The land is mine (I think)

At 8.30am I arrived at Harare’s passport office in the registrar general’s building next to the once-famous Prince Edward High School.

The building I’d last entered seven years before was a shadow of its former self. The ceiling was peeling and covered in brown stains like old tears. Tired people lined up next to doors with numbers and shuffled blindly from room to room.

I joined a quick-moving line and soon faced a bored lady at the counter who sneered at me and demanded to know my business.
I nervously explained. “This is the line for ETGs,” she spat—the useless Emergency Travel Document that cost Z$20-billion and would take me only as far as South Africa at best. Those were the days before the Zim dollar was abandoned as the official currency.

“Do you have forex?” she spat again. “Yes, ma’am.” “Then go to Room 6.” I was waved off before I could ask any more questions. So I found Room 6 and joined the tired queue.

Inside was a man who understood what sitting in his chair meant in relation to those who were waiting to have an audience with him—and he milked it for all it was worth. Sucking his teeth, he held out his hand for my documents and demanded to see the money. Then he triumphantly dismissed me by telling me I was missing my original birth certificate.

It was now 11.30am. I rushed home and quickly returned with the missing documents, making a detour to Room 108 to get photocopies. Z$600-million later I was handed two poor-quality copies with which I rushed to Room 6. “Mr Important” then signed my copies and sent me to another window where I was to pay US$20 for an application form and get a receipt, at which time Mr Important would hand me another form. Back home I filled out this form and enjoyed a restless night in anticipation of Day 2.

Day 2. I arrived as the office doors were opening and joined the anxious crowd. Security made everyone queue according to the room they needed to go to. Room 6 was ushered in first. Mr Important hardly looked at my documents as he scribbled and then ordered me to go to Room 8.

There I encountered a stagnant line: the computer system was down. We were handed numbers and told to go and wait outside; we would be called once the system was back up. Half of the hundreds of milling people abandoned ship. I stayed and waited with the other half in a room plastered wall to wall with old files—the documents of many long gone.

Speculating on what might be wrong with the computers, we settled on the filth caked on the machines—perhaps the answer to our problems was just a thorough cleaning away. Waiting, a few mamas read self-improvement books and joked lightly with the officials. An Indian couple grabbed every official in sight demanding to know why the machines were down. A few overweight, red-faced farmers went in and out of rooms, looking frustrated behind a security guard who walked with an assumed authority.

Someone jokingly urged an officer to give the computers another try and surprisingly that worked. Thanks to those who had abandoned ship, Room 8 swiftly punched my information into the computer, fingerprinted me, glued on my pictures and stamped them.

Then I had to go to another window to pay at last for my passport. There I took a number (23) and waited. The officials were “having tea” behind the shuttered window. When they eventually resumed work, the numbers were in the 40s. Officials wrote down the serial number of every banknote handed to them; we were looking at US$650 for every person, so this was going to be an agonising wait. I got comfortable in the queue and started talking about the good old days with the others. Most were renewing expired passports for relatives who had left Zimbabwe for greener pastures.

As my turn neared, a man approached and offered to pay me if I would process his passport with mine. Embarrassed and surprised, I politely declined and looked away towards the six-foot banner splashed with Mugabe’s grinning image proclaiming that the land was mine.

At the window I paid up and was handed a green receipt and directed to Room 4. There I joined another queue and in time met a man behind a Dell computer spitting into his phone about some clandestine meeting. He did not seem to notice me, carelessly checked my documents against what he had in his computer and told me to come back on seven working days. It turned out he really meant two weeks.

Cathrene Tarukwasha is a self-employed personal assistant for busy individuals, speaks five languages, was educated in the United States and spent much of her adult life in Shanghai, China. She recently returned to Zimbabwe and now lives in Harare

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