After travelling widely in southern Africa for 18 years, Andre van Vuuren is convinced that Tunduma/Nakonde on the Tanzania/Zambia border is one of the worst crossings one could possibly experience
It is normally quite quick and easy to leave a country and more complicated to enter a new one. Zambia is no exception, especially if you need to enter in the north at Nakonde, Tanzania.
The construction of the new border post buildings on the Zambian side was completed earlier this year and I thought we were going to have a trouble-free crossing.
We were in a group of 14 people travelling in seven expedition vehicles (most of them insured by Cross Country) and arrived at Tunduma just before 09h00. We quickly got our passports stamped at immigration and, with the help of our Carnet de Passage documents, got the vehicles cleared at customs. From there we moved on to the new buildings on the Zambian side.
Immigration, customs and the payment of the road toll (in US dollars) went smoothly, after which we needed some Zambian kwachas to pay the council levy and carbon tax.
Over many years of travelling in Africa, I have learned the hard way that one does not exchange money on the black market at border posts, unless there is no alternative. Apart from the fact that it is illegal in most cases, these guys are not well known for their honesty, and you are normally on the losing side.
There is a Bureau de Change on the Zambian side that we always use, and we went there to change $200 per vehicle for fuel and other expenses when travelling through Zambia. They are normally very cautious when changing dollars and do not accept worn and old notes (pre 2006).
The lady behind the counter helped us one by one without having a problem with any of our notes. We then went back to pay the council levy and carbon tax. We were almost done and ready to leave when the same lady who had helped us at the Bureau de Change came to the cars and claimed that one of us had given her a counterfeit $100 note.
I asked her to identify the person and, of course, she was unable to do so. I said we couldn’t take responsibility for the counterfeit note, as she should have made sure that the money she received from a client was genuine before changing it and allowing the client to leave the counter. Furthermore, we were not convinced that the false note had come from one of us. Perhaps it had come from another group the previous day.
When we refused to give her a substitute note, she went to report the matter to the police. They come down to hear what the problem was and we explained what had happened. One of the people in our group checked the remaining dollars in each car, just to make sure that one of us had not unknowingly come into possession of counterfeit money, but everyone was satisfied that this was not the case.
The police then instructed the seven men to go to their office while the women waited under supervision of the police in the vehicles. They locked the office door and questioned us, apparently expecting someone to make a confession.
That was when I phoned an advocate friend of mine in Pretoria. I kept the phone on “speaker” so that the policemen could follow the conversation.
The advocate called his correspondents in Lusaka, and within 15 minutes I received a call from the law firm assuring us they would be on standby if we needed legal assistance.
In the meantime, I made a fake call without the speaker being on. I spoke in Afrikaans, and when the police asked me who I was phoning, I said I was reporting the incident to the South African embassy in Lusaka.
I think the two phone calls made them change their attitude and modus operandi. They told us to accompany them to the police station where they would search our vehicles for more counterfeit money and illegal substances. When you are in a situation like this in a foreign country, you have to keep your cool and do what you are asked to do.
The lady from the Bureau de Change was helped onto the police vehicle and we accompanied it out of the border post.
On arrival at the police station about 3km away, we waited for about 15 minutes, which felt like hours, before a policeman started to search my vehicle. He unpacked and unzipped everything.
He started in front, unpacked the glove box, searched the little compartments in the sun visors and emptied all the zip bags of the seat covers. He definitely wanted to make a statement to see if he could scare some of the others into making a confession. Then he moved to the back of the vehicle and left nothing untouched. In the meantime, more policemen arrived and started to search the other cars. They were not as thorough, and the process speeded up a bit.
Naturally, the policemen could not find anything suspicious or illegal, but kept us waiting for probably another half-an-hour before we were called into an office in the police station. There were about six officers sitting there, and I almost got the feeling of what it must be like to be an accused in court.
The person in charge made a speech and said they could not find anything to charge us with. They gave me, as the party leader, the opportunity to say something, but as it is sometimes better not to say too much, I kept the words that I wanted to say to myself, and we were released.
We were detained and delayed for quite a time, but everybody got the message: when changing money at a Bureau de Change on a border, make sure that the cashier is happy with your transaction before leaving the counter.
On our way back to the main road we drove past the lady from the Bureau de Change, who had been abandoned by the police and had to walk the 3km back to her office at the border…