Barely Legal Part 2

This is the concluding part of yesterday’s blog about my quest for a visa extension and work permit.

I needed a stiff drink

I drove back to the village where I had left the vaccination team. They had given up waiting for me and had returned to the health centre under their own steam. I had no time for lunch so I popped into a local NGO office and asked to use their internet to do the online application.

Three hours and several handfuls of hair later, I gave up typing in all my details for the tenth time only for the system to crash or hang. “Come back in the morning at 8am and you can try again,” said K.

The following day, I woke up illegally in Zambia. Amazingly, the website accepted my application without a single blue screen of death. Instead of loading up several individual scans of supporting documents, K had merged them into a massive jpeg file which was still less than the maximum permitted upload size. This had been one of the major sticking points the previous afternoon.

Always check the small print

But the next level of hell awaited me. Making payment. I have no bank account in Zambia, so I had to ask D if he would pay for the application using his local credit card. This failed authentication. Then he tried his personal Zambian bank card, which also failed authentication. Finally, I asked one the NGO administrators, and she gave her UK bank credit card details, which also failed authentication.

I had to go to the local school to administer diphtheria and tetanus boosters to the students so I couldn’t sit sobbing in front of the computer for long. I contacted J who said, “I will sort it out, don’t worry, they won’t deport you as we’ve only just got you here.”

Halfway through vaccinating over 200 students, I received a text message saying that I should return to the immigration office at the airport and pick up a paper which would cover me for a month while they sorted out the problem of payment.

It was 2pm by the time we had finished vaccinating and I had dropped off the team at the health centre. There was no time for lunch as I needed to get my hands on the paper which would allow me to stay in Zambia legally.

“You’re back again,” said the guard on the airport perimeter. “Yes, but hopefully I will get my papers sorted out now,” I replied. There was no guard in the sentry box so I walked through and knocked on the door of the Immigration Office. The senior officer was there alone and I explained that the application was successful but the payment had been declined.

“What did you do wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing, but I think that it is because I don’t have a bank account here and when other people use their banks or credit cards to pay for my application, their bank security systems refuse to endorse the transaction,” I said.

I explained that I had used an NGO credit card, an expat’s Zambian bank card and another expat’s Barclaycard from the UK. Why would a bank allow a transaction paying for a random person’s visa application and work permit to a government agency?

“No, you are wrong. The system was set up to cater to people who had no bank account in Zambia. You could have used PayPal,” he said.

“Paypal wasn’t on the list of options,” I replied. “Have you ever tried to use the system?”

“I am not allowed to,” he said. “But I don’t understand why a local bank, Zanaco, declined the payment. Let us go and ask the bank manager of the branch at the Airport.” He picked up his officer’s cap, its peak decorated with gold piping, and we marched to the 100 metres to the airport.

I felt like this child

The bank manager listened to our story and suggested that we should try to access the website. I used my local phone, which has a small amount of data available. It refused to allow me to log in. We tried the bank manager’s computer, with the same result. Then the immigration officer asked me for my username and password so he could inform the IT officer who would try to track down the fault.

He noted that the bank manager’s computer had limited internet connectivity, which may have prevented access to the site. The manager showed that his computer could access other sites without any issues.

“What happened when you tried to pay?” he asked again.

“I was informed that I would be leaving the Immigration website and joining Barclays payment website. In order to make the payment, I had to write the name, address, email address, etc of the person making the payment for me, along with their card type, number, expiry date and code.”

“That’s where you went wrong. You should have entered YOUR details, not the owner of the credit card’s details,” he said.

“I disagree,” said the bank manager. “You know in Zambia, it takes time for new systems to bed in.”

“Well, what can we do now?” I asked. “Is it impossible to make the application using paper and paying in cash?”

“Yes, that should be an option with a new system which has not been fully tried and tested,” said the bank manager.

“No,” the immigration officer replied, “I will have to give you a piece of paper allowing you to remain in the country for 30 more days until we sort this out.”

Before walking back to his office, I stopped by at the Airport Post Office as I had been told that there was a letter waiting for me to collect. The lady sitting behind the counter had her head slumped forward and I thought she was either dead or asleep. In fact, she was fiddling with her smartphone, hidden out of sight, under the counter. I told her I had been informed that a letter was waiting for me to collect at the airport. She flatly denied any knowledge of a letter. “What is it? Who is it from?” she asked. I said I didn’t have a clue. But my mother had sent me a birthday card to Mfuwe in May 2014 which was not delivered. “Five years ago? We only keep undelivered mail for six months,” she said while hunting through a large cardboard box containing dozens of packets and letters. She found nothing addressed to me and went back to her social media.

Be wary of elephants crossing the track after dark

The immigration officer was waiting for my passport. He connected the printer to his computer and printed off two forms, which he clipped together and added a sheet of carbon paper. He instructed me to complete and sign the bottom section of the form and handed me my right to stay here for another month. Now was not the time for light-hearted comments about whether the online system would ever allow me to pay for the visa/temporary work permit. I smiled, shook his hand and said goodbye.


Barely Legal Part 1

On entry to Zambia, I was granted a 30-day business visa. This was about to expire so I needed to visit the Immigration Office at Mfuwe International Airport. I had all the paperwork I needed to extend my stay: a photocopy of my passport, medical license, medical registration, letter of appointment by the non-government organisation who brought me here, two passport photographs (which make me look like a Mafia henchman), my passport and 2,250 Zambian Kwacha. I telephoned the Immigration Officer to see if he was in the office. He told me he wasn’t, but his colleagues would deal with me.

Dried elephant dung over a week old

The guard at the entrance to the airport recognised me and waved me through without inspecting the underside of my car with a mirror on a stick. I left my vehicle in the Airport Car Park, illegally occupying Kapani Safaris’ slot, and walked to the checkpoint. Another guard asked me not to sign the admittance register under the last entry, but to give my details after the previous day’s list. Apparently, he should not have started a new page for a new day, and he was trying to fill the gap.

The immigration office is beside the Airport Control Tower. It is a small room, made even smaller by the stacked cardboard boxes against one wall. There are two desks and a table for the printer (you have to connect the printer cable to each computer manually, it isn’t networked). There are some plastic and metal seats for visitors. The walls are decked with torn and drooping posters warning of the dangers of illegal immigration and the benefits of foreign investment. I remember it well. On my first visit here, I urged the outgoing senior immigration officer to apply for Sir Alex Ferguson’s job at Manchester United (the Premier League is a very safe topic of conversation in Zambia) and got my visa extension and work permit on the spot.

There were two new immigration officers, one with two gold stripes on his epaulettes and one with just one stripe. I made my first mistake by handing my paperwork to the more junior officer. He shuffled the papers and passed them to his senior.

“Where is your supervisory letter from the District Health Officer?” he asked.

“Last time I applied, Dr Mashanga telephoned your boss and complained that he had more important things to do than to write letters for a doctor who was helping the country for free,” I said.

“But he still had to provide the letter requesting your services, didn’t he?” replied the officer. “You will have to get his letter before we can process your application.”

“And all applications now have to be made online on the Immigration government website,” he added.

“But I have brought all the paperwork, the cash, everything, so you can process it here today? It is the last day of my visa.”

“We do not have a scanner and we cannot access the internet,” he replied.

Twisted trunk, rather than this twisted tale

I looked downhearted and asked if he could make an exception if I managed to get Dr Mashanga’s letter to the office by this afternoon. Perhaps it was a moment of weakness, or I may even have treated one of his relatives, but he called his boss who gave his approval. He even told me to leave the documents and the money with him so he could process my application as I drove to and from Mambwe.

I telephoned Dr Mashanga and asked him if he could write a supporting letter for the Immigration Department and he agreed. I drove to the District Health Offices in Mambwe and asked a colleague if he could photocopy my Zambian medical license and registration while I saw the boss.

Dr Mashanga was very relaxed and asked me how I was getting on. I had seen him just a few weeks ago but I gave him an update. “We have no paracetamol, no small catheters for giving intravenous fluids to children, no sterile gloves, no non-sterile gloves, no antibiotic eye ointment…”

“But thank you for the medication to manage diabetes and hypertension. I would like to make a register of patients suffering from these conditions so you can make an estimate of what medication we need to manage the patients. Unfortunately, we have no antidepressants or antipsychotics yet.”

“That’s an excellent idea. Please go ahead,” he replied.

“Hold my tusk while we cross the road”

We chatted for a few more minutes about my concern about the magnitude of the impending malaria season. I had imagined that Dr Mashanga’s secretary would be typing my letter as we spoke, but he suddenly said, “What dates should I put on your letter? When will you be leaving us?” Clearly, he hadn’t started the letter.

He took a pad of lined paper and wrote out in block capitals (probably necessary given the reputation doctors have for appalling handwriting) a draft for my approval. I scanned it and agreed. He asked me to look again, as there must be no errors when dealing with Immigration.

He took the letter to be typed and a Home Economics teacher from the town entered the room to discuss donations for National Women’s Day on the 8th March. “How will you be celebrating the day?” I asked her. She replied that it was National Women’s Day as if that answered my question. On being pressed, she said that they would be highlighting local women entrepreneurs. “In class, the girls learn domestic tasks which can earn them money when they leave, such as handicrafts.”

Dr Mashanga returned to the room and explained that the Department had no funds at present, but the event was several weeks away. Intriguingly, he added, “We want to avoid the situation which occurred last year.” I didn’t dare ask. I wanted my letter for my application which needed to be filed today.

The letter arrived in quadruplicate. He signed two copies, gave me one and I thanked him as I left the room in haste. My colleague handed me back the originals of my registration and medical license, saying, “Sorry. No toner.”

Ready for a quick-ish getaway

I drove back to the airport but this time I had to explain to the guard why I had returned. He nodded and waved me through. I photocopied the two documents at the Airport Gift Shop. There was no need to sign the attendance book again at the sentry box. Perhaps the space below yesterday’s visitors was now full. The senior immigration officer (three gold stripes on his epaulettes) shook my hand and told me that his boss had overturned his decision to process my application in person, not online. “Unfortunately, the website is not accessible in this office,” he said. I said I would try to complete the online application today, but what if I didn’t? What if some officials came to the health centre and demanded to see my visa and work permit?

“But that would be us, and we know that you have all the paperwork prepared,” he said.

“When I have completed the application online, when should I come to pick up my work permit?” I asked.

“When will you be leaving the country?” he asked, depressingly. “We no longer use the embossed green booklets, we have introduced plastic cards now. However, we don’t have any cards at present so we will give you a paper.”

This is not a photo of hippos kissing, even though the blog was written ages ago on St Valentine’s Day. They are jousting.

To be continued