So I finally got my visa. It took literally over a month to get a one-month renewal for my visa, and I think that only happened because our logistician seems to know everyone in Bujumbura. After losing my file for several weeks, it was found and I was issued a 70-day visa instead of a 30-day visa, which costs more than twice what I should have had to pay. Then, they demanded payment.
As a volunteer here for the past three months, I was pretty annoyed that the grand total for the visas alone was going to be $220. In the end, after having tried repeatedly to make an appointment with the always-absent top official at the PAFE (Police of the Air, Borders, and Foreigners) Office, we finally got in to see him. I tried to be as charming as possible without looking like a pushover, and used as much Kirundi as I could. Naturally, he asked me if I had a boyfriend, and where he was. In Kirundi. This was, luckily, among the questions that I know how to answer, because people ask all the time. (It’s a bit tiresome.) I also answered because I knew that he, and he alone, stood between me and the visa I wanted…and it was better than slipping him a $20 under the table.
After rustling through some papers, examining my file closely, making an exaggerated point of studying the calendar, and then my studying my file again, he said something in Kirundi to the logistician, who nodded and led me out. I asked him what happened.
“He’s giving you a 45-day visa for $90,” he said. Interesting. I’ve never heard of a 45-day visa, nor is it posted anywhere. It looks like something created for me because I created such a fuss, and for so long. It seems like rules here are flexible…in other words, anything goes.
Sadly, it appears that the visa delay issue (among many other visa dilemmas) is significant here. I was describing my situation to a friend who works for BINUB, the United Nations civilian mission in Burundi, and he explained that the PAFE “loses” muzungu visa applications on purpose. I didn’t believe him until I remembered that they had lost my boss’s visa application as well. At the PAFE, they drag their feet deliberately, until someone gives them the motivation to do something—that is to say, until someone gives them a bribe. Then…ta da! You have a visa, as if by magic. My friend said that it’s gotten so bad that he doesn’t work with them anymore—he works through higher officials to get UN visas processed.
The idea that corruption is rampant here is something to which I have not grown accustomed. My boss was pulled over by a policeman for talking on her phone while driving. After insisting that he see her identification, the policeman asked her to pay 5,000 Francs. She said that she would be happy to, if she received a receipt. The policeman shuffled his feet and looked down. “A receipt?” he repeated, as if he had never heard the word before. “Yes,” she said. “If you are pulling me over and are giving me an official ticket, then I want a receipt for the amount paid.”
The policeman looked uncomfortable. “It’s not a lot,” he insisted. My boss stood her ground. In the end, he returned her identification to her, and we drove off without paying any money.
That’s just a small example. For a big example, take malaria treatment. One of the best medicines you can get in this region for malaria treatment is called Coartem. It used to be available in Burundi, but an Indian company struck an under-the-table deal with people in the Ministry of Health, and now only their Indian-made malaria treatment drugs may be sold in the country. Coartem is no longer sold. If you want it, you’d better hope that a friend in Rwanda will send you some. In the meantime, the malaria treatment medication that is sold here is of questionable quality and may be expired. Great. A little extra mosquito repellent, please.
Then, you have the downright silly. The same friend from BINUB who told me how terrible the PAFE was recounted something that happened to him a couple of weeks ago. He and some friends ordered a container full of household goods, food, etc. Just to be clear about what I mean when I say container, it’s one of those massive metal boxes that 18-wheel tractor trailers transport. In other words, it’s big and heavy and hard to miss.
Well, his container arrived…and then disappeared into thin air. Since he’s at the UN, he knows the Burundian intelligence services, and called them up, asking them to conduct an investigation. Three days later, they found his container (much to his relief, as the container itself cost $1500), but it was completely empty. I find this absurd because we’re not talking petty theft, such as stealing a bag or wallet. To move a container, you need a crane and a tractor trailer. This was an operation.
I told an American friend who works in security about this, and he laughed. “Well, intelligence must have been in on it,” he insisted. “Containers don’t just vanish without someone noticing. And it took them three days? In a country this size? Are you kidding? That was just enough time for them to cover their tracks.”
It’s sad, of course. Signs around town proclaim that “Corruption enriches few people, and kills many,” but they probably have as much impact as the female condom advertisement, which just looks like a woman handing a plastic bag to a perplexed man. That is to say, these signs probably have little to no effect. In this environment of corruption and impunity, it feels like anything is possible, but not in the good way. Rules are simply guidelines; they are not strictly followed. It means that there is always room for negotiation here, for better or for worse. Right now, since I finally received my questionable visa, it’s for the better. In general, though, it’s certainly not the best.