‘Have you used the phone today?’ I asked my wife Laura, as I gently supped an early morning mango juice on our balcony overlooking Mombasa creek in Kenya.
‘No,’ she replied, ‘Why?’
‘Look over there,’ I said, ‘You see where our telephone line goes across the road and into that tree?’
She followed my pointing finger and we watched as a local chap started draping the lower branches with old plastic sheets and bits of corrugated iron. The tree was just outside our compound, and grew out of what once was the pavement; it was soon reminiscent of a Christmas tree decorated by a deranged Turner prize winner.
‘He’s moved into that tree,’ said Laura.
‘He’s moving a couple of goats in as well,’ I said, and we both watched as the real estate developer tethered his pets to the tree using our telephone line.
Telephone poles are a rarity in these parts as they make exceedingly good objects to run into when the brakes fail, allowing the vehicle to come to come to a stop, albeit a sudden one. The answer is to drape the line from tree to tree thus giving the Telephone Company workers the double advantage of being able to sell any new replacement poles to local charcoal burners and itinerant builders.
‘That’s it,’ said Laura, ‘That’s the end of our telephone again.’
By ‘again’ just about summed it up. It was a regular occurrence for one reason or another, ranging from floods, fire and monkeys. Getting back on line again was always fun. If you didn’t look upon it as fun, you may as well book a straight jacket there and then. Dealing with any Governmental department here in Kenya was the same. Logic goes out of the window and so does any sense of common sense.
I arrived at the Kenya Telecom offices later that morning. An old colonial building that had served the Mombasa telephone subscribers for decades. It was like walking back a few decades as well, as you enter the reception area. This area is one to miss as it’s always crowded with customers, Africans, Arabs and Asians waving sheets of paper in various stages of agitation at the laid back clerks There were unofficial guides wanting to show anyone the attributes of the now wonderfully decrepit building for a few shillings, and a couple of Security guards reading newspapers. Niftily avoiding the maelstrom surrounding the reception clerk’s desk, I mounted a staircase on the way to the Promised Land of mystifying East African beguilement.
And promises were all I was going to get, I knew that, it was a start though and in this land of illusions all I could expect. The shabby, corridors were full of files, sometimes up to the ceiling, probably I thought, holding the damn thing up in places. Glancing through opened doors into offices was much the same boxes and boxes of files stacked in every available place. Overhead, fans ground their way slowly around like arthritic mosquitoes, while their healthier cousins flew around biting anything that moved. Flimsy pieces of paper that had escaped from the filing system, perhaps twenty years ago gently wafted around the building in humid air currents. Occasionally someone would catch one, read it idly and then send it on its interminable way to continue its gentle flight of fancy.
Eventually I reached the office of Mr Umbungo, who I was informed was the very chap to sort out my problems. The office was much like any other, no sign of technology, not even a phone for God’s sake, just stacks and stacks of files and a girl fast asleep under a table.
‘Ahem,’ I sort of coughed. She stirred, opened one eye, closed it and yawned. I moved a stack of newspapers off a chair and sat down. When she finally arose she seemed to go into a semi trance while staring at an empty coca-cola bottle. This went on for some minutes and I was beginning to worry that she had somehow self hypnotised her self and was going to suddenly pick up a stack of files and suffocate me with them. However, all was well, she sat down and she smiled very sweetly in my direction and said, ‘Good morning, how are you?’
‘I’m very well thank you.’ I said.
‘And how is your family?’
‘They’re very well as well. How are you….’
This exchange of pleasantries regarding the wellbeing of families is a normal formality in Africa and if not brought as diplomatically as possible to an end can go on ad infinitum. It’s a precursor to the start of any business or meaningful discussion. The meaningful discussion in this case was whether I would like a drink? I suppressed the retort that a large Bloody Mary would indeed be welcome and told her that a coca-cola would be nice.
‘Frederick,’ she shouted, out of the door.
A young lad ambled in. ‘Go and fetch two cokes,’ she said, and turned to me, ‘Give him thirty shillings.’ I did as I was bid.
‘Mr Umbungo will be here very soon,’ she said.
I was used to this very soon nonsense ‘Very soon’ in Africa means anytime within the next six hours. I settled down to wait.
Mr Umbungo arrived at about half past eleven and we exchanged the usual pleasantries vis a vis the well being of our respective families, Frederick was again summoned, and I bought him a coca cola.
‘You say there is a man building a dwelling on your land?’ he said, after I had, I thought, described the exact nature of the problem.
‘No I suppose the council owns the tree,’ I said.
‘But you are in the wrong department,’ he replied.
‘No,’ I said, ‘the telephone wire that connects my phone to your exchange has been used by this man to tether his goats. He has cut the wire from the tree that was being used as a telephone pole.’
‘We do not use trees,’ he said.
I would have gone to the window at this stage and pointed out any number of trees, bushes and old broken down lamp posts, come to that being used to convey wires to the exchange, if the window hadn’t been blocked by old files. Anyway, that wasn’t the way to deal with African logic, I knew what he wanted and he knew that I knew.
‘I will have to pay a visit and assess the situation,’ he added. ‘If what you say is true then this man will be in serious trouble. You can collect me in the morning’.
A time was set for three o’ clock the next morning, which meant in real time anytime after nine. Time starts at daybreak for Kenyans and finishes at sunrise which makes life complicated for those of us who don’t realise there is a completely different time scale out here. It doesn’t matter much though; time is a very flexible element in any case and has no meaning.
We were ready for Mr Umbungo the next morning. The outcome, we knew, rested on cost, cost to us that is. Kenya society runs on bribery and corruption, a facet that any outsider should do well to remember. It’s all done very nicely and generally without threats or menace, it’s just a way of life. We were old hands at the bribery game so anything of value that denoted wealth was hidden and I used Laura’s old Toyota Starlet to fetch him. He arrived at ten, which wasn’t too bad.
Mr Umbungo expected at least a Toyota Landcruiser for a start and his expectation of the amount of bribe dropped a few points. It dropped a further few when he realised I hadn’t got a driver and drove him to our home myself. We lived in an old colonial style of apartment, three stories up without a lift which must have depressed him even more. A mineral water on the balcony was the first port of call, served by Laura who had told the maid to make herself scarce. By the time he had looked around and found no swimming pool, no computer and not even a TV, never mind a satellite dish he was about as despondent as it’s possible to get. It was obvious that we had done it well as we watched his face drop as the bribery expectation duly dropped to a very low rung.
The three of us watched the goat herd enlarging his home to accommodate, no doubt, a wife or two and various offsprings. If past experience was any guide we would expect him to have added another two or three rooms by the end of the week and then rent them out.
‘This man must be removed and your line restored,’ said Mr Umbungo.
‘Yes,’ I said, waiting for the opening salvo in negotiations.
‘I have a very sick mother,’ said Mr Umbungo, which is quite a common opening ploy; it could have been sick wife, child or anything. We expected it, but had to go through the paraphernalia because it was the African way. To offer an out and out bribe meant a loss of face for him, and anyway it was a form of wheeling and dealing which is well set in the African psyche.
‘Oh I am sorry,’ said Laura. She was far better at this sort of thing than I was.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and the school fees are due now.’
‘Well,’ said Laura, ‘Maybe a little donation towards…’
‘That would be most useful. It means I can devote all my time to your telephone line rather than having to spend all day taking my mother backwards and forwards to hospital.’
A one thousand shilling note was pocketed and with the promise that all his family’s prayers would be directed in our direction for the foreseeable future. Mr Umbungo got up to leave.
I drove him into Mombasa and on returning gave me a knowing look, ‘Honour done on both sides I think,’ she said. As one thousand shillings would buy you a couple of big Macs and fries back home, I agreed. I remounted the satellite antenna, the computer terminal and waited for our driver to come back with the Landcruiser that he’d taken for servicing.
‘I expect the phone will be back on within a week,’ Laura said, uncovering the washing machine and dish washer. ‘Where did you drop Mr Umbungo?’
‘Oh, outside the Indian Ocean Beach Club.’
© Kit Chapman