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10 lessons from a problem at the bank

Banks in Tanzania feel familiar. They’re clean, sterile and quiet. The lady behind the counter wears a blue blouse. She types numbers into a keyboard. There are posters about customer service on the walls. They have that counter with all the different forms that you fill out before you see a clerk. But don’t be fooled by appearances.

Here’s the scenario: an ATM on campus swallowed our debit card yesterday. It’s the only one we have so we need to get it back. The ATM spat out a message telling us to go to its branch.

First different thing: You have to go in person. It doesn’t give you a number to call.

So we went to the bank first thing this morning, taking our language tutor with us just in case we needed help.

Second different thing: You don’t line up at customer service. (You do at banking.) Everyone leans over the counter. And they don’t serve you in order, or finish with one person before they move onto the next.

We were told the ATMS hadn’t been emptied yet – come back at 2pm. We came back at 2pm. The lady handed over a pile of cards for us to look through.

Third different thing: She handed us other people’s cards!

The card wasn’t there. She said the man who picks up the cards might not have gone to the campus ATM. Come back tomorrow.

Fourth different thing: Her only solution was for us to keep coming back. Why would you expect to get the issue solved in 2 visits?

I wasn’t convinced that if we came back tomorrow the card would be there. After some discussion, she suggested we could wait until the man who picks up the cards arrived back. She didn’t know when that would be. Our tutor said, ‘Tanzanians are used to waiting.’

Fifth different thing: We are not used to waiting! I thought I was being patient because I’d had to return later in the day!

That sounded too open-ended to me so I asked if the ATM guy had a phone – could we call him and find out if he’d been to the campus ATM.

Sixth different thing: There wasn’t much sense of what I would call ‘customer service’. I had to take the initiative to get the problem solved.

She went to get his phone number and handed it over.

Seventh different thing: She didn’t call him, we had to do that. No privacy laws, apparently – she gave out his mobile number freely!

Eighth different thing: We were sent outside to make the call.

That number didn’t work. Went back to the lady and got the right number. (She’d written it down wrong.) Called the man. He didn’t answer. Decided we would just have to come back tomorrow. Nicholas went in to impress upon the lady the importance of making sure the card would be there when we returned. He came back and beckoned us in again. The card was there and they handed it over.

Ninth different thing: There was no form to fill out. I didn’t even need to show ID. They just gave me the card. (They may have been more trusting because I was a mzungu.)

I asked Nicholas what had happened. It turned out the ATM guy had gone to the campus ATM but had just left the cards in his car (or maybe in his office?) because it would take a bit of work to lodge them. One of the other bank clerks found them by accident.

Tenth different thing: no such thing as efficiency!

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

6 replies

  1. Just loved this blog Tamie! Dad and nearly fell off the chairs laughing.

    Glad that you are learning a long timebforvsomethingbtomhappen!! Always been a tricky one!

    Glad you got the card back. Yay for Nicholas too!


    Sent from my iPad

  2. That sounds a bit scary! Glad to hear you got the card back. Do you think there could’ve been any sort of corruption involved too? Like they wanted you to pay money before they hand your card back?

  3. Sounds like there is lots of ‘low hanging fruit’ to improve everyday life and economic efficiency in Tanzania. From a market perspective, I wonder why someone has not yet entered the banking market with good customer service.

    1. I wonder whether that would really only cater to expats, Dan? We might see it as a hole in the market; I’m not sure Tanzanians would see it that way.

      At one level, efficiency isn’t a particularly important thing to Tanzanians. That means banking is frustrating, but shopping at the market is more relational than transactional.

      On another level, the nature of corruption might prevent it. For example, the following day we had a dispute with the water services company, again with very limited ‘customer service’. I asked our tutor why it was that we had to do all the running around even though it was DUWASA’s pump that was malfunctioning. He said it’s because the base assumption is that we have been trying to cheat the system in some way.

  4. I think I would find that all SOOOO frustrating!!!! I find the inefficiency of service providers in Australia frustrating enough. Praying for patience and humility guys. And as Meredith says “Yay for Nicholas!”

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