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Gaborone, Botswana
Follow me as I learn all about modern life in Gaborone Botswana.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

American queues are lines, African queues are squiggles

Eighteen months into my stay in Botswana and I suddenly had a realization of how little I actually know about how to function here. I’ve got most of my daily routines down; I know how to greet people, that you have a shop assistant in the produce section weigh the fruit before you go to the grocery counter to pay, I even recently learned that I napkin here is a diaper – not something you use to wipe your mouth that would be a serviette, so now waitresess can stop looking at me funny all of the time. However, I still have not mastered how to stand in a line or queue.  And since much of life is spent queuing here, it’s a serious issue.

It seems like there wouldn’t be very many options in how you queue, I mean you enter the location, you see a group of people standing in a line, you put yourself behind the last person. If you’re thinking like that, you’re thinking like an American.  In Botswana, queues are everywhere and there is a complicated set of rules around them that I don’t fully understand but will nonetheless try to explain some basic concepts and protocols for you.

CONCEPT NO 1: Booking – booking is the term people use for making an appointment, but this does not mean some people have called to make a reservation to exempt them from the line.  Instead it means that a person has showed up, stood around long enough to be recognized by the person in front of and behind them and then said my favourite phrase “I’m coming” (which actually means I’m going – and will eventually coming back).  When they do finally come back, which could be anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes later, they slide themselves back in between the people who recognize them as if they’d never left.  I’ve only tried booking in line once, because I’m American and it feels like cheating. It’s a great concept when it’s working for you but can cause horrible frustration when you think you're two from the front only to have half a dozen people who have booked suddenly appear.  Another downfall is there is not a consistent protocol for when you return and the people you’ve booked with have already finished and left.  Some people put themselves at the front of the line, but that doesn’t always go over well, as you can imagine. Booking seems most appropriate, in my mind at least, when it’s a result of an urgent call of nature or the need to take a call when there’s a lack of cell reception in the area, but I wonder what all these “bookers” are actually doing – maybe they’re actually standing in multiple lines at once cutting their errand time drastically, or maybe they are taking a nap somewhere, one day I’m going to follow a “booker” and find out. An important note, you may be snapped if you challenge someone who has booked so tread carefully.

CONCEPT NO 2: Signs Are an Optimal Tool for Misinformation – Imagine you walk into a r post office and there are 5 of 6 counters each counter has a person behind it who is serving customers. Each counter also has a sign above it describing a type of transaction.  I bet you think you know how to handle this situation don’t you? Look for the sign that describes your transaction and join THAT line – WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! I just came from the post office and I can assure that when sending a registered letter it is not appropriate to stand in the line labelled Registered Mail Sending and Delivery – instead you should stand in the line labelled Postal Inquiries – I can’t tell you why that is, but please believe me if you follow the signs you will waste your time. So, you’re wondering how you should handle the situation. What you should do is ask everyone near you what type of transaction they are doing and then decide which line to join.  Now if you’re like me and you’re asking in English, you’ll have a few people just ignore you and another couple answer in Setswana and then at least one ask you how long you’ve been in the country and then tell you, you should learn the language.  When I first got here and answered, I’ve been here 3 months – the “you should learn the language” had a tone of friendly advice – 18 months in the advice is a bit less friendly a bit more judgemental but must be listened to with patience because you desperately need the advice on which line to join.

CONCEPT NO 3: The Sit and Scoot – Undoubtedly because of the length of time spent in lines many locations decided to add chairs to the queue situation, these are set near the end of the line and serve the people who are about to go to the counter.  So after standing in line for 40 minutes or maybe 2 hours you get to the beginning of the chairs, take a seatand prepare to rest a bit as you wait for your turn. Oh, but wait someone has been served, so instead of resting comfortably in the chair that you just sat down in you must lift yourself and move to the next seat, where you sit for 3 or 4 minutes only to move to the next seat again.  Hopefully you didn’t bring a lot of bags with you because you will be doing this over and over until it’s your turn. WORD OF WARNING – in some situations if you decide not to sit but just move along with the line you are endangering your place in the queue.  For example, last week at the South African Embassy a young woman applying for her study permit got tired of the sit and scoot, so when she was two people away from being served she just stood near the counter and waited for her turn.  When it was actually her turn, the embassy staff person accused her of being a “queue jumper” and tried to send her to the back of the 2 hour long line.  She explained that she hadn’t jumped the queue and requested that the person who had been standing behind her in the 2 hour line testify that she was telling the truth – the next person in line just looked at her blankly and said nothing as the embassy staff chewed her out.

CONCEPT NO 4 – One can be for Two, Two Can be for One, Don’t Assume You’re Next – I don’t know why but often in queuing situations one line will feed into two counters or two lines will feed into one counter or in the same office you’ll have both situations happening simultaneously. Having one line feed into two counters could make sense, people are still being served in order – although it does mean that some people might go to the front thinking there’s only one person in line only to be shown the appropriate place at the back of the line by severely annoyed fellow patrons. (This is typically an issue if you’ve been paying attention to the signs, remember they’re a tool for misinformation, don’t fall for it!). I don’t know the purpose of two lines feeding into one counter, even people born and raised here seem to find it confusing – no one knows if it’s their turn or not, and if it’s a long line people get cranky and start  arguments about who is next. If I understood the situation I’m sure I could make it work in my favour, but sadly I don’t understand, so I often end up being stuck in a queue long after people who I recognize as coming in after me have been served and moved on with their business.

Coping Strategies
  1.  Accept the fact that you need more prayer and meditation in your life – a two hour line is the perfect situation to fix this issue, and when you get to the front of the line only to realize you’re in the wrong line, the meditation will have lowered your blood pressure enough that you will not have a stroke.
  2.  You also need to practice your humming – humming is fun, relaxing, free and time consuming.
  3. I tried reading once, but wouldn’t recommend it.  You need to have your eyes on the people around you so you can try to sense who is a queue jumper and who is a booker
  4. Freak Out! - Start yelling loudly for the person in charge and demand that the office does something to fix these haywire queues.  You probably won’t get served and the line won’t be fixed, but the other people in line will quietly agree with you and take back the nasty thoughts they had in their head when they realized how long you’ve been in the country without learning the language.  You may want to avoid this strategy in any immigration offices unless you’re trying to get deported.
  5. Go home – Go home and stand in your your boring, straight, efficient, American or European lines for five or ten minutes, or even do all your errands via the internet.  You’ll miss out on some great people and experiences but you’ll have a lot more time to watch TV.


  1. At least they make lines! You've been to India--did you ever go to a post office there? The concept of lines does not enter their brains. We were at the post office counter being helped and two guys invaded our personal space on each side trying to squeeze us away from the counter so they could be helped. Ugh.

    1. The other improvement is that usually there is air conditioning - never made it to the post office in India but I have a feeling it was much too hot.