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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
To be continued