Tuesday, April 04, 2006

I spent much of yesterday morning steeped in the ambiance of the national Burkinabe telephone company, known to us all as “Onatel”. You’d think it was a fabulous place, considering that so many people spend so much time there- a regular sub-Saharan Disneyland. Alas, no. The fact is, they have a monopoly going, so nobody has a choice- you HAVE to be there.
“But, ”you may be thinking to yourself by now. “If you hate it so much, just mail in your bill each month and avoid the place. Quit whining.”
Love to. But there’s a small problem: IT’S NOT ALLOWED!!! It’s true! You are obliged to pay your bill in person each month. It’s pretty crazy and you can imagine what a zoo it is at the end of the month. It can take hours of waiting to get to the head of the line. The only time-saving innovation that anyone has come up with is to pay someone else to do it for them. If you can, you send a member of your house staff to do it. So, actually, the waiting room is mostly crammed with relatively poor people and the servants of richer ones.
We are no exception. It’s typically Celine that goes to pay it. But this month, we had a problem. Our bill was twice what it normally is. We decided to get an itemized bill so that we could see all the calls that had been made….So that meant that I’d have to go request it.
The waiting room of our local Onatel office had improved since I’d last been there. There was a little “take a number” machine and a light-up message board with an assortment of messages to entertain all the bored clients.
One said “Pay your Onatel bill…….”
I thought it was going to say ‘by mail’! I was so excited! Praise be!
But the second half of the message flashed up “ at any window”. Yeah, right. When 3 of 5 are closed, how meaningful is that, anyway?
My business was more specialized, so I was quickly steered toward a small dusty cubicle containing two desks, a very slim elderly gentleman and a very hefty lady. There were also lots of old, dusty paper folders stacked in piles everywhere. The two agents were both laboriously writing out entries into huge ledgers. So much for the computer age.
I explained my problem to the gentleman. He told me that a printout would cost about seven dollars and could be done in about four days.
“My God” I wondered, “Do they hand write them? No- he said printout….”
He wrote my name in one of the huge ledgers and sent me off.
I came back Friday. I waited about 20 minutes in his office, only to be told that it was not ready yet. I pointed out that my bill was due on Monday. He assured me it would not be a problem.
I went back on Monday and waited around. Still no itemized bill. He said they’d call. Right. I waited all last week for them to call. Nothing.
I went back yesterday. The gentleman assured me it had come! He rummaged through some stacks of paper. Nope. He’d thought it was there, but it wasn’t and wouldn’t I just have a seat and wait a bit? This is Africa. No use complaining. I sat in the chair in front of his desk and shamelessly eavesdropped on the problems of others as I sat there for an hour. The most illustrative one was "The Case of the 49,000cfa Bill".
A young Burkinabe man came in waving a bill for 49.000cfa, claiming that his phone didn’t even work, so he didn’t see how he could have a bill for services. Plus this was so expensive! That is the equivalent of about 100$ and would be a VERY expensive bill for the average Burkinabe family.
The hefty lady grabbed the bill and gave it the once over.
“The phone obviously works,” she said. “And that’s your bill.”
Well, that problem’s solved. What a relief.
The man got it back from her and tried to show it to my gentleman friend. He tried to explain, telling a long story about changing his phone number at the request of Onatel and since then the phone hasn’t worked and…… Well, the two agents weren’t buying it.
“Fine,”, said my pal “ We’ll make you an itemized list so you can see the calls charged. Seven dollars.” He began writing the man’s information in the dreaded ledger.
“You have to pay 7 dollars”
The man was completely desperate “I don’t want to pay seven dollars! I don’t need that list! There were no calls at all!”
“Well, then,” said my friend “Your only option is to pay the bill,”
This was clearly not going his way and he looked miserable. What a situation. He’s got a bill that he’s contesting, but to even start to resolve it, he needs to pay out seven dollars. That is a huge amount of money to most Burkinabe. An average phone bill is about ten dollars. So, his only option is to pay a bill that he knows is wrong. What if he gets the printout and Onatel STILL insists he’s in the wrong? He’d have paid the seven dollars for nothing.
Heads they win, tails you lose.
Amazingly, help arrived! A white knight in the form of a sharp-looking Onatel agent who breezed into the office looking for a scrap of paper. He caught the tail-end of the dispute and told the woman to hand over the phone. He made a quick call to the Onatel technical service and asked if the man’s number was out of order. “Oh….It’s not been hooked up at all. I see. ………It hasn’t been on all month, then?…… Thank you.”
You could see the young man’s shoulders get straighter and the grey tone left his face.
The other two didn’t apologize. My friend just dragged out yet another ledger and began writing again.
I sat there a while after that, observing many what would be called fire-code violations in any other country. There was some very scary exposed wiring over some of those dusty paper towers….I mentally mapped out my escape route in case of a conflagration. It kept me busy.
Finally, the word came. STILL no itemized bill for me! And the bill should have been paid on the 27 of March. Hope they don’t cut off the phone!
He said they’ll call when it's ready. Right.

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