It’s all about the papers

Vazah* chick on a scooter: apparently this is what free candy looks like to the police of Tana. Law of the land here dictates that passports and vehicle papers must be carried at all times, and roadblocks to check these things are fairly common. Still though, I come in for an unusual number of inspections – my record so far being three stops in twenty minutes. Granted I was in the middle of town, and at least the second one was occasioned by my driving the wrong way up a particularly steep and narrow one-way. In my defence, most of the intricate one-ways of the city centre are unmarked, making it utterly impossible to know where one may or may not drive, but that didn’t seem a mitigating factor in my near-arrest. To make things more interesting, it also emerged during this second stop-off that some of my scooter papers had been repossessed by the policeman at the first.
Petty bureaucracy is not new to me, but the Malagasy really do take the (certified, in triplicate) cake. Following the paper-stealing incident (where I was obviously meant to notice and then be thumb-screwed into paying to get them back, had I not missed my cue), I had to go to the central police-station to make a declaration that would allow us to apply for replacement papers. Under the protection/supervision of a Malagasy colleague, in I went. First, up and down stairs to several offices to check whether the papers had legitimately been handed in and recorded in one of various large and carefully guarded ledgers. As unlikely as this seemed, the declaration couldn’t be made without this procedure. Next, down the street to a small shop to buy paper (two sheets for 100 ariary), then back to the entrance hall of the police station, where printed model declarations are taped to a table for reference purposes (obviously photocopying is out of the question). My colleague being dyslexic, I was in charge of writing out the relevant document, while he chatted with a senior-looking officer about our plight. With helpful nods and sympathetic noises, said officer watched my careful progress through the unintelligible (to me) Malagasy. And just as I finished and signed, he remarked that said declaration was in fact unacceptable as (a) the scooter was not in my name and (b) the papers were not in fact lost (as the model declaration stated) but in the possession of a corrupt policeman. “So your boss must come here as soon as possible to report this, because this policeman may use those papers for illegal things”.

At that point my colleague’s supervision was essential in avoiding an international incident.

I have learnt, through many unfortunate mistakes, a few essentials in dealing with roadside bureaucrats. First, if you value your sanity, possessions and freedom, for goodness’ sake, smile. Look relaxed. In that crucial first instant of encounter, do your utmost to radiate friendliness, deference and utter unconcern at being accosted by the law. If you are female, a little eye-lash batting is fundamental self-defence. Move with calm to comply with any requests, no matter how annoying or inconvenient (for example if you happen to have a large pink pram lashed to the back of your scooter, in such a way as to obstruct the seat compartment where your documents happen to be). In fact, a leisurely pace for a more awkward demand can count in your favour. On crossing the border into Namibia once with a friend, in a vehicle packed to the gills for a desert expedition, we were asked to show the wine we were declaring. Given that we had not actually packed the vehicle ourselves and had merely guessed the number of bottles (complicated logistics of a multi-party trip), this was a hairy request. Pulling over with a smile, we began with extreme helpfulness to unpack, slowly and carefully, making it clear we were more than happy to decant the entire vehicle onto the roadside for their inspection. Within minutes the disappointed bribe-hunters were waving us on our way.

Over-compliance is a generally handy strategy. When asked for paperwork, I find more really is more. If asked for proof of travel insurance, funds, current employment and return ticket, throw in certified copies of your parents’ birth certificates and the title deed for your childhood home. Write cover letters explaining your extensive paper trail in detail. Sometimes you can substitute one document you don’t have with two or three you weren’t asked for. Nothing shuts up a nit-picking bureaucrat like being beaten at their own game.

On the other hand, if you are needing to ascertain exactly what paperwork is required, another set of skills comes into play. Do not assume you will be given all pertinent information at once. That would violate the bureaucrats’ code, and their right to send you home repeatedly in search of the next document on the list. As in other fun games for two or more people, you can only ask questions with yes/no answers. These, I find, are the most commonly useful:

• Do I need a copy of…?
• Does it need to be certified?
• Is there a special form for that?

And most important of all: does it need a stamp?
Stamps, ladies and gentleman. You cannot overestimate their power and importance. No number of signatures, copies and certifications is worth a cent if a stamp is required and found lacking. I’m not sure it always even matters what is on it. I’ve heard tell of a pilot, landing in a remote town in Madagascar, who was informed on inspection of his paperwork that while his landing was sanctioned, he could not take off again, because his leaving document was not stamped. Obviously, the required stamp was in another part of the country, and he was left to ponder his position over a Coke at the airport café. On sudden inspiration, he pulled the plastic seal out of the Coke bottle top, drew on it with red ballpoint, and pressed it onto his form. Back at the control desk, his now-compliant paperwork was approved and he could fly home again.

Dealing successfully with petty bureaucracy requires a diligent suspension of disbelief and any sense of logic. Abandon your conceptions of right, law and civil service (both “civil” and “service”), and play the game. Get angry and you have lost. It is never about the functional task you are concerned with – it’s a test, an exercise of dominance, and the right answer is always: “You’re the boss”.

But if all else fails, you can always ask for form A12.

*Vazah = foreigner



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