feeding my own misguided insanity

Five Thousand Eight Hundred and Sixty-Two Kilometres from Home

It’s been almost three years since my last big African project south of the equator. This morning I once again saw Lusaka’s green lawns bask in the warm, morning sun while birds played in the lush Acacia trees lining the streets.

Not much has changed. The people are still friendly, kind and with a genuine desire to lend a helping hand. The traffic, as before, flows steadily and with a minimum of fuss; not because of congestion but because it’s just the way things are. Sure there is the occasional jam, but nothing like Lagos or Nairobi where two hours are barely enough to do a milk run.

There are a couple new hotels and a shopping mall, power shedding is less frequent and internet speeds are on par with the rest of developed Africa. I must admit, Zambia’s capital has managed to gain many mod cons without selling off its African charms. It’s still a lovely, sleepy town in a sleepy corner of Africa.

It’s the beginning of July and middle of winter. Despite the season, the days are still warm enough to contemplate a morning swim or an outdoor venue for dinner. Having just flown in from Dubai where the temperature hit 48°C the previous day, walking outdoors without air-conditioning or sleeping with an open window makes for a very pleasant change.

I like Lusaka and its climate. At almost 1300m, its altitude tempers even the hottest summer months and there’s usually a scattering of small clouds on the horizon teasing the countryside with the promise of rain. Politically, unlike its neighbors, Zambia didn’t suffer the same level of civil unrest when gaining independence — perhaps one of the main reasons why I think it’s a very safe country by African standards.

Immigration seems to have improved and getting into the country is far less problematic. The only downside is the obligatory fingerprint scanners that have now spread across most of the continent and only add tedious minutes to the whole process.

I’m not opposed to fingerprint scanning, but I really don’t see any reason for scanning all ten fingers when my first trip already captured that data. Subsequent trips shouldn’t require more than a single finger to confirm ownership of my body. I’m sure that anyone who values the sanctity of their biometric data or originates in a country where fingerprinting is reserved for criminals, will likely grumble as their unique digits are shared with Interpol and other law enforcement agencies across the globe.

I do admit that, unlike the full-body scanners, I haven’t refused being fingerprinted — perhaps something to test upon my next visit. “I object on the grounds of protecting the privacy of my biometric data.” Would be interesting to dig a bit more on how the data is shared, if at all, with other agencies and whether there is a data retention policy.

A dual-entry business visa cost me $80 and a single-entry tourist visa goes for only $50, as opposed to the $150 I paid last time (then again, it was a river crossing from Botswana and I might have been taken for a ride).

After the twenty-something minute drive that it took to reach Lusaka’s center from the airport, I started checking into the hotel when the clerk informed me the transaction has been declined. “Card Cancelled,” said the message in bold at the bottom of the docket. “Can you please try again, I never have problems with this card.” And again, same message, “Card Cancelled.” I reluctantly hand over my other two cards — same thing. What the F***? “Are you sure it’s not your connection to the bank?”

I picked up the phone and called HSBC, punched my credit card number into the automated system and finally got through to an operator. As it turns out, thanks to a project in Nigeria which required me to apply for a visa using the Nigerian portal, my MasterCard(s) and Visa credit cards were cancelled because of “irregular and recurring” transactions. I shouldn’t be surprised, most banks are on high-alert when it comes to Nigeria.

Apparently the Nigerian payment gateway wasn’t satisfied with my own attempts at authorizing the transaction and decided to recursively keep retrying while I’d already made purchases in another country en route to Zambia.

Adding insult to injury, the Nigerian embassy in Abu Dhabi stopped taking over-the-counter cash payments despite knowing about these technical problems. Calling their technical support hotline only produced the generic: “just try the card again” — an act that landed me here in the first place.

Apparently it’s HSBC policy to “cancel credit cards when we can’t verify transactions originating in Nigeria and can’t contact the owner within 24 hours.” I don’t remember reading anything like this in the small print of the contract. Why not just suspend the cards rather than cancel? Fantastic!

Not sure if you’ve had the pleasure recently, but checking into any hotel without a valid credit card is next to impossible. It’s almost as if a wad of cash, irrespective of its height, is worthless unless it has a magnetic strip on the back.

After a short and emotional plea with the HSBC call center, the lady finally understood that the emergency replacement cards should be shipped to Lusaka rather than my usual residential address. Fingers crossed, they should be here in a few days via Johannesburg. In the meantime I’ll have to make do with my own emergency stash of cash to cover the room day-by-day until the replacements arrive.

It’s Sunday afternoon, the local banks are closed and I’m five thousand eight hundred and sixty two kilometers from home. I guess I can always pawn my new laptop at the street market across the road, I’m told it’s Lusaka’s finest.

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