A week before my departure from Zambia I drove to the immigration office at Chipata. I responded to their rather threatening email asking for the location of their office and whether I needed to bring any supporting papers, but i didn’t receive a reply. I used Google maps to get a general idea of the town layout but the red marker pin for the office seemed to be close to the downs, a shambolic local market. I decided to aim for the Boma or administration centre.
I reached Chipata Boma just before 10am and found the office in the next street. At the front door a guard from the private security firm Octopus asked me to fill in the visitors’ book. While I was completing the details (identity document number, car registration, address, etc) I asked the guard if he had eight arms so he could capture any wrong doers. He looked blank. “The Octopus has eight tentacles,” I explained. His facial expression didn’t change, “What, bwana? Testicley?”
I should have known by now that many Zambians don’t get my weak attempts at humour. The security guard was not familiar with octopus anatomy. He directed me down the corridor. Immigration Officer Priscilla was staring at a computer screen while finishing her breakfast at her desk.
“You should have come here immediately after we sent the email,” she chided me. “But I asked for my authorisation to be sent to Mfuwe Airport Immigration Office when I applied online,” I replied.
“The plastic cards are not yet in stock, so you have to come here, to the provincial centre,” she said. “What have you been doing in Mfuwe?”
“I’m a volunteer doctor at Kakumbi Rural Health Centre,” I replied.
“What kind of doctor? I am getting these headaches…”
I explained that I didn’t have my medical equipment bag with me and my practice was restricted to the Mfuwe area. She pressed me further, so I asked for more history concerning her mutu.
“Are you very stressed?” I asked. “That can cause mutu like you describe.”
She agreed and went back to picking at the keyboard, filling in data fields. There was a scuffle in the corridor and two officers entered the room with a man wearing handcuffs. He sat on the floor leaning against the wall and smiled at me.” Illegal immigrant. Second time he’s come here from Malawi,” explained one of the officers.
“Next time, turn right instead of left and go to Mozambique instead,” I told him. I will never learn; Malawians don’t get my facetious humour either.
Officer Priscilla left her ornate, highly-polished Chinese desk with my passport and papers. I chatted with the dusty Malawian until he was taken to be charged. Priscilla returned and made a great show of stamping a page in my passport. I am never sure if the violence used to do the stamping is to emboss the paper or if the ink pad is dried up and worn out.
“This will take you to 15th of May, then you return here and I will give you another three months and another. We want people like you here, doc.”
“Thank you so much, but I am leaving next week.”
“No, but when are you coming back from leave?”
“I’m not leaving to go on leave. I will be departing, going back to my family.”
She understood the importance of family ties and I told her about my daughter’s impending wedding.
“But you must come back. We need you here. There are no doctors in Mfuwe. You have been helping us. God bless you.”
I took my passport, signed the security guard’s ledger and left. Legal again. I took the opportunity to visit the town’s two supermarkets, Spar and Pricerite.
Whenever I have been working in rural Africa and I return to the UK I marvel at the variety and opulence of the food on display at supermarkets, even Aldi and Lidl. How can anyone need so many types of breakfast cereal? I used to buy coffee in bulk because of my subliminal thinking that “it might not be available next week”.
So visiting Spar, even with its depleted shelves, was part of the process of readjusting to life at home. There was even a small coffee shop to remind me of Waitrose. Only patrons could sit here and use the toilet facilities. On the wall above the key for the toilet was a sign “New. We now offer iced coffee!” It was hot and humid so I ordered an iced coffee and went to the toilet.
When I came back, there was a mug of lukewarm grey liquid on my table. “But I ordered iced coffee,” I protested. The people at the next table volunteered the information that they saw the waitress adding the ice to my (hot) coffee at the table. Coffee with ice, rather than iced coffee.
I looked at my email. Priscilla had sent me a message – a notice to appear before an Immigration Officer (Section 14 of the Immigration and Deportation Act 2010). “To Ian Cross of Mfuwe Middlesbrough United Kingdom”. I was required to return to Chipata at 10am on May 8th to receive the temporary employment permit in plastic card format. “Failure to comply constitutes an offence punishable with a fine not exceeding 200,000 penalty units (?) or imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years, or both“. But I will be in Nepal then…
There’s a set of traffic lights in Chipata just outside Spar. They are so slow to change that impatient drivers cut through the fuel station and supermarket car park to avoid waiting. I noticed that the car’s steering felt stiff and sluggish as I pulled away from the lights. “Perhaps it’s because I’m driving on tarmac not dirt tracks,” I thought. Big mistake.