Scrawled in red magic marker across the white door inside the police station are the words "Commissioner of Domestic Affairs." The door itself is half-open and, from my spot in line in the hallway outside, I can see a man of barely twenty wearing a Liverpool soccer jersey and a ball cap, flirtatiously interviewing a young woman.
He’s clearly the commissioner, and I need a stamp from him in order to open up a Senegalese bank account. He’s getting goofy with this girl, and she’s acting a bit annoyed, but not enough to hurt her own chances of getting a stamp.
"Il faut patienter," says Babakar, a colleague of mine who is helping me navigate this task. "We must be patient."
That’s a common refrain in Dakar, and incredibly good advice in a place where unemployment is so deeply rooted that onion-like layers of government bureaucracy are seen as a viable means of keeping people at work.
This young man behind his desk is a lucky one, I realize. Loads of his friends and relatives are probably in the streets trying to find something to do for a handout – wash a parked car, guard a parked car, help someone park a car... He may even have nephews in the Talibes, I imagine, the swarm of pre-pubescent children who spread out across Dakar every morning with yellow bowls to gather donations for the Maribou, the Muslim spiritual leader.
"Why do you need this certificate of residency?" he finally asks me when I’ve "patienter"-ed myself to the front of the line.
He knows the answer.
"To open a bank account," I say, a bit embarrassed.
"To open a bank account," he says with a half-snarl in his voice. He looks at me and he sees money. "Come back in 24 hours."
"OK, thanks," I say getting up to leave.
The sign behind his desk reads, "Only God knows what tomorrow will bring."
Earlier in the day Babakar and I had visited an unmarked building on a non-descript road in order to get another document stamped by the chief of the neighborhood – a stamp I need in order to get the other stamp from the young commissioner.
(NOTE: I think in the U.S. you just need to bring a utility bill with your name and address on it, right? That wouldn’t work here because there’s no post. I’ll tell you about the bizarre process of paying rent and utility bills later.)
And yes… I said chief. He wasn’t in tribal attire, just a sporty shirt, pants and sandals. But he had the gravitas of a chief nonetheless. Another lucky one who’d found gainful employment in the disbursement of ink.
"Sit down," he said, pointing to a wooden chair by the wall in his courtyard.
It was remarkably cool despite the midday heat outside. Behind him, a woman was sweeping dust and keeping the compound nice and neat. Beside him, a young man in a polo shirt wielding a stamp was standing next to a plastic table.
I wonder how you apply for the job of chief.
Babakar, a few words in Wolof. Passport goes down on the table. Document comes out, scribble scribble. "Give him 250 CFA (50 cents)," Babakar says. Done. Stamp.
No hassles here. I guess he’s going for volume.
Anyway, this was last Thursday and I still don’t have a bank account. The Commissioner was true to his word and the document was ready when he said it would be, but the bank was inexplicably closed today. I’ll try again tomorrow.
Even if I get an account, an ATM card could take months. A friend told me last night that he’s been waiting six months for his ATM card to be ready. He may be back in Europe before it arrives.
No big deal.
The more time I spend around here the more I realize how distasteful it would be to complain. I’m doing just fine.
And for the details, well, "Il faut patienter."