ring the bank.

Poor fool, you must be thinking.
What ensued was two hours of dialling and endlessly repeating my date of birth, imploring the voices on line not to leave me unattended in a queue, and being treated to a number by Girls Aloud that I want to assure you I will never buy. My only satisfaction came from responding to the stock statement that calls might be recorded for training purposes by making some pointed suggestions. Some of them may have been unseemly, but I don’t think I can actually be prosecuted.

Being ensnared by red tape and indifferent bureaucracy is not limited to modern life in this country. What’s different is the remedy.
When I worked in Botswana years ago, I was in charge of a project of helping 14 village women set up small poultry businesses. Because there were no large hatcheries in the country, laying hens had to be ordered from across the border in Johannesburg. When all the coops had been built and the organisation was all in place, I ordered 800 point-of-lay chickens.

The day of delivery came.  I drove to the border post and parked. A trickle of cars were passing through a gate that was propped open with a cement block. Two Botswana guards were waving them through, not paying much attention. Twenty yards away were the South Africans. They looked more business-like.  I thought I could see a large truck with cages stacked onto the flat bed, so I walked past the guards and presented my passport to the South Africans. Both were white, as they would have been in those days of apartheid. One of them went into a little office and spoke on a telephone. He came back to tell me that I could not cross.
My name was on a list, because I worked for an international gang of terrorists known as the Quakers, who disapproved of apartheid. I pleaded with them just to let me speak to the lorry driver, who I could see lounging under a tree, smoking. One of the guards took momentary pity on me and whistled.  He beckoned the driver over, who said that we had only a few minutes to get the truck underway or the chickens would die from heat and suffocation. He went back and started the truck.

I stood on the Botswana side, feeling relieved. The chicken truck inched forward until the Botswana guards closed the gate. One of them looked at me. He had a round face and his shirt was half unbuttoned.
“Where is your veterinary certificate?” he asked me.

This was the first I had heard about a veterinary certificate. I felt my stomach sink toward my boots. “I haven’t got one,” I said.

The two guards spoke among themselves.  One of them was friendlier-looking than the other. He reached into his satchel and handed me an official-looking document. “This must be signed by a veterinarian,” he said.

“But the chickens will all die unless we move the truck,” I pleaded.

“Take this away and have it signed by a veterinarian,” the guard said.

“But you don’t understand!” I moaned, thinking of arriving back in Mogoditshane with tons of rotting poultry corpses.

“Listen to me,” the friendly guard said. “It must be signed by a veterinarian.” He looked at me directly, as if he were planning to kiss me. I had seen that look before. You see it when you’re being stupid, like when you’ve missed a joke that makes everyone else laugh. I stood still waiting for the light to dawn.

“Oh,” I said. I went back to my truck, got out a ballpoint and very carefully signed the document A Veterinarian, being careful to dot my I’s and cross the T.
The guard took it from my hand and raised the gate without looking at it. The truck rolled through, and, that night, 792 healthy laying hens were scratching in the dirt of Mogoditshane.

I hear they’re still moving call centres to places like Kolkata. Wish they’d move them to Botswana.

1 comment:

  1. I had a US friend called Kendal Lesser. Her polish grandfather arrived on one of the many boats at Ellis Island and he had a long complicated Polish suname no-one could remember. He wanted it shortened and said "My name is Mr. WOJCIECHOWSKI... but I want it lesser." Job done.