Post-colonial bureaucracy be damned!

Here we go again.

Now where was I, oh yes, I was waiting along with my Kenyan brother-in-law, Josie, at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in the Cargo Terminal for my massive and heavy suitcase. Well, it is going on 7 hours now and I still do not have my suitcase in hand.

But, I am getting ahead of myself. Perhaps I should start at the beginning of this sordid affair.

OK, I did not feel like giving Qatar Airways in Doha my hard earned riyals for excess baggage, so I took the advice of wiser folks and decided to ship a suitcase by QNT to Nairobi. Seemed simple enough, pack up my mini-book collection of four years, my Marcos collection of plimsoles, the infamous MBT shoes and sandals, and trainers (as the Brits would say), plus extra shirts, coats, a used iron, and other personal times. I was warned not to include any gas, aerosols, bombs, AK-47s…the kind of stuff for starting a mini- insurrection.

I had so much crap stuffed into the suitcase that I had to sit on it to zipper it shut and then use the locking device. I eventually got it to the QNT shippers and sent off with plastic wrapping around it.

That was a week ago.

It finally arrived here in Kenya, and I was instructed to pick it up at JKIA as soon as possible otherwise incurring daily storage charges–at US dollar prices no less. I thought it was kinda cheeky of the cargo office for the latter since they only called me just as their offices were closing and we live about an hour to 2 hour UBER ride from the airport.

So yesterday, Josie and I took an UBER Chap Chap taxi (smaller Suzuki) to the airport. We debated whether to keep the guy on hold, but luckily decided that we could get another at the airport.

Bureaucracy #1: In the brief conversation I had with the custom’s gal on the phone last night, she mentioned I would have to get a “clearance agent” to help get my suitcase through customs. Seemed like a bit of overkill. I told her that no one had told me about this in Doha. She said–“This is Kenya.” She also said that this would cost me between 5,000-10,000 KSH (roughly $50-$100US) for the agent. One guy, Laban, phoned me and instructed us where to meet him. We followed him up to his cramped office, shared with four others surrounded by stacks of all sorts of 3-ring binders bursting with yellowed dog-eared folders.

Josie and I sat down, then Laban stunned me with–

Bureaucracy #2:”Where is your PIN number?”

“What PIN number?

“You need a PIN number to get your suitcase through Customs.”

I was dumbfounded. I looked at Josie, and asked him if he had one. No

“Look, I just sent this from Doha, no one mentioned that I needed a PIN number. I am not a resident here, just a visitor.” Maybe I would have to abandon this as it was already getting complicated–it was just a suitcase after all.

A lot of jabber in Swahili between different agents in their small office, and luckily, Josie was there to provide a blow-by-blow description of their chatter.

Then Laban told me that there may be a way around this, and phoned some other clearance guy name Samdee.

Bureaucracy #3: For a Kenyan guy, he looked remarkably like one of those Bushmen from The God Must be Crazy movie.

He introduced himself and said they called him Sameday meaning he could get everything done in ‘the same day’. I explained to him that I had no PIN number, and he said it did not matter. Seems the agents must have this same problem from time to time.

For the next 5 hours, Sameday, would move in an out of various offices, flitted back and forth to where we were, instructing us to sit and wait for him and enjoy a tea. I had to give him my passport, and initially, I thought that was the last I would see of it. I think my passport changed hands a number of times between various custom officials in their offices. Sameday seemed to be on a caffeine buzz and he hurried around leaving us in his wake. He often came back to see us asking for money for different parts of the process with a fistful of papers to show for his actions.

Bureaucracy #4: Josie and I eventually were told to go and wait in the Custom’s office for “Verification” of my suitcase, so we waited and waited and waited then suddenly the blinders came down on the various windows for Customer Service and the Cashier offices. It was 1pm and lunchtime for these hard-working Custom’s bureaucrats. Seemed their job was a lot of talking, computer print-outs, signatures, and endless banging of their stamps. That would build up anyone’s appetite.

Josie and I waited for their lunch hour to end and then we were told at 2 pm, all the staff had an impromptu staff meeting. God, this was taking forever. More paper shuffling, signatures, stamps with my passport going and coming. Sameday introduced us to his son who would assist us in our quest.

Bureaucracy #5: Somehow, Sameday had managed to jump the queue and brought me a yellow fluorescent vest to wear with his company name on the back in the event, I got to “Verify” my suitcase. I was, after all, the only mzungu in the whole frickin’ place–not hard to see me or tell me from other Kenyans.

I was struct by one custom’s gal who’s only job seemed to be ferrying empty blue water bottles around, or bringing a thermos of tea and a fresh pitcher of water for the Customs Supervisor’s office next to where we were waiting.

Bureaucracy #6: Finally, Sameday and his son were furiously waving at me from the custom’s security door to come for verification. I walked through and met Madame Customs officer.

My bound suitcase was ferried over on a skid by a manual forklift. Seemed a bit of overkill.

“Is this your suitcase.” Indeed it was.

Then Sameday’s son, used what looked like metal shears, to cut the plastic wrapping

I had to key in my secret three numbers for the security lock.

“What is inside?”

“Just personal items” I told the Custom’s gal who seemed pleased with that.

She signed some forms and handed off to a bigger, burly Custom’s guy who then asked me the same questions.

“Do you have any contraband?”

“No. I lost my job in Doha. No contraband.”

“You can come and work on my farm,” he suggested and laughed.

I had to do a more thorough search through my shoes, sandals, books, diaries, to satisfy him.

“Is that iron box used?”


Ok, then I thought I could collect it and walk out.

I finally managed to zipper it shut with the help on Sameday’s son.

Then I had to go back out and sit with Josie again.

Bureaucracy #7: After another 3 hours, more paper shuffling and then finally told to go through another security area, through a turnstile, a pat down by security agents, surrendered my passport again, was handed a name tag and then followed Sameday and his son to another crammed office. Sameday told Josie to get an UBER cab. I waited again and they were playing reggae music and I recognized a song by Jamaican group Chalice. “Shine on your way. You gotta fly your way home.

Could not go home just yet.

Bureaucracy #8: Had to leave their office and one more time for a new Custom’s guy to inspect my suitcase, as if I had snuck in though security doors, the only mzungu, to sneak something into my overloaded suitcase. This time, Sameday opened my suitcase the wrong way and everything fell out. I swore out loud, but the officer seemed satisfied. Had to repack everything then zipper it closed. Josie was not allowed inside this security area but the Uber guy was.

I followed Sameday back out through the security turnstile, handed over my name tag and vest. I paid Sameday his amount for running around for me and jumped in the cab with Josie–it was past 5 pm now. We’d been here since 10:30 am.

Note to self, nevermore!

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