Dar es Salaam Diary: The Story of Mr. Abdan

My assignment in Tanzania has come to an end, and I am on a flight to the Fatherland as I write this. The final few days went by in a flurry of meetings (interspersed with ample cups of Tanzanian chai) with public sector officials, private businesses, and members of the international community in Dar es Salaam, Morogoro, and Zanzibar. Yes, Zanzibar, that almost mythical island that many have heard of, but few have visited. I like to think it falls in the same category of interesting places such as Casablanca, Timbuktu, El Dorado, and Chichawatni – oft-mentioned but rarely visited. It was an amazing experience, but more on that later. For now we turn to the story of how this memorable journey started off. Hope you are comfortable back there.

Flying into Tanzania at 2am could never have been the best idea in the world. After having spent more than 36 hours in transit, hop-scotching through airports in Frankfurt, Khartoum, and Addis Abbaba, all I was hoping for was a smooth entry. Certainly not as eventful as Nigeria! Tanzania was my second visit to Africa in two months, and I haven’t been able to find the time to write about the (cough) pleasant experience I had in Nigeria. Yeah, don’t go there unless you are in the mood to knock a couple of years off your life. Miracles were involved.

Julius Niyere airport seemed innocuous at first sight. It was quite small and there were plenty of foreigners. Colourful corporate advertisements dotting the walls suggested it was a lively place; the eerie white light emanating from tube light-filaments (it reminded me of the uniforms at Beacon House, as well as those worn by nurses at most Pakistani hospitals) implied otherwise.  I made my way through the terminal and joined the other passengers in front of the immigration counters. Documentation had given me some trouble in Nigeria, so this time I was fully prepared. My armory included supporting letters, copies of the hotel reservation, local contacts, the works.  I waited in line, switching from one foot to another, excited to be in Tanzania. Eventually my turn at the counter came, and I stepped up to it. I handed my papers over to the agent confidently, and greeted him with a smile. It went unreturned. I attributed it to the late hour. The agent started the slow process of examining my documents. He looked over my Pakistani passport and the blue Tanzanian entry card carefully. Meanwhile, I scanned his face to try to ascertain how things were going, and whether he was going to give me any trouble. Looking up, he asked: “What are you here for, sir?” Reasonable question. I responded by telling him that I was there for a consulting assignment. He then asked whether I had a letter from my sponsor to explain the nature of the trip. I replied in the affirmative, and handed over the letter for him to take a look at.

I knew it was not a good sign when he picked up the black receiver on his desk, and started speaking into it in Swahili. “Here we go again,” I thought to myself.

He emerged from behind me, casually walking up to the officer behind the counter. As they spoke, I assessed the new official. He was rotund, dressed in a shabby uniform, and about a foot-and-a-half shorter than me. By the time he walked up to me, I had already run out of patience. He looked up at me through large, golden-rimmed glasses, and asked for the letter from my employer. I handed it over, and watched him as he read through it. After a few minutes passed, he started to shake his head and say “CTA, CTA.” He kept on repeating it for another ten seconds, and then addressed me again “You will need a CTA to enter the country.”

A: “Excuse me? What is a CTA?”

Official (O): “It is a temporary work permit that you will require. You can get it from the visa section behind you.”

A: “I don’t understand. I already have a business visa stamped on my passport and don’t think I need anything else.”

O: “You will need a CTA.”

A: “How much does this CTA cost?”

O: “250 US dollars.”

With that he took my passport, and started walking in the direction of the visa section. I followed him, telling him that I wasn’t convinced. He handed the passport off to a visa officer. When that elicited a loud protest from me, he looked at me incredulously. “You seem to have a lot of questions, so why don’t you come to my office.”

Travel advice: never take anyone up on such an offer, particularly not in the middle of the night.The Office

The office was set aside from the main hall. It was a metal enclosure with tinted windows. So from the outside, you could not see what was going on inside. He left the door open as we walked in and sat down at his desk. Once inside, our argument began once more. He kept telling me that I required a CTA, but provided little logical explanation to back it up. Considering the scams that I had been exposed to at African airports in the last month, and the fact that I had a valid business visa on my passport, I was not inclined to believe him. After going back and forth for a while, he threw up his hands and said “let me call my supervisor.”

He called someone up.

O: “Sir, there is a traveler here who is refusing to buy the CTA. He is a Pakistani and is in Nigeria to do a consulting assignment. I have told him that he will require a CTA, but he is refusing to listen to me.”

Short pause.

O: “Yes sir, he has a Pakistani passport. He is sitting in front of me. Yes, I understand. Okay, I will see you in the morning.”

The official turned to me.

O: “I have reported your case. You not only require a CTA, but also a letter from the Pakistani High Commission endorsing your visit to Tanzania. My boss has said that he will deal with you personally in the morning.” Motioning to the chair in front of him, he continued “He will see you in the morning. I am here, you will stay here too.”

I thought I had misunderstood him, “what do you mean stay here till the morning?”

He repeated what he had said, “I have reported your case.”

I asked him whether he was crazy, and made it known to him what a stupid idea I thought this was, and that there was no way I was going to spend the night at the airport. As we argued, the officials eyes got bigger and bigger, and his responses angrier. When the conversation seemed to be going nowhere, I consented and told him that I would purchase the CTA.

A: “Lets go, I will buy the CTA.”

O: “No, there is nothing I can do now. I have reported your case. I offered you to get the CTA earlier, but you refused. Now you will stay here till the morning. There is a chair outside my office.”

After hurling some choice remarks at him, I demanded my passport back. He refused and placed it on a shelf above his desk – within my arms reach. I got up and reached for the passport.

The action caused the official to explode. He let out a banshee yell, and jumped up from his chair (quite nimbly for a man of his size).  He hit the passport with his hand, sending it flying out of my reach. Pointing his finger at me, he shouted “I will call the police on you!”

Excited by the commotion, one of his underlings rushed into the room.

The comedy of it all caused me to start laughing, which did not go down very well with him.

A: “You will call the police on me? What for? I am just a young guy here to evaluate an economic development project for the British Government. I have all of my documents, including a valid business visa, and all I have asked you for is a valid explanation of why I need a CTA. What will you call the police for?”

O: “Just leave me alone! I have told you that the boss will be here in the morning. He will deal with you! Now you can go and wait outside my office. I will keep your passport.”

So, at approximately 3 am, after an hour of arguing, I found myself with no choice but to wait outside his office till morning. I left the room, but only after making him promise that he would hand over my documents in the morning. Outside, there was a single rickety chair, set against a grimy wall, in an overall reasonably clean twelve foot by ten foot room. The area was a thoroughfare, and airport officials of various hues kept walking through it. “So much for getting a good night’s rest.”

My cell phone wasn’t working, and they refused to help me make a phone call. In any case, I would not have been able to reach anyone at the office at that hour. I sat down on the chair and decided to wait till morning, focusing my attention on the small television set on the wall in front of me. Al Jazeera was showing scenes from across Africa – an assortment of burning tires, violent clashes, and humanitarian crises. “Lovely place,” I thought.

Between short rounds of unconsciousness, I thought of a plan for the morning. The most important thing was to send a message to the office, letting them know of the situation. There was no public calling facility at the airport, so the only way to do this would be to use someone else’s cell phone. Second, my approach of arguing with the official was clearly not working, so it was time to change tactics and be polite – I would purchase the CTA if they asked me to do so again. I also managed to find out the official’s name: Mohammad Abdan. I also took a picture. For the first time, I realized what it must feel like to be held in captivity. The situation seemed somewhat comical, but nonetheless worrying. Anything could happen in the morning, and the last thing I wanted to do was to be stopped from completing my assignment.

At 7 AM, people started pouring into the office area. Bottom-rung bureaucrats, security officials, and customs staff milled about. Some of them stopped to chat. I scanned their faces for signs of friendliness. Eventually, I found a man willing to let me borrow his cell phone if I compensated him for the cost of the call – first stroke of luck. I immediately called my colleagues, and probably interrupted their breakfast with the news of my situation. Don’t worry and take the solution that they offer, I was told. “If we don’t hear from you in two hours, we will come to the airport.”

Somewhat relieved, I next focused on what to do with Mr. Abdan. True to his word, he had spent the night inside his office. In fact, he had even closed the door, probably afraid that I might pull a fast one on him as he snored at his desk! The door was open by morning, and saw people going into the office and greeting him with loud Salaams. Convinced that he was a Muslim, I decided to take the Islamic route.

At 8 AM, the time he had given me, I walked back into his office.

A: “Assalamoalaikum Mr. Abdan.”

Slightly surprised that I knew his name, Mr. Abdan looked up. “Walaikum salaam,’ he said, somewhat begrudgingly.

A: “I hear that you are a Muslim.”

Mr. Abdan: “Yes I am.”

A: “Well, Muslims are supposed to help their brothers when they meet in faraway lands. I have done what you requested me to do, and have waited patiently the whole night. Now, please solve my problem and let me get on to my work.”

Mr. Abdan let out a sheepish smile, and finally seemed to relax a bit. “Okay, let me go and see if the boss is here. I will speak with him and come back to you.”

About half an hour later, he came up to me and said “Okay my friend, are you ready to get the CTA now?” I looked at him, he was beaming as if offering a free three-day safari to go along with the CTA. “Sure, I will purchase the CTA. However, I want to tell you that I have barely slept for the last two days, and I haven’t eaten anything the last twelve hours, and it is all your fault,” I said.

“Okay my friend, I apologize for that,” said Mr. Abdan. “You and your CTA,” I chuckled, as we walked towards the visa section.

Somehow, it was difficult to be angry at him. By now, I was also convinced by now that it was not a case of extortion. Though he had gone about it in the wrong way and the detention was completely unjustified, he seemed to be following procedure and it was probably the Embassy in DC which had made a mistake with issuing the visa.

After another hour of waiting, I was issued a brand new CTA – a one page form filled out by hand. Somewhat Anti-climatic after the night’s ordeal, but quite welcome. I took it and stepped into Dar-es-Salaam, somehow still excited for what lay ahead. After such a start, seemed like the city had a lot more in store for me!

When I reached the hotel, a beautiful establishment by the coast, they informed me that I would not be charged for the night’s stay. Interestingly, the amount came out to be almost equal to the cost of the CTA.

T.I.A

Fun travel fact: “Pakistani Citizens wishing to travel to Tanzania for business or leisure are eligible for a complimentary one-night stay at Dar-es-Salaam airport, courtesy the Tanzanian immigration authority.”

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