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Zambia, Zimbabwe – hard lessons from expired visas and late border crossings

28 Oct 2017, Posted by Verity Norman in Travel Diary

In 2014, the first year Fungai and I were together, we did many, many, many road trips. In fact, I think we can in no small part attribute the strength of our relationship to the fact that we share a love of Africa and road trips, and are always willing to jump in the car and cross a border or two.

At the time, I was in Zimbabwe for work, but was yet to secure a work permit. So for 8-9 months, while awaiting approval, I had to leave the country every 30 days. This meant we did a cross-border road-trip every 30 days. Lots of time to talk, share our dreams, check we liked each others’ music choice, and how we deal with stressful situations. So far – and thousands of kilometres later – so good!

One of our first trips together was to Lusaka, Zambia. The previous year, I’d been working for the African Presidential Center at Boston University, and had helped host President Rupiah Banda, his lovely wife Thandiwe, and their family. We had gotten close, and I had an open invitation to visit them in Zambia. It seemed like a really good option for a cross-border trip!

A view from the road

So off we went. Although we’d planned to leave by 10am, our little pink Toyota Vitz (who earned the moniker “Miss Spritzy Vitz”) finally drove out of our driveway in Harare’s Avenues around 2:30pm. No stress; it’s only 2-3 hours drive to the Chirundu Zimbabwe-Zambia border. We’d easily make it before they close at 6pm. Ha!

Several police roadblocks later, as well as a flat tyre, we found ourselves at the Chirundu border post at 5:45pm. Thankfully it’s a “one-stop-border” – the only border post we’ve ever been to where everything for both countries happens inside one room. Very efficient, and although we were the last car into the border crossing, we figured we’d miraculously made it.

Chirundu border post- one-stop border between Zimbabwe and Zambia

Chirundu border post- one-stop border between Zimbabwe and Zambia

We tried not to rush the immigration and customs officials on the Zimbabwe side, as they meticulously went through our car paperwork. But we were anxiously eying the Zambian side officials, as they packed their bags and started making motions to head home. By the time we got to the other side of the room, the person with the final clearance for our vehicle had locked her office and was waiting outside for a combi to take her home.

No fear – Fungai ran and begged her to come back inside to stamp our papers. We were expecting a request for a bribe, but no request materialized and the obliging official ambled back to her office, unlocked, and a few officious stamps later we were on our way. Well, almost.

When we got to the gate letting us into Zambia, the guard thought we must’ve faked the car paperwork stamps, as the border was officially closed (by this time it was 6:10pm). We had to call the same lady – who had returned to her combi pick-up point – to reassure him that she had in fact stamped our paperwork and we were allowed to pass.

We let out a joint sigh of relief, and vowed never ever ever to get to a border crossing so late ever again. Too. Much. Stress!

Some pics from an amazing weekend in Lusaka

Fast-forward 3 days, following a fun and food-filled stay at the Banda’s beautiful home, and of course Fungai and I found ourselves speeding back towards the Chirundu border post. We had left Lusaka at 3pm, this time knowing we were cutting it very fine. But at 5:30pm it looked like we may make it. Until we hit traffic. Lots and lots and lots of traffic – bumper to bumper – about 5 kilometres from the Chirundu border. We sat, hopeful, for about 15 minutes. But after only moving a few metres, realized we would definitely not make it by 6pm.

We reviewed our options, and decided that if we were going to spend the night in the car outside a border post, we’d prefer to be near Lake Kariba – somewhere I had never visited despite years of living in Zimbabwe. So we did a quick u-turn and headed towards the Kariba border post. We got there soon after 7pm, and to our delight, it only closed at 8pm, so we were in time to cross.

And that is when the fun and games started – and let this be a warning to anyone who thinks it’s OK to overstay their visas. When we entered Zambia, we had only requested 2 days for our visas, and that’s exactly what we got. (note to self: ALWAYS ask for at least a week more than what you think need!) But for various reasons we stayed an additional day. The president and his family had reassured us that this wouldn’t be an issue, as we were leaving the country. But in retrospect, the president and his family likely had very little or no experience with Zambian visas and the consequences of overstaying!

As soon as the immigration officials discovered we had overstayed, we got shuttled into a dingy back office. The official perched on the edge of his desk and started making vague threats about how we’d be put in jail overnight, separately, and would have to see a magistrate in the morning, and that the fine for overstaying the visa was $100 each.

$100!?!?! Seriously?! Actually, $200 for both of us! Hawu, as we’d say in South Africa!

We were in no mood to deal with the vagueries of border bribes, and this was clearly our cue to make a counter offer. AND we had no cash on us. None. So we started explaining our situation.

“Our car broke down in Lusaka, and we had to get someone to come and fix it.”

“Where is the proof?”

“Well, it was a mechanic and he came to the house.”

“Where were you staying?”

“Well, we were staying with former President Banda and his family.”

Skeptical look from immigration official. Totally understandable, given the circumstances.

“If I am to let you go, I will need proof that you are telling the truth.”

“Can I call someone to confirm our story?”

“Sure.”

A few minutes later I managed to get President Banda on the phone and asked him to corroborate our story to the immigration official.

“Good evening young man!”

The “young man” jumped to his feet and stood to attention at the familiar sound of the former president’s voice.

“Yes, yes, sir. Absolutely Mr. President. Yes, yes, no problem Your Excellency, they are free to go.”

And with that we were told we were very lucky and could go on our way.

Well, sort of. We had to then deal with the next counter – where you pay customs for anything you owe to the country. Since we had overstayed, the gentleman behind that counter informed us that had overstayed two days, and therefore owed money for the car.

Tap, tap, tap on his calculator. He held the calculator up to the window:

“You owe 600 kwacha (approximately US$100) for two days of overstaying.”

“Wait, what? How is that possible? We only overstayed one day. And besides, we have no money. How can it possibly be $50 per day? Can you please talk to the guy we just spoke to?”

Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap on calculator. Holds calculator up to the window again.

“This is how much you owe.” (same amount)

We literally just stood and looked at him. There really was nothing to say. It was now almost 8pm, and we all knew the border would soon close. And if we stayed on this side, we’d owe another $50 tomorrow. It was a bit of a game of chicken.

He eventually put his calculator down and left his office. Fungai and I exchanged looks of “What the heck?” but just stayed put, figuring something would happen.

A few minutes later, the man returned with a colleague.

Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap on calculator. His colleague holds calculator up to the window.

“You overstayed two days and we charge you $50 for each day you overstay. For your car.”

“Yes, we understand that. But the car broke down in Lusaka and we couldn’t make it. We don’t have any money, so how can we resolve this.”

Meanwhile, another border official was quizzing me about the nature of my relationship with President Banda, while Fungai remained with the customs guys. After scribbling some notes on the back of an envelope, I was free to join Fungai, who somehow had managed to get through customs without paying a cent.

We jumped into our car, aware that the border was now officially closed and we may not make it through the Zimbabwe side. A Zambian official joined us for the drive to Kariba dam wall, to “ensure we got there safely and quickly and didn’t encounter any problems.”

He also offered us advice during our short drive together: “The soldiers on the Zimbabwe side may not be as friendly as the Zambians, so you may want to find some dollars to give them.”

We thanked him for his advice, and drove across the Kariba dam wall. It was a bit surreal – the bright white full moon rising gave me a spectacular, albeit anxiety-filled, first view of Kariba.

It was 8:15pm by the time we got to the Zimbabwe side, and to our relief we saw a busload of people still being processed by immigration control. As we joined the end of the line, one of the immigration officers glanced at the clock and commented, “Aiy! We must close soon!” But soon we were stamped and through, and just drove as fast as we could into Zimbabwe.

We simply drove around for about an hour, still shaking slightly and in a daze that by some chance of fate and a high-level phonecall, we’d made it through not one but two border posts, escaping arrest, legitimate or illegitimate fines, and possibly spending the night in the car on Kariba dam wall. A quick meal at the deserted Carribea Bay Hotel revived our nerves and spirits, and soon we were back in Miss Spritzy Vitz and on our way to Harare, making it home just in time to see the sun rise over our beautiful so-called “Sunshine City.”

Good morning Harare!

Good morning Harare!

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