Friday, 15 February 2013

The Return Home: Part I – Africa is Going to be the End of Us!


Warning: This is an extremely long post, even after having been split into two three parts. We don’t expect you to read it all but the detail is necessary to convey everything that we have been through and so that we can look back on this situation one day and laugh … hopefully …

As you might have gathered from our previous blog post, the 6 weeks we spent vacationing and going home was glorious. Our welcome back home to Kitwe … not so much. After a significant amount of time away, we were looking forward to getting back to work and being reunited with our team at the Kitwe Service Centre. However, we didn’t foresee the problems that lay ahead of us.

Problem #1 – Dude, where’s my car keys AND house keys?

We arrived back in Kitwe only to discover that our house keys and both sets of car keys were missing. The thing that makes this even stranger is that we were certain that: (i) we had taken our house keys with us, having locked all of our doors before leaving; and (ii) we had left our car keys at home, since we never take our car keys when we travel and we specifically remember locking them up in our bedroom so that they would be behind two locked doors (as opposed to one if they were left out in the living room). Despite this, we could not find any of our keys. We turned our place upside down and looked through each of our suitcases and backpacks several times. Nothing. Nada. We were (and still are) at a complete loss for where they could have gone. Nothing else from our house is missing. Nothing else from our luggage is gone either, except for Diane’s iPod, which is also mysteriously missing. Did we accidentally bring all three sets of keys with us on our trip and subsequently have someone steal them on the train or at the airport? Did we accidentally leave them behind in one of our hotel rooms? Did our landlord, or an accomplice of hers, swipe our car keys from inside our house (she has keys to our place and enters our house every night when we are away to turn on the porch light so that her drinking patrons have some light)? If someone stole our car keys, why was our car still left parked out in front of our house? It all seems very strange.

Problem #2 – Home Not-So-Sweet Home

Luckily, we were able to use our landlord’s spare set of keys to get into our house. In hindsight, it might have been better for us to not have entered our house at all. We opened the door to a filthy, filthy home. Dirt and dust covered all surface areas. Rat droppings were rampant. Dead grasshoppers and the wings of flying termites littered the floors. Worst of all, our toilet continued to leak out from the bottom (it’s been leaking ever since we moved in despite numerous complaints to our landlord).

Rat droppings and other dead bugs
What we swept up in our living room
Ant invasion!
We spent the entire weekend cleaning, deodorizing and disinfecting our entire place and washing our laundry by hand. We were determined to have our toilet fixed so, again, we talked to our landlord about the situation. Just as we were settling back into our freshly cleaned place, the plumbers came and had no problem stepping in the dirty, leaked toilet water and trampling it all over our house. The first day they came just to examine the nature of the problem and left without doing anything other than leaving muddy footprints all over our place. Another day of sweeping and mopping. They returned a second day to fix the problem. The solution? Patch up the toilet with a bunch of mud, of course! We were told not to flush the toilet for 24 hours in order to let the mud set and dry. I wish I was joking. Again, our floors were covered in dirt and muddy footprints. Making the situation even worse, the plumbers kept scooping the water from the toilet tank and dumping it into our bathtub and bath bucket. Seriously?! Another day of sweeping and mopping. Another day of cleaning the bathtub. The result? A muddy toilet that leaked more than ever. Shocking that mud wasn’t the solution! A third day of the plumbers coming in and looking at the toilet solved nothing and only led to another day of … wait for it … sweeping and mopping!

The object of our disdain
Poo brown water. Yummy.
Using Diane's mom's washing technique ... Grape lady falls, anyone?
Problem #3 – How the heck do we get into our car?

My first instinct was to call various Nissan dealerships within Zambia and get their advice. When it became clear that they had absolutely no idea, I called Nissan dealerships in South Africa. Again, they were of no use. Here’s a breakdown of the advice I received:

Kitwe Nissan
Nissan: You’ll have to pay 1,500,000 kwacha (approx. $300) for us to order you a new key from South Africa. It will take 2 weeks to get to Zambia. If you want it expedited, you can pay an extra 300,000 kwacha to have it here in 1 week.

Me: Awesome! It’s more expensive than I had hoped and it will take a little longer than I expected but let’s do this!

Nissan: After your key arrives, you will then have to take it to Shakti (a local engineering and locksmith company) to get it cut.

Me: Wait a minute … So you can’t cut my key for me?

Nissan: No.

Me: And you can’t do anything to open my doors?

Nissan: No.

Me: So … I’m essentially paying 1,500,000 kwacha for a blank key?

Nissan: Yes.

Me: F you guys (Ok, not really. But that’s what I felt like saying.)

Lusaka Nissan (in Zambia)
Same story as above, except they were going to order the key from Japan which would take 4 weeks, minimum. F you guys.

Nelspruit Nissan (in South Africa)
Nissan: You’re just going to have to tow your car here so we can look at it and determine the solution.

Me: Awesome. Just let me find a legitimate towing company in Zambia (non-existent) that will tow my car across two borders over a period of 3 days. Shouldn’t be a problem! F you guys.

Johannesburg Nissan #1
Same as Nelspruit. F you guys.

Johannesburg Nissan #2
Nissan: It sounds like your only option is to smash one of your windows in order to get into your car.

This one really takes the cake. Nothing better than a Nissan employee telling you that you have no other option than to “smash your window”. This guy deserves a double F you.

Ok, so that’s a lot of F bombs. While they may have been repeated in my mind, I swear (pun intended!) I didn’t drop any verbally. I am a missionary, after all …

African Solutions
James, a local Zambian who is part of the Hands team here, offered his solution. “I know a guy that can pick your lock and then cut you a new key from your ignition. The entire process will take 30 minutes, max.” Any sentence that starts with, “I know a guy …” is never a sound solution but, after what Nissan had told me, it sounded like my only option. James came into town, picked up his friend, and brought him to my car. He whipped out a thick, long, metal wire and a screwdriver. Not a good start. He then proceeded to pry open my driver side door with the screwdriver, just enough to allow the wire to enter through the top of the window. For the next 2 hours, he tried over and over again to flip my lock from the lock position to the unlock position. It looked like he succeeded early on but the car door still would not open. Meanwhile, paint was being chipped off the door, the interior of the driver side door was getting all scratched up from the sharp end of the hook, and chunks of the rubber piece that sits between the top of the window and the car frame were ripped off. This was not going well. 

He then tried using the wire to press the auto-unlock button but, because my battery was dead from having not been driven for 6 weeks, determined that it would not work, unless the battery was charged. James popped the hood of my trunk and removed my battery. They then tried to connect the battery from James’ car into my car but soon realized that the terminals were on the wrong side and that the connectors on my car couldn’t attach properly to James’ battery. Back to square one.

After some more time spent trying to pick my lock, the guy gave up. He did, however, know of another guy that was an “expert” with this sort of stuff, so we drove into town to pick him up and bring him back to my car. After a few attempts, he resolved that it could not be done. He reasoned that my keys must have had a transponder chip and that, because we did not have that transponder chip, the car was deadlocked. This was the most reasonable thing I had heard all day. However, it didn’t provide me much comfort when the guy told me that he could fix my car but it would involve him breaking through the lock and then tinkering with the engine to reconfigure my transponder system. As much as I trusted James, I didn’t trust these random guys to tamper with my engine.

The Real Solution
I went to Shakti – basically, my last hope – to see what advice they could offer. The first day I went there, I explained the situation to an old Indian man behind the counter. He sat there scratching his head with a pen for a full minute as I awaited his response. I was hoping that his time spent in deep thought while I awkwardly stared at him scratching his head would provide a moment of brilliance. His response: “So you don’t have a spare key, hey?” WOW! Why didn’t I think of using my spare key the entire time? Thank you for your brilliant advice! Where would I have been without you? F you! As is a common occurrence throughout this post, I didn’t really respond that way, as much as I wanted to. The old man told me to come back the next day so that I could speak to the owner.

Without any real alternatives, I went back to Shakti and spoke to the owner. Much to my surprise, and for the very first time since this whole ordeal began, I finally found someone who knew what he was talking about! Once he obtained the year and model of my car, and learnt that it was from South Africa, he knew right away what needed to be done. Apparently, South African cars are built not to be stolen. He explained that my 2005 X-Trail has a transponder chip system which prevents the manual unlocking of the doors if the transponder chip is not present. Even if we had managed to enter the car and cut a new key from the ignition, the car would not have started. Talk about secure for an 8-year old Nissan!

As a result, the owner said he would need to reconfigure my entire transponder system. This required importing three separate pin codes from the US, the UK and Spain. What that means or what the pin codes were needed for, I have no idea! It sounded right, though. Timeframe: 2 weeks. Estimated cost: 6,500,000 kwacha ($1,300) exclusive of VAT; cash, of course. After some desperate pleading on my part, he agreed to give me a 7.5% discount and said that if I paid through one of his other companies, I would only be charged 3% instead of the 16% VAT. Either way, this was a ridiculous bill and one that a poor missionary found hard to stomach!

Despite me telling them otherwise, the guys at Shakti were convinced that they could be the heroes to pick my lock. For hours, one of the workers tried and tried but, like the others that had tried before him, he was unsuccessful. We went back to Shakti to pick up some tools. The only choice left was to drill through my lock. It seemed that the guys at Shakti were reluctant to go this route (as was I) so, this time around, a second guy came with and tried his own luck at picking the lock. Again nothing. Despite the hours and hours they had already spent trying to manually pick my lock, they were convinced that all that was required was just a little more time and effort. I had enough. I finally convinced them that it was not going to work and to get on with drilling the lock. I thought I had made a huge mistake. The guys fired up the drill and drilled into the lock. Sparks flew as metal collided upon metal. Two minutes later, the drill-bit broke off. That’s not good. The guy casually pulled the drill-bit out, placed a new one on, and got back after it. I cringed as I watched the electric drill go deeper and deeper into my car door. After about 20 minutes of continuous drilling, he stopped. The door had yet to be open. He then started inspecting my tailgate and my rear passenger doors. I started to panic and called the owner.

“Do your guys know what they’re doing? Because they’ve been drilling my car door for the last 20 minutes and the door still is not open … and now he’s looking around at my tailgate and other doors! I’m concerned that you’re now drilling a hole in my car for nothing!”

The owner assured me that it would work and asked to speak to his workers, directing them not to touch any other part of my car. Magically, after 10 more minutes of drilling, they were able to open the door! They spent the next hour removing the ignition from my car and went on their way back to Shakti.

The doors hath finally opened!
What was left of my lock ...
The next day, James used his vehicle to tow my vehicle, African style, to Shakti. Apparently, legitimate towing (if it even exists in Zambia) costs a pretty penny and I didn’t have many pretty pennies left to spare after this whole ordeal. Again, James “knew of a guy” that could come steer and “drive” my towed car, since I had no experience doing so. For that, I am thankful, because it was extremely stressful being a passenger in a vehicle being towed by a 3-foot rope, driving over bumpy dirt roads, never mind being the driver!

Towing, African-style!
Diane's taking the picture. I'm riding shotgun in our car.
Problem #4 – So … is our car in the country illegally?

On top of our house headaches, the temporary permit that allows my South African car to be in Zambia was expiring that week. What I would have normally done was go to the Zambia Revenue Agency (ZRA) to have my permit renewed. The problem was that all my car papers and permit were locked inside our car. Great. 

Speaking of the permit, having our car in Zambia has actually proved to be more of a headache than we could have ever imagined. Because we purchased the vehicle in South Africa, there are certain rules re: importing a vehicle into Zambia, much like if you were to purchase a vehicle in the United States and bring it into Canada. However, the rules have been anything but clear. If someone could please find us some answers online, we would be forever grateful! In a nutshell, here’s what we have had to deal with in Zambia on how to legally have our car in the country.

What I was told before I left
When I drive my car across the border, I will receive a 30-day permit (CIP). That 30-day permit should hold me over while Hands helps me figure out how to handle the vehicle situation. Any duties I will be required to pay to temporarily import my car into Zambia should be nominal.

What the Ndola Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) told me
Due to a new circular that was recently released by the ZRA, I am no longer able to renew my CIP once the initial 30-day period expires. Rather, I will be required to obtain a temporary import permit (TIP), which will allow my vehicle to be in the country for 1 or 2 years. In order to get a TIP, I must travel back to my port of entry (the Botswana-Zambia border, which would be a 3-day journey, there and back) and obtain it there. To apply for a TIP, it is necessary to retain an agent.  The agent, using a car value that is double what my car is actually worth (due to it being randomly assigned that value without me knowing as I entered the country), quoted me a cost of 8,500,000 kwacha (approx. $1,700) for my TIP.

What the Kitwe ZRA told me
I am allowed to renew my CIP every 30 days, at no cost, up to a maximum of 6 months. If my vehicle is to be in the country after the 6 months expires, I am required to get a TIP, which can be obtained in Kitwe and doesn’t require me to drive back down to my point of entry. The agent I solicited in Kitwe quoted me a cost of 10,000,000 kwacha (approx. $2,000) for the TIP, despite calculating the quote based on the correct value of my car. This is Africa for you.

What I am doing
Despite recommendations from people at Hands to trust the Ndola ZRA (on the basis that it’s a bigger office and they referenced a “new circular”), I refuse to pre-emptively pay $2,000 for a TIP and embark on a 3-day road trip when I may not need to at all. If I have problems at the border when I leave the country, I’ll deal with them at that time. For now, I’ll continue to renew my CIP every 30 days. If I have a ZRA stamp and signature extending my CIP, that has to count for something, right? Right?

What my options are going forward
As far as I know, the plan is for us to be in Zambia until at least the end of April. There is the possibility that we will stay longer and, if so, I’ll deal with obtaining a TIP at that time. However, there has been talk of us staying in Zambia longer and perhaps even for the rest of the year. If that’s the case, I will either have to: (a) get my TIP; or (b) drive out of the country, drive back in and hope that I get a fresh 6 months without needing to pay any duties. Wishful thinking, I know. Stay tuned …

Problem #5 – Africans can sniff out the weak …

As a safety precaution, we decided to change the locks on our doors, on the odd chance that they ended up in the wrong person’s hands. We asked our landlord if she knew of someone that could do it for us and she told us that the two guys who had been working on our toilet (I refuse to credit them with being plumbers) could do it. In hindsight, this was a very bad idea, given how badly they botched the toilet but, in our defense, this was before we realized how incompetent they really were. Our landlord asked the two guys how much it would cost to replace the locks and they quoted 90,000 kwacha for two new locks and keys (for the front door and back door) plus a little extra for labour. Our landlord then said that it shouldn’t be much more than 100,000 kwacha ($20) total. That seemed reasonable to me so I gave the two guys 100,000 kwacha to go buy the materials and told them to do their thing.

They came back later in the afternoon that same day, locks in hand. As they began replacing the locks, we saw just how easy it would have been for us to do it ourselves. This didn’t become an issue until later. At the same time that they were replacing our locks, the guys from Shakti had finally opened up my car door. The day was almost over and I needed to get to ZRA to renew my permit (it was set to expire that day). I hopped in a taxi and left Diane to handle the “plumbers”. Rookie mistake. Big time.

By the time I arrived back from the ZRA, the locks had been replaced and the guys had left. I asked Diane how much she paid them, if anything, for labour. Expecting to hear something along the lines of 20,000 kwacha or nothing at all, she replied, “200,000 kwacha.” 200,000 KWACHA???!!! I almost jumped out of my seat. Diane actually thought she did quite well for herself. “They asked me for 150,000 kwacha each but I didn’t think that was right so I only gave them 100,000 kwacha each.” This time, I actually did jump out of my seat and out of the house in search of the two guys. Luckily, they were still around the property.

Me: “Hey! Did you just take 200,000 kwacha from my wife?”

Plumber: “No. We told her that it was 150,000 kwacha total but she just ended up just giving us 200,000 kwacha.”

I didn’t know whether to call him out on that straight up lie because this seems like something Diane might have done. Instead, I went to our landlord and explained the situation to her. She came out of her house and started yelling at the two guys. The entire exchange was in Bemba so I couldn’t understand what was going on. In the end, I was given 50,000 kwacha back. Despite my insistence that they were still ripping us off big time, that was all I was going to get.

I was fuming. Absolutely furious. It’s not that 150,000 kwacha is a significant sum of money; rather, it’s the principle. Throughout our first few months in Africa, I was adamant about not being the victim of an “opportunistic” African. Particularly when we were traveling, I learnt never to accept any arbitrary prices that are offered by Africans, whether it was for a taxi ride or an item being sold on the street. Luckily, my Chinese upbringing (i.e., my exposure to markets in China and Hong Kong, my inherent cheapness and my lack of shame) had gotten us by relatively unscathed, until now. I mean, it’s probably a guarantee that we’ve been ripped off a couple times, but it hasn’t been blatant. This time, it definitely was. And I was pissed.

Given everything that we had been dealing with over the past week, it was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. I wanted to demolish the two guys badly for ruining our toilet, dirtying our house 3 days in a row and, most of all, for ripping us off. Unfortunately, I instead unleashed my anger at Diane. I justified my anger at being incredulous that, after all this time in Africa and after our various travel experiences, she still lacked the street sense to realize that she was getting ripped off. I expressed my frustration about feeling like I always need to be in control of situations and that she couldn’t be relied on. This, of course, led to a long, heated discussion that solved nothing.

I realize that this was extremely unfair and uncalled for on my part. I admit as much. It wasn’t really all that big of a deal and it was an innocent mistake on her part. At the very least, it was a learning lesson. But after the week we had just experienced, with all the headaches, problems and frustrations, I had just reached a breaking point … and I snapped. At that point, we had both had enough of being in Africa!


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