Monday, July 28, 2008

Crossing the Burkina Faso-Ghana border

It doesn't have anything to do with libraries, but a lot to do with why working in Africa is often viewed as unrewarding by "high-power" people: it is frustrating. So the field is left to naive first-time development workers, or feisty people who delight in petty challenges, or good-natured people who think that this is the best use of their time ;-)

We arrive at the border, myself and Adama, the driver. Since this is Adama's first time to cross the border, he hangs back. A good driver would immediately start backslapping the policemen in hopes of finding a connection, a network, somewhere just in case what is about to happen, happens. Note Rule 1: It is always the drivers fault... that's what they are paid for, to take all blame!

So we go see the passport and car police persons. They have a little house by the side of the road. Inside the dusty room, a bench and a couple chairs. A dirty office (dusty, old calendar askew, ripped tape on the wall, etc.) where the supervisor presumably sits, but usually empty. I present my papers to the middle-aged gentleman with reading glasses. He glances at me over his reading glasses while he fills out the large rulebook. He looks at my "Carte Grise", the vehicle registration card (we are driving a gray1986 Mercedes 190D, newly soldered together after the accident, though still with a large rusted out hole in the undercarriage below the passenger seat). So, he glances up over his glasses,
"Who is 'Leslie Gray'"
"That is my wife."
"And where is your procuration?"
"Oh. I didn't know I needed one. What is it?"
"A letter that states you have permission to drive the car. It has to be stamped at a police office. It just takes 30 minutes to do. You can do it anywhere."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I don't have that. I've driven over with this car many times before and have not been asked for it."
"Is now before? Before we didn't have computers, now we do. Before we didn't have Internet, now we do. Things change. Just because you didn't have it before, what does that mean? And do you think they will let you in Ghana without a procuration?"
"Yes, I see what you mean. but my wife is in Ouagadougou. How can I get a procuration? Do I have to return to Ouagadougou?" The return trip is a three hour drive.
"Well." Pause. "You can have her fax a procuration."
"Is there a fax here in Dakola?" Dakola is the small frontier town.
"Just outside, and another one down the way."
So I exit and head over to the fax place. I call Leslie, tell to to get a letter ready. The fax place doesn't have a working machine- who does, nowadays? He sends me to a transport society office. The guy, effusive, sits me down.
"OF COURSE YOU CAN USE THE MACHINE! A procuration? Hmmm. Well, I guess you need it!"
The fax arrives. A short letter signed by Leslie. The fax machine, by the way, is from 1985... those ones that use the roll of heat-sensitive paper? But it worked, though barely legible.
Back to the border agent. The man before me has just presented his car's insurance card.
"But where is your CEDEAO insurance? This is for Burkina. You are going to Ghana. Where is your Community of West African States insurance? Or don't you have it?"
"Yes sir, sir, this is the Burkina insurance," looking at the floor.
"Noooooo. It is not possible! Go away. How can you cross the border without the CEDEAO insurance? Go away."
He turns to me.
"Yes what do you have there?"
Reading glasses come down further on the nose. Tsss.
"What is this? This is nothing. Nothing."
He turns the letter upside down and around.
"This is nothing. Where is her identity card?"
"Er, I thought this is what you said, a letter from her saying she gave permission."
(Here a man enters, and there is a brief exchange, and the man sits down behind me on the bench.)
"A letter, of course. But her address, and her identity card, and more specifics, and the whole form of the procuration!"
"Perhaps then you could tell me exactly then what I need so that I can ask her to send it?"
He looks me up and down.
"Sit down then while I help this man."
The man was the one who had come in before. When the man had come in before, he entered the room and asked, in a general way, if this was the place to register a car. The policeman looked at him over his reading glasses, and then returned to me and didn't answer. The man asked again, looking more directly at the policeman, who now grunted assent. The man looked at him in undisguised annoyance, the kind that says I know your type, and then asked in a rather cold way whether he could at least not sit down, leaving out the part about how ordinary courtesy would have led the policeman to ask him to sit and wait while he finished with me. The policeman now locked horns, and looked at him, and just said "Oui" the way Burkinabe say it sometimes meaning if you are an idiot then yes I will tell you to your face yes you can sit down what are these chairs and benches for. So the man reached for a chair and started to sit down.
"Is that the chair for the vehicle registration desk? No. That is for passports."
"So thank for telling em. So where are the chairs for your desk?"
"Can't you see the bench there."
Now this man, whom I judged a man not to be trifled with, carried out his business in 2 minutes (that is all it takes when there is no problem). Then he was back to me.
"This letter needs to say that your wife gives permission for you to take the car across the border."
"But that is what it says."
"Yes, but look... 'to go to Ghana'... what does that mean? That is too vague. Vague!"
Here of course the dreaded Kevane "I see dumb people" gene took over at last. I looked him cold in the eye and knowing I shouldn't be saying what I was saying I said it anyway:
"Is it your business where I am going in Ghana? It says Ghana. That is all it needs to say."
He won.
"Ah! If that is your game, and the way you behave... I was doing you a favor. Ordinarily it has to be completed in a police station. But now I see. Just go. Leave."
"What is your name please"
"I don't have to tell you my name. Go."
"Who is your boss? Who is in charge here?"
The boss was outside. An amiable senior officer who seemed to know the character of his employees and every peasant crossing the border. In a low voice, after some hemming over Leslie's letter, asked me to just go and get a fax of the ID card of Leslie, and he would stamp it and I could go. From beginning to end, two and a half hours. On the way back, Adama did befriend one of the policewomen, who expressed shock that we were held that long over a simple procuration that isn't even necessary. As I knew full well, on the Ghana side I was greeted with a smile, "Good day sir!" and went on my way to visit the community libraries.

Don't misinterpret the story. Burkinabe are 95% wonderful and friendly, like people eveywhere, and they instantly recognized the character of the border policeman: aigre (sour). And indeed he was. But someone like that has a lot more capacity to harm others in a society that is very poor (like Burkina) because so often there is no recourse (What if there had been no fax machine? End of trip?). And I am not objecting to the reasonable policy that in some cases an agent might demand a procuration, and if the driver did not have one, the agent might ask some more questions. but the agent has my passport, so a thief who was carrying a fake passport could surely have a fake procuration...

No comments: