A Visa to Zaire

Dalrymple’s third book, Zanzibar to Timbuktu, offers an account of his 1986 journey across Africa, before returning to England after two years working in rural Tanzania. Here is a brief, lighthearted excerpt from his stay in Dar Es Salaam. We hope you find it as funny as we do.

Much of my time in Dar was taken up with my application for a visa to Zaire. Apart from a valid passport, current vaccination certificates for cholera and yellow fever, photocopies of one’s traveller’s cheques, a letter of recommendation from one’s embassy, an air ticket out, three passport photographs and a form to be filled out in triplicate without use of carbon paper, all one needs for a visa to Zaire is patience. A loss of temper would probably be fatal to one’s chances.

In all, I went to the embassy ten times. It was not an impressive place. It had been a respectable house once, but it had not been repainted and the windows were cracked and dirty. The eaves were disintegrating. The garden was mainly of gravel and dust, into which the garden boy poured a jet of water from a hosepipe. He aimed it at a single spot, creating a pond of mud. He kept his aim for minutes at a time. What was he doing? What, if anything, was going through his mind? I gave up the question as insoluble. Meanwhile, the ambassador’s Mercedes was polished and repolished until it gleamed.

I was interviewed by the consul. He seemed to find the whole idea of my going to Zaire faintly ridiculous. But he assured me my visa would be issued next day; but next day the embassy was closed. I was told to come back tomorrow, at two o’clock. I pointed to the notice stating that the embassy closed at one. Nevertheless, I should come at two. The embassy was closed.

When at last my passport was handed to me, on my tenth visit at the precise time stated the day before, there was not a flicker of recognition of my previous nine visits.

I felt as though I had achieved something so worthwhile, admirable even, that it almost made the journey itself superfluous.

Outside the embassy was a Frenchman, an aid worker in Mali, who had so far been to the embassy three times without even obtaining the application form.

Zaire’s national motto was inscribed on the wall: Peace, Justice, Work.

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