I enter the big post office in town (not this one) with 10 toddler paintings in my hands: butterflies, dinosaurs, a lion, a house, etc. My task is to send them to various people in Elliot’s life who are in Australia, and it’s my first time trying to post something internationally from Tanzania. Elliot’s at school so at least I don’t have to juggle him.
My first task is to get some envelopes for the paintings but I’ve forgotten the word so while I’m waiting in line at the ‘post shop’ I greet an older guy and ask him the word. It’s bahasha, and he speaks over the line to the post shop guy: this lady needs an envelope. Actually, I need 10. Tsh2,000. That’s the easy part.
Before I address and seal the envelopes I figure I need some information about how much postage will cost. Two of three post tellers are open. One is staffed by a lady in a pink veil who is serving someone; one has a lady who is looking very busy with some paperwork. There’s a line of people sitting on a bench watching the Very Busy Lady. I wonder, is the paperwork theirs? Is it OK to approach her? I give it a go anyway, because I know that service isn’t often linear in Tanzania. It’s not like you serve one person and then go on to the next; ‘pushing in’ isn’t much of a concept.
The Very Busy Lady is grumpy, at least by my Australian customer service standards, but we have a conversation about how heavy what I want to send is and I found out it’ll be Tsh1,800 per envelope. That’s about AUD1. She goes back to her paperwork; our interaction is over.
I go to another bench to sort and address the envelopes. While I’m doing that, another teller’s phones goes off. The ringtone is ‘Shout to the Lord’ and it’s sung by Darlene and everything.
Now I’m ready to buy postage but I’m still unsure of the Very Busy Lady so I decide to watch for a bit, see what other people are doing. A younger guy enters the post office, speaks to the Very Busy Lady and she sends him next door to the Pink Veil Lady. He looks unsure, turns to the line of people and asks the older guy on the end, ‘are you waiting?’ The older guy shrugs. The younger guy stands awkwardly in the Pink Veil lady’s line.
I realise, no one knows what’s going on here! I remind myself that Tanzania is an implicit culture, meaning people don’t explain things the way we do in Australia. That doesn’t mean people understand their interactions though; sometimes it just means they’re willing to wait for the meaning of a situation to become apparent. Eventually, the Very Busy Lady starts calling people up from the line.
At this point, I remember that the ‘post shop’ had a sign advertising stamps as well. I’m not sure whether that goes for international stamps but I figure it’s worth a try. I wander over to the counter and ask my question.
“Yes, you can get international postage here. Where are you sending it to?”
This is not a conversation between me and the post shop guy, by the way; it’s a conversation between me, the post shop guy, and the two other guys waiting to be served. What are you sending? Who are you sending them to? How long have you been in Tanzania? What does your husband do? Do you like Tanzania or Australia better?
The post shop guy sticks my stamps on to my envelopes for me one by one, then hands them to me. I check with him whether they can go in the ordinary red post box. With his confirmation, I do so, wave goodbye to him and walk out.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.