People Like Us
The bureaucrat was not a happy man, and it didn't take long to understand that I was the source of his irritation. Richard Tambadini was a senior officer in Zimbabwe's Department of Immigration Control. In May 1997, in a drab office in a dreary government building known as Liquenda House, he looked over my papers. He was slow, careful of speech, and so disdainful he seldom looked up.
"You have sent your belongings here ahead of yourself," he said, sounding as if he were reading from an indictment. "You presume that we will give you a work permit. You think little black Zimbabwe needs big white American men like you."
He paused and looked out the window at downtown Harare. A car alarm was going off on the street below, the repeated bleating of its horn drifting above the sound of midmorning traffic.
I shifted in my hard-back chair. This was becoming embarrassing. Vita and I had packed up our belongings from our previous posting in Warsaw, Poland, a few weeks earlier. The crate had to be trucked to Gdansk, wait for a ship, then be carried across the Baltic Sea down to Amsterdam, transferred to another cargo ship, then sailed down the coast of Europe, the entire West African coast, around the southern tip of Cape Town, and on to the South African port of Durban. Then it had to be transferred to a rail car and hauled to Zimbabwe. The shipping clerk had said eight weeks at best; perhaps three or four months. My predecessor in Harare had assured me that the Zimbabwean government would issue my work permit as a foreign correspondent long before then.
The crate made it in three weeks.
Now I was in Harare, trying to explain to Tambadini why this unexpected delivery did not constitute an act of ugly American hubris.
"Mr. Tambadini," I said in an attempt to lighten the situation, "I'm five foot seven inches, and I don't think anybody has ever said I tried to act like a big--"
"We have just met, Mr. Tucker, and yet I know your kind very well," he cut me off, looking at his fingernails. "You come from America, a country that disparages black people. You are a rich man. You come here, you see poor little Zimbabwe, where even the people who administer the government are black, and you have assumed that we need you. You think we are so grateful to have you among us that you think we will exempt you from our laws. It is the way of the white man in Africa." His tone had changed to an icy disdain.
"So we have a system for people like you. We impound your goods in customs until you are approved, at the rate of a hundred U.S. dollars per day. If we decide to approve your application--and this could take months--then you will pay us and you may receive your goods. But you will pay us, Mr. Tucker, for your arrogance."
He was making a speech, and I got the idea it wasn't the first time, but I was still disconcerted. His insistence on characterizing a routine transit mix-up as a deliberate racial slight was unsettling, and the idea that I was a rich man might have been amusing in another context. But telling my editors they were about to be fined several thousand dollars was not a prospect I relished. So I took a deep breath and ate humble pie.
"Sir, if my company or I have made assumptions, I am terribly sorry, but they are not the assumptions you say. My paper, the Detroit Free Press, has been here seventeen years, the longest of any American media company. We have been in Zimbabwe since independence, since black Zimbabweans seized control of their own country. When every other American newspaper left to go to South Africa after apartheid, my newspaper stayed here, in a country that is ninety-nine percent black. The city I report for is the most predominantly black metropolis in America. It is seventy-five percent black. The managing editor of my newspaper, the man who sent me here, is a black American. The black lady waiting in the hallway, the one with the dreadlocks and the blue dress, is my wife. If my paper, my predecessor, or I thought it was necessary for me to come here to apply for a work permit months ago, I would have done so. It is unfortunate this shipment has arrived so quickly. But it is not for the reasons you suggest."
Excerpted from Love in the Driest Season by Neely Tucker, pages 7-13. Copyright© 2004 by Neely Tucker. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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