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Why things take so long, or ‘something always goes wrong’

‘Everything takes so long.’ This is a refrain of living in the majority world. It’s why many people consider house help a necessity, for example. We often get asked why things take so long, what is actually taking up the time. We say, ‘something always goes wrong’, or at least something unexpected always happens.

Here’s an example. We’ve just applied for our National ID Cards. It’s one of the more straightforward processes in Tanzanian bureaucracy. We managed to do it start to finish the application process in about a week, then you wait for a month to receive it. It ‘only’ has 5 steps:

  1. Pick up form from the NIDA office in town.
  2. Fill it in and take it to be certified at the serikali ya mtaa (like a JP, but assigned to a particular suburb).
  3. Get photocopies of that signed form for the serikali ya mtaa plus copies of work permit, residence permit, passport, etc to take back to the NIDA office.
  4. Pay the fee at the bank, get receipts to take to NIDA office.
  5. Return to NIDA with the forms, copies and all receipts to have your photo taken.

On paper, it looks like it’s just a day of running around, but we normally work on one step per day because ‘there is always something unexpected’. Here were the ways that happened this time:

I stalled on step 1 when I arrived at the office at 3:15pm with 2 children in tow. All government offices close at 3pm. Lesson learned! Return the next working day at 8:30am. I’m out of there by 9:30am, forms in hand!

Our serikali ya mtaa lady was super helpful and lovely, but she wasn’t at her office. When we arrived, there was a discussion among those who were there about whether she should be called in to certify our documents. She was too busy at her shop, they were saying. None of them wanted to be the one to call her in and disturb her! I offered that we could go to her shop instead. This was agreeable to everyone and someone was assigned to show us the way. Off we went, and spoke to her at her shop instead. It was only a 10min walk away.

On the bank day, there is a visiting dignitary in Dar es Salaam, so a stretch of road that normally takes five minutes takes thirty. I get there about 3pm. (You see where this is going, right?) All goes smoothly until it’s time to pay. It needs to be paid in US dollars. I only have Tanzanian shillings and the bank doesn’t exchange money. They tell me the closest place I can go to exchange money, but by now it’s 3:30pm and the bank shuts at 4. I rush to exchange the money. They only have 50s and 100s, and I need a 20 in order to have exact change. Then I have an idea. I pop into an expat supermarket and ask to speak to the manager. I give him my sob story and ask if he has any USD lying around, perhaps if an expat has paid in USD? He does! He sells me some USD in the right denominations on the down low. Back to the bank. Which is packed because it’s ten minutes to closing. But fortunately the lady I was dealing with has told her colleagues I’ll be coming back and they help me straight away.

Returning to the NIDA office, we discover that we have been given the wrong information about how much to pay for the cards. We have paid too much. (Fortunately it’s not too little, so we don’t have to make another trip to the bank!) We go through a complicated series of negotiations, which result in us paying a little too much instead of a lot too much, and we are instructed to keep the bank receipt for the remainder (the ‘a lot’) until next year when we renew our cards, and to use it then in a year’s time!

And that is what we consider smooth!

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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