Thursday, April 17, 2008

A super hotline

Like most of our major infrastructure, Zimbabwe's telephone system is -- well, there's no other way to say it -- miraculous.

Ha! I bet you weren't expecting that word, but it is true. The majority of phone lines are at least 30 years old, and given that the bills cost next to nothing in real terms, it defies belief that they work at all.

To be fair, they don't work for months on end (especially during the rainy season) in certain parts of town. Or your line can go dead for a few hours while the telephone company resets the local exchange. Or storm damage can result in fallen trees taking out your line which can take weeks or even months to fix.

But on the whole, where I live, you pick up the phone, and there's a dial tone.

Finding the number you want to call is a whole other story. Telephone directories are only periodically published and mine dates back to 1999, not all that useful. The telephone company has uploaded the directory on to their web site, which means you can find the number if you know the name of the company you are looking for - but you have to type it in as it was printed in the directory, typos and all.

This morning I dialled the number for an engineering company and the phone was answered by a cheery greeting. "Is this the number for XYZ engineering?" I asked. "No, you've reached the direct line of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission." (ZEC was appointed by the government to 'independently' count - and now, although the results have not yet been published - recount the votes for the parliamentary, senate and presidential elections that were held on 29 March. So far they've only announced the parliamentary results, which the opposition party, MDC, won. Since then the international media reported that seven ZEC employees were arrested for mis-reporting the parliamentary results, which the government is contesting. So far no senate or presidential election results have been announced, and the government media claims that these elections are still being counted, despite the fact that the results were published at each polling station on election day.)

"Oh, wait, you're at ZEC? The guys who are so busy at the moment?" "That's right," came the answer. "Well, keep counting," I quipped, "we're all waiting..."

I heard laughter as I hung up the phone. Poor guys. But now that I have their number, I might phone them from time to time to offer encouragement or advice. I'm sure they need all the support they can get.

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