Red tape and red clay: Bureaucracy in Mutjiku

Erasmus and Ludwig needed to go through a complicated bureaucratic process with the local tribal authorities in order to gain approval to open their bike shop, and this handwritten letter was the official okay they received. Even though they had jumped through all of the right hoops, as soon as the container showed up and word spread around the area that something big was happening in Mutjiku, there was apparently a bit of jealousy and suspicion as to the aims of these foreigners and their load of bicycles, and as to why Erasmus and Ludwig had gotten such fortune bestowed on them.

When we arrived on Wednesday morning to continue work on the site, we were surprised to find out that we had been summoned to meet with the tribal Headman for an interview. While its purpose ostensibly was so that he could be sure we weren't trying to lay claim to any of the local land (leftover mistrust from colonial days) or lay any claim to the business assets that we were donating to Erasmus and Ludwig, it was all simply a long and tedious exercise that we found out later on was caused by the Headman not having notified his superior, the Fumu (the tribal king) properly about the bike shop plans. It was an exact parallel to some of the bureaucratic nonsense that happens every day in the U.S.

As silly as it was (Erasmus and Ludwig were visibly annoyed the entire time), the experience was something we'll remember forever. This official meeting with the Headman took place under a thatched roof shade structure with chickens running around our feet and roosters interrupting the procedures with sporadic ear-splitting cries. The man himself was one of the few people we have seen here who had any kind of portliness, and in the heat of the day he wore a knit sweater and black pants with well-worn black dress shoes. He spoke dramatically in the local tongue and took every opportunity he could to try to impress us with his authority.

Click on the video link below to hear some audio from the camera that was in my pocket during all of this. At first you can hear the tribal headman talking, then Erasmus' father speaks and is interrupted at :27 seconds by a rooster.

Bureaucracy in Mutjiku, Namibia from Mike's Bikes on Vimeo.

After much pontification and back-and-forth about what meetings we should have scheduled and which forms should have been filled out, he thanked us for our kindness to their community and explained that when outsiders come in with money and resources it sometimes brings unforeseen consequences and obligations from the people of the village. To "make sure" everything was on the level, we were required to pick up the local Gentleman who was the local Land Board Member and have him do an "inspection" of the Makveto shop site.

We obliged of course, and this led to more running around and general wasting of valuable time. Following the "inspection" (which was nothing more than the Gentleman walking around looking important) we were asked to sit with this Land Board Official and the Headman again. And so the day went on like this, round and round, shuttle here, sign this there, etcetera etcetera. At long last we were told that these men had to be compensated for the time that they had taken (from us) that day, and they asked for N$200 (the equivalent of around $30 U.S.) We watched the two officials split this cash and pocket it before we dropped them off, and at long last we were allowed to continue our work.

Rugged and isolated as this land may seem, we learned this day that even in rural Africa red clay buildings sometimes turn out to be nothing more than factories for red tape.