Saturday, March 24, 2007


“TTCL!” As a bright yellow pick up truck passes by us, I shout and then see an arm pumping the air from the driver’s window. The Tanzanian Telecommunications Company Limited has just modernised, opening a flashy new office in town and offering broadband service that, according to the adverts, appears to zoom out of your computer like a whoosh of broadband brilliance, blowing your hair and eyebrows back in surprise.

Everything is yellow. There is a Thunderbirds-like fleet of various yellow vehicles – a pick-up, a landcruiser, a “bajaji” (auto-rickshaws imported from Bangladesh where they are now illegal). We half expect a yellow helicopter, a yellow fighter jet, a yellow speedboat with little wooden-mouthed TTCL operatives. I wonder if my bicycle – a bright yellow Giant Rock 4000 – could ever be part of the team.

The sign out the front, which lights up at night, is yellow. Half the building is painted yellow. The high-quality collared t-shirts worn by the staff are yellow. The counter is yellow-topped. The pre-paid phone cards are slashed with yellow, under the obligatory picture of a broadband internet user being blown away by TTCL’s power and speed.

Unfortunately, TTCL’s power and speed is almost entirely restricted to the broadband service itself and is barely apparent anywhere else, including the necessary step of getting connected. As it seems often happens here, the splash of new equipment and the flashy front of a renovated office – all massive glass windows and yellow paint – have arrived before the knowledge and skills. There are any number of answers to our question, “How do we get connected?” depending on who we talk to, what time of day it is and perhaps what the person has had for breakfast. It seems there is as much logic.

We make regular visits to the yellow building and have made friends with the lady whose job description seems to include only 1) greeting 2) apologising and, 3) evading of difficult, indeed, any questions regarding TTCL services. However, she is so lovely and wants to be our friend – she said so – that we cannot get angry and the daily visits have become part of our routine. There is a comfortable, if miniature, couch (perhaps purchased from a catalogue that misrepresented its size?) and – gracious – a working water cooler. So we get comfortable, grab a newspaper, a plastic cup of icy water, have a chat with the floor manager about the rain and settle in.

One day we walk in and our friend greets us wearing a fabulous fake fur, leopard-spotted, coat with raised collar over her yellow shirt. She seems down and we ask what’s wrong? We don’t like to see her unhappy and she sniffs and tells us, “mafua” (a cold). There is none of her usual humour in her greeting, or apologising or evasion of our daily question, so we leave early and wish her a quick recovery.

The most elusive and enigmatic and, yes it is possible, unfriendly member of the TTCL team we have named, Lambchops (we have never got close enough to see his nametag), due to his bushy sideburns and Pulp Fiction style not-quite-afro. Lambchops could easily walk into a seventies funk band and not look out of place. He is dark-skinned and unamused with the world. He is not impressed with our daily TTCL antics and is not interested in being our friend, indeed he seems to act as if we do not exist at all. Perhaps he resents the fact that he is not in a Seventies band, or simply that he must wear yellow.

It was somewhere around the time of our daily visits to TTCL, when we lost all hope of ever experiencing the eyebrow-raising whoosh of broadband so well advertised (and for which we had already paid). This was when we subconsciously and simultaneously decided that the only response to such absurdity is absurd amusement – that the only way to carry on without Losing It, is to laugh and realise that Customer Service is not a universal concept. Luckily both of us rely on a similar philosophy in the face of the daily corruptions and inefficiencies that the national corporations thrive on. I am sure that Sartre, Camus and the like might have appreciated such absurdity, a perfect example of the Myth of Sisyphus. As he eternally rolls his rock up the mountain – he must be laughing, or Losing It. I prefer to think of him laughing.

It was somewhere around this time, long before we got connected, that we began to shout in the street every time we saw one of the yellow fleet whizz past us. They just seemed to be having such fun caning around town in their various vehicles that we could barely begrudge them their complete lack of customer service. The indignant horror of the American Consumer who, knowing her rights, demands them without shame and often without patience doesn’t work here. In fact, it often has the opposite effect – I’ve seen the effect of an irate Customer on a government employee. It is possible to pinpoint the moment when heels dig in, eyes glaze over and some paperwork suddenly becomes urgent. Either that or they just disappear out the back never to return.

We were connected a week and a half ago, just two months after we walked into the yellow world of TTCL, and now enjoy the whoosh of broadband at a ridiculous speed, while my parents in California struggle to download my photos on their dial-up connection.

Every time a yellow TTCL vehicle passes us now, we lift our fist in solidarity and shout “TTCL!” My favourite is the yellow bajaji (auto-rickshaw) because of the inherent ridiculousness of a 10 foot ladder lashed to the roof and four or five blokes (technicians, TTCL employees, randoms?), squished inside and hanging off the side. If you’ve never seen an auto-rickshaw, it is essentially a three-wheeled motorbike with a metal hood that covers the back seat and the driver’s seat. I have always wanted to own one – it is a dream that other people might have about owning a Vespa, hair blowing in the wind etc. – and to cruise around town giving people lifts.

One day, when I have sufficiently buttered up the TTCL crew, I will joyride with them all around town, shouting “TTCL!” and shaking my fist out the open side of the bajaji.

But until then, we will continue to pass by the office, sit reading the papers and shooting the shit with floor manager. We will squeeze into the miniature couch with plastic cups of cold water. And we will be thankful for TTCL: Bringing People Closer Together.