letters from nairobi

Frustrated Incorporated
January 5, 2012, 14:49
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

If living abroad has taught me anything, it’s that there comes a day when novelty loses its luster for a moment, and frustration reigns – if not permanently, at least for one crystallized instant.

That day was today.

As it often happens, the moment was more a culmination of smaller frustrations that began when I awoke this morning, as opposed to one sudden incident:

When I sat down at my desk to begin working this morning, the internet was out. While not an uncommon event, the problem was compounded by the fact that my backup wireless modem would only work until 11:08 before the data bundle expired. I called Zuku, the internet company.

“Yes, madam, it is an outage in your neighborhood of Kileleshwa. A technician has been alerted.”

“How long do you expect the outage to last?”

“Oh, do not worry, it should be restored by the end of the day.”

(As an aside: in Nairobi, it’s safe to assume that any estimation of time can be doubled, if not tripled, to get an accurate assessment of the situation. So this was not a comforting statement.)

Okay, I decided, trying on a glass-is-half-full approach, I will just call a taxi and go to the nearest mall to buy a new data bundle for my modem, just to be on the safe side. I can take advantage of the trip by going to the grocery store and running a few other errands, like going to the ATM.

I called the taxi, changed my clothes, and walked into the living room.

The internet was back.

At this point, it was too late to call and cancel the cab, since the driver was well on his way, so I decided to go get the backup modem and other odds and ends anyway, in case the internet disappeared again – I didn’t want to tempt fate.

The first thing I did after arriving at the mall was to go to the ATM – the errand upon which all other errands depend. I put my debit card – the replacement for my previous card that had been stolen a month ago – in the machine and entered my PIN.

PIN denied.

I entered the number again.


Then a message appeared: “Your financial institution has declined this transaction.”

In the U.S., not being able to withdraw cash from an ATM machine is a minor annoyance. In Kenya, the consequences are direr.

Okay, I thought, calculating how much cash I had and what I needed to purchase. I could still buy enough groceries for dinner. I might even be able to pick up something for lunch while I was out. But I needed to save enough money to pay the parking lot ticket and the cab driver for my ride home, so that meant: no modem, the ostensible purpose of the entire trip.

Unless I could use my debit card as a credit card, like I do in the States.

I bought groceries, aiming to keep the total under 500 shillings (actual amount: 507), ignored the advances of a young Kenyan man behind me in line (sample pick-up line: “Don’t you wish they had a queue for people with only three items or less? Nine items is too much.”), and went to the Safaricom store.

“Do you sell wireless modems, cards, and do you accept credit cards?”


I waited for fifteen minutes for the appropriate salesperson to retrieve the modem – what she was doing back there for that long remains a mystery – and was rung up at the cash register.

“Cash or credit?”

I handed over my debit card.

“Yes, I need to see some ID.”

The ID I used to carry – my driver’s license – was stolen alongside the original debit card. I don’t carry a passport with me unless I know I will need it – the loss of my purse taught me to err on the side of caution.

No passport, no ID, no modem.

“You can just go to the nearby ATM and withdraw cash,” the salesperson said, cheerfully. “It is only 3,000 shillings.”

I gritted my teeth.

I still had enough cash to pick up something to eat for lunch before returning home, and by this point, I was cursing myself for not eating breakfast. I walked to a nearby café and ordered a sandwich – 590 shillings – to go. I was told it would be five minutes until the food was ready.

I decided to call my bank while I waited, to see what the problem with my card was. Who knew, maybe I could get everything cleared up and go back to the ATM, after all.

I dialed the bank’s number and listened patiently “as the menu options have changed.” After declaring “SPEAK TO A REPRESENTATIVE” in increasingly demanding tones, the hold music clicked off and a woman answered.

I explained my situation. Before she could access my account, the bank employee informed me, she would need to verify my identity.


“Do you have your account number with you?”

No, I explained, I’m not at home. But I have the debit card.

“Okay, no problem. I can verify other information. What is your driver’s license number?”

I don’t have a driver’s license anymore, because it was stolen. Along with the original bank card. Which is why I am calling.

“Okay, no problem. What is the verbal password on your account?”

I gave the password on the account that I had used just days before.

“I’m not showing that information on the account.”

Listen, I said, taking a deep breath. I can give you my social security number, my birth date, my home address, the number of the debit card… I just want to know why my ATM card was denied.

“Do you have your bank credit card number?”


“Can you verify any transactions that have occurred in the past three days on your account?”

I. Just. Received. The. Replacement. Card. And. I. Am. Trying. To. Use. It. So. No. I. Haven’t. Made. Any. Transactions. With. The. Account. Because. I. DID. NOT. HAVE. THE. CARD. UNTIL. NOW.

“Okay, ma’am, I’m going to put you on hold to see what other information I have that you can verify.”

An eternity later, the hold music clicked off.

“Hello, ma’am. Unfortunately, I don’t have any other information associated with that account, so I am unable to access your—“


I walked back to the café to see what the problem was with my sandwich preparation, since at this point, close to twenty minutes had passed since I ordered.

Then, my phone rang. It was the taxi driver.

“Yes, madam, I am going to pick up another client—“

“No, just hold on one second, I’m almost finished.”

I knew that if the taxi left, I could be stranded at the mall for hours.

I checked on the sandwich – “one minute until it is ready” – and waited. Five minutes later, I canceled the order and left.

I got back to the apartment, gave the taxi driver the last of my cash, and walked in the door worse than when I had left: no modem, no money, hungry, tired, and grumpy.

The novelty had worn off. All the seemingly insignificant setbacks had gathered into one massive, dark cloud, and I was defeated.

And now, it’s 2:13 p.m., and I’m back at my desk, hoping the internet doesn’t give out. Things have to get easier from here.



2 Comments so far
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[…] Frustrated Incorporated […]

Pingback by My Kingdom for Palak Paneer « letters from nairobi

Hope you haven’t had any more days like this. On the plus side, your other post made me really jealous for palak paneer

Comment by Will Marlow

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