“All ten please”.
I sighed and submitted my digits to the clerk. One at a time, she pressed my fingers into the musty blue sponge and then rolled them in the little squares on my residency application. It seemed overkill for a place 2000 miles from a machine that could read the tiny loops and spirals. Levi, one of the missionaries who has been called to serve in Bethel, was helping us navigate the labyrinth of Central African immigration. He thanked the young lady and left for the office next door. There he would get the application signed and exchange money for us to enjoy the privilege of living here.
Simon and Joakin, tile setters from Sweden who had arrived to help with the construction, were also there. They had arrived last night after a grueling five leg, four day trip that took them by train from Stockholm to Copenhagen then by plane to London to Nairobi to Douala and finally to Bangui. It wasn’t just hard to get materials here, it was hard to get people here too.
We sat placidly together on a bench in the stark concrete room and watched two women type on old mechanical machines. They were hunting and pecking their way through piles of applications, with carbons, in triplicate. The wait might not have been so bad had we not already spent an hour in a clinic getting a Certificate of Medical Fitness. This procedure requires not that a doctor examine you but that he merely look at you and type something on a paper – in exchange for a few bills. But since there was no electricity, typing these few words required firing up the generator which is normally only done at night. No one had the authority to turn it on and maybe it didn’t work, they weren’t sure. Finally we had to search for the clinic owner. His answer was not encouraging. We would have to wait until until the power ration came back. Sorry buddy, not if you want repeat business from us. Vrrrroooom! Behold, the generator works! We had our certificates within minutes and were out the door.
Jes had the foresight to bring a little hand wiping cloth to remove the ink. I, on the other hand, was kind of proud of my little badge of bureaucracy, and opted to wear it openly, at least until we could get home and take a picture of it. As my hands were perspiring in the heat, I was careful not to touch anything that would not look good in blue. Levi popped back in the door. “The director and secretary general are out exercising, we’ll have to finalize the papers at one p.m.” Levi had heard many excuses for bureaucratic inefficiency, but this was a first. For want of one signature, my residency would be delayed until this afternoon. No worries, at least he and his secretary would be physically fit for the signing, assuming they still had some energy left.
On our way out of the immigration office, Joakin spotted a sign from home. Hanging on the wall outside a nearby building was the Swedish national coat of arms and a prominent sign that said “Swedish Consulate”. Thoroughly surprised, he asked to stop and register. We asked several people who appeared to work there where exactly the embassy was located, but no one could remember. After a lengthy conversation with a security guard, we were issued impressive looking visitor badges and ushered up two flights of stairs (that’s a long way here) and brought to an imposing door with lots of well dressed people milling about in the passageway. It looked every bit like a consulate. A woman looked us over with an anxious face, then bolted through the door. She spoke rapidly with the man inside, all the while gesturing urgently in our direction. Through the hubbub, I caught sight him and could see that he was definitely not Swedish. He was Central African, and he came out to meet us.
“The embassy is next door, in the old bank building,” he said. He shook all of our hands, presumably to thank us for climbing the stairs, and gave me an odd look when he saw I kept my inky fingers nearly hyper-extended to avoid marking his nice french cuffs. Back down the steps, we slipped the visitor badges back to the guard and made our way down the block.
This next building was undoubtedly one of the nicest in Bangui. Marble floors, glass walls, air conditioning. Still no elevator, though. We were greeted, again, then seated, again, and then swept down another long hall to another waiting room to be greeted, again, and seated, again.
It was small, with glass walls and felt a lot like a fish bowl with the five of us in there. I thumbed through all four pages of an older copy of one of Bangui’s newspapers until another man and his administrative assistant rushed in to meet us. The anticipation was unbearable. I simply had to see an embassy that could only be reached via cloak-and-dagger zigzag through town. The man explained awkwardly that the Swedes up and left immediately after the coup in 2004 and had not been back since. I wanted to finish his sentence – and since the sign is made of ceramic, we were just waiting for a pair of tile setters to help us remove it. He shook hands with all of us, and as he firmly grasped my hand, I reciprocated, leaving five little blue copies of my fingerprints on his fair brown skin.
The drive home took us past the Hôtel de Ville, City Hall. It looks like it dropped straight out of a fairytale, not unlike a large bluegray wedding cake with many gilded accents. Several hundred men had found their way onto the grass. All were engaged in the Central African national pastime, sitting and chatting in the shade. Levi pulled over to ask one of the men about the status of the sanitation workers’ strike, the reason for their presence.
“We haven’t been paid in two months and the government doesn’t know when they will have the money,” the man barked.
The last sanitation strike lasted six weeks; this one had the potential to go longer. We would have to continue doing as we had the past week, hauling our garbage out of Bethel in one of the LandCruisers, driving fast with the windows down to keep the air moving in one direction. Emptying the garbage without getting your jack or spare tire stollen by the homeless children that live at the dump is another adventure for another post. Like Levi says, it may be a small country, but it’s never boring.
I can see now why so many foreigners who live in Bangui wear a look of perpetual frustration on their faces. If you are here strictly for business, you will find yourself smacking into endless obstacles. Inefficiency, instability, incompetence and the never-ending outstretched palms wanting to be greased make turning a profit elusive for many.
Thankfully, we have a different purpose for being here with very different rewards.
Normally, after our Sunday meeting, Jes and I do a few studies, among them Lambert, whom you have read about before. But today I was suffering with a painful sore throat and simply wanted to go straight home, with a brief stop at the market to buy some oranges for a little vitamin C. Maybe we could just call and reschedule for the following week. There was just one problem. Lambert didn’t have a phone, and we had promised to be there at ten. We had to go.
We found him at home, where he had just finished a morning bath and he told us to go in and be seated. He lives in one room with a bed, two chairs and a table (Africans always cook and bathe outside). His bible was open on his bed. Last week we discussed the goal of reading the entire Bible in one year. He had taken the suggestion to heart and had finished Genesis the first week by reading a few chapters in the morning and before bed. We commended him for his efforts and enjoyed another delightful study just like the week before, in spite of my swollen adenoids.
After we finished with prayer, he asked me, “Do you have a bag with you?” I said no, so he rifled through his things until he found one. Then he unfolded a cloth that was sitting on the table, uncovering eight freshly picked oranges. He dropped all eight into the bag and said, “I want you to have these. I really appreciate you coming to teach me.” It was such a small gesture, but it meant so much. Jes and I had to hide the tears as we left. We told him about how we almost didn’t come and why, and he just smiled and nodded, happy to give his gift. We returned home, beaming with satisfaction that Jehovah had blessed us with such an appreciative bible student.
It took Levi two more days and three more trips to get our residency, but it finally came through. The little square paper has my name, the fact that I am American, a quivering and sweaty signature and, ironically enough, a big blue stamp. We are now legal inhabitants of the R.C.A. Still I couldn’t help but think – even though the law requires it, we don’t need a piece of paper to tell us where home is.
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