Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Catherine Sepa was the head girl in Mufulira Secondary School during the year 1975. She was well-liked and respected by the students. The teachers found her as a very reliable person. She left the school at the end of that school year and there was no contact thereafter.

We left Zambia in 1996. During our stay of twenty eight years in that country, we had acquired a lot of stuff including books and many household things. Most of the old things from way back our stay in Luwingu were still stacked in our store room. We decided to get rid of most of them but to send the books, some crockery, kitchen utensils and gadgets as unaccompanied baggage to India. We got some special wooden crates from the traders, modified them in the woodwork department and packed the articles in those. We used a lot of packing material in between so that fragile items were not damaged during transit. Our home address and the name of the destination airport were stenciled neatly on each box. Arrangements were made with A.M.I (Agency Maritime International) to collect the boxes from our place and send them as air cargo. Accordingly they sent their truck to collect the stuff from our apartment in Mufulira and take it to their office in Kitwe. We accompanied the truck in our car to the Kitwe office where we signed the necessary papers and made the payment. They assured us that the cargo would be sent by road to Lusaka within three days but they could not tell us how long it would take for the Lusaka office to send it by air to my home city of Trivandrum. It may take many days before they could send them. As we would be leaving Mufulira within a couple of days and then staying in Lusaka for a week before our departure to India, we gave them as contact number, the phone number of one Mr. Thomas in Lusaka with whom we had intended to stay.

Two or three days after our arrival in Lusaka, Mr. Thomas received a phone call from the A.M.I office in Lusaka. The manager wanted to know whether Mr. G. John from Mufulira was staying with him and if so, she wanted to meet him. Mr. Thomas thought that it would be for something in connection with the unaccompanied baggage I sent and he gave the caller directions to reach his house where we were staying. After about half an hour, a white Toyota Corolla car came in through the gates and a well-dressed lady in her late thirties got out of the driver's seat. She was ushered in by Mr. Thomas' wife Molly and she introduced herself as the branch manager of A.M.I, Lusaka. She added that she had come to see Mr. G. John and his wife. Imagine our surprise and pleasure when we recognized her as none other than our former student! While we were wondering how she managed to trace us after all these years, she explained that she saw my name and contact number in the manifest of a recent consignment of goods destined for India and the rest was simple.

We talked for a while and then she said she should run along. However, she promised even without my asking that our unaccompanied baggage would be sent by the first available cargo flight even though there was quite a considerable backlog of cargo owing to the discontinuation of flights to India by Zambia Airways.

The Branch Manager kept her word. Three days after reaching Trivandrum, we received intimation from the Airport Cargo Complex that our unaccompanied baggage had arrived. And sure enough, we found all of them intact and ready for clearance and collection.


I took the payment vouchers from the Finance Ministry straight to the south-end branch of the Zambia National Commercial Bank which handled all the foreign payments of the Ministry. I was accompanied by my wife. We were supposed to get the vouchers converted to the foreign currency of our choice. As there was one day only between then and the day of departure from the country, we did not have any time to waste.

We went up the elevator to the third floor where the bank's offices were situated. We were directed by the smart lady in the outer office to the person who handled matters related to the Finance Ministry. We found a lady in her late thirties behind the desk marked "Foreign Exchange" and took our seats. We told her the purpose of our visit and handed her the payment vouchers.

The bank official glanced through the papers and assured us that they were in order. She put the bank's date stamp on them and filed them neatly in a box file marked "pending". Then she told us to call back after a couple of weeks, but should phone her first to find out if the papers were processed.

We did not understand what she was saying. So I asked her politely what she meant by saying to come back after two weeks. Our flight to India was within two days' time and we were leaving the country for good.

She tried to explain by pointing to the "pending" file and saying: "There are about thirty-five people in the waiting list and we are treating each case in the order of priority. It will take at least ten days before we could process your papers and issue a bank draft or traveler’s cheques as you desire".

However, we were not prepared to leave the matter at that, especially after all the hurdles we had gone through at the Finance Ministry. We told her of our predicament and how crucial it was for us to have this money in our possession before we board the plane. She would not even listen, but after pestering her for some time, she told us to go and see the manager if we were not satisfied with her reply.

We walked to the partitioned off office marked "MANAGER" and knocked at the door. We were told to go in and found a very smart young lady in a well-tailored dress suit behind the manager's desk. We were rather surprised to see so many ladies in that place, but it was none of our business. Zambians are very polite people and this lady was no exception. However, she told us that she could not accede to our request as it would mean overlooking the priority of many others. As a last resort I told her that it would be a disgrace to this country if a foreigner who had worked here for the last thirty years had to go home empty-handed so that he would have to depend on the charity of his fellow countrymen once he returned to his own country. My last remark struck home and the manager told me that she would have to talk to her superior officer whether the rule could be relaxed a bit and she asked us to meet her at 9 a.m. on the next day for a definite answer. With an air of trepidation, we left the bank as there was nothing else for us to do.

On the next day we arrived at the bank a little earlier than 9 a.m. and rode up the elevator to the third floor. As we walked in through the main entrance of the bank, we saw the manager, as smart as ever, trotting out through a side door and walking briskly away with the 'clack, clack' of her high-heels. It was precisely 9 a.m. and we thought ruefully,” well, so much for her sweet promises!" There was no doubt that she was now going away in order to avoid us.

However, we decided to wait even if it was for the whole day for her to return. We found a pair of comfortable chairs outside the manager's office and sat down heavily. We did not even feel like talking to each other as we were engrossed in our own thoughts. Only when someone approached us after about twenty minutes or so with the words "Excuse me, are you Mr. and Mrs. John?" that we were awakened from our reverie. We answered in the affirmative and looked up inquiringly at the speaker. He had a sheaf of bank-slips in his hand. He asked us to indicate in those slips the type of currency required, denomination of traveler’s cheques etc. as well as the address of the overseas bank and signature of each person. He collected the bank-slips from us, scrutinized them and said the traveler’s cheques would be ready within half an hour.

We finished the business at the bank by 10 a.m. and came out with our "life's savings" tucked away safely in the V.I.P brief case I was carrying. Even though we wanted to thank the manager for what she had done, she was nowhere to be seen even by the time we left the bank.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


I walked through the massive glass doors of the Ministry of Finance building in Lusaka, out into the bright afternoon sun. I continued to walk slowly along the concrete drive way in between the spacious parking lots on both sides where most of the slots were occupied, into the tarmac road where a few taxi cabs waited for prospective fares. Soon, I would be traveling in one of those, to the intercity bus terminal where with luck I may be able to catch a late bus to the Copper-belt.

My heart was heavy. All my efforts of the past three months and the many journeys I had made to the Finance Ministry were in vain. During my previous visit, I was assured by Mr. Ndabala, one of the senior clerical officers, that the papers were in order and my name and my wife's name were already posted in the list of people who would be receiving their terminal benefits that month. However, it appeared that something went wrong and our names were struck off the list. Instead, two new names were added from the waiting list. We were pushed back to the next allocation of foreign exchange which would come only after three or four months. We would not be able to stay back in the country until then and the money would go invariably into the pipeline. In that case it would take a very long time, perhaps a couple of years or more, to reach me and all our future plans would go astray. This realization made me very sad. Even though I talked to Mr. M'hango, the Senior Accountant to expedite the matter, he said he could not do anything about it.

I was just about to board a cab when a thought flashed through my mind- Why should not I go and see the Permanent Secretary who was the over-all boss of the Finance Ministry and tell him of my predicament. Perhaps he would do something about it. Anyway, I had nothing to lose.

But to see the P.S was not that easy. I could not just go to his fifth floor office, knock and enter. I had to go through the various official channels before I could get an appointment to see him. It may take several days before he would accede to my request to grant me a meeting with him.

It was then that I thought of Mr. M.R.B. Nair, the Chief Auditor to the Finance Ministry of whom I had heard sometime back from Mr. Krishnan, one of my friends on the Copper-belt. Mr. Nair was a British citizen of Indian origin, whose native place was Trivandrum in the State of Kerala which happened to be my native place too. Even though, we had never met before.

I retraced my steps with new vigor. In the foyer I met a well-dressed lady whom I took for a Ministry official and asked her if she could direct me to Mr. M.R.B. Nair's office. She took me up all the way in the elevator to the fourth floor and along a long corridor to the door marked with golden letters: M.R.B. Nair, Chief Auditor. She did not even wait for my thanks. I knocked at the door, and was bidden to enter.

Mr. Nair was alone in his spacious office except for his Zambian secretary. He was very cordial to me and listened patiently to my narration. He told me that the Permanent Secretary was the only person who could do something about my problem. As he was out of the country, Mr.Chipuma, the Deputy Permanent Secretary was in charge. Mr. Nair said he would introduce me to him, in case he was available. He asked his secretary to phone the office of the D.P.S and request for an urgent appointment. The D.P.S was in his office and he would see Mr. Nair without any delay. We went up the single flight of steps and reached the office of the D.P.S. We were admitted immediately and directed to the inner office by the lady in the outer office.

I saw a very well-groomed Zambian gentleman with slightly graying hairs at the temples sitting behind a large glass-topped desk. He greeted Mr. Nair with a broad smile and nodded briefly to me. Mr. Nair introduced me to him and added that I had a problem that needed to be sorted out by Mr. Chipuma. He then left the two of us together and departed.

The Deputy Permanent Secretary listened patiently to what I had to say. He did not interrupt me or showed any signs of impatience. When I finished my narration, he talked to his secretary on the intercom and asked her to call Mr. Ndabala and Mr. M'hango to his office straightaway, and tell them to bring Mr. G. John's file along with them.

The two gentlemen arrived within ten minutes, with a look of apprehension in their eyes. As soon as they saw me sitting comfortably in Mr. Chipuma's office, their face darkened and their apprehension increased. Mr. Chipuma questioned them in such a manner that they had to admit their mistake. He ordered them to rectify the matter within three days' time. They said it would be impossible as the next allocation of Forex (foreign exchange) would come only after a minimum period of three months. At this reply Mr. Chipuma got very annoyed and asked them whether they expected a retired expatriate officer who had neither any job nor any house (the government quarters should be surrendered to the Works Department within a month or so after the last day of duty) to stay in the country for such a long time in order to get what was rightfully due to him from the Zambian government.

They had no reply. Finally Mr. M'hango, the Senior Accountant said there was one solution only. That was to apply for a special allocation of Forex from the Treasury. This procedure was adopted in extreme cases of emergency only and the Permanent Secretary had to make a special requisition for the same. Mr. Chipuma told them to prepare the requisition forthwith and get his signature. He gave them one week's time during which they should follow up the matter.

It was with clockwork precision that the matter was followed up by Mr. Mhango and Mr. Ndabala and thanks to the kindness of Mr. M.R.B. Nair and Mr. Chipuma, I received the payment vouchers two days before our final departure from Zambia. There remained just one day within which we had to get the Zambian Kwacha converted to foreign currency at the Zambia National Commercial Bank, Lusaka, but that was another story.