The banking sector in Kenya demonstrates an interesting combination of professional veneer, ambitious technology and good old fashioned fallibility. We bank with a very well know international bank which has a branch in Kisii, (a largish town about forty minutes drive from our place). It isn't every day that you get the chance to make somebody a millionaire but today was that day. We had to pay the contractor just over a million shillings today – in cash. (For understandable but, ultimately, very frustrating reasons, it is not possible to write a cheque for a million shillings in Kenya. We have had a lot of hassle making payments to the contractor over the duration of the building project so its easiest to just draw the money and pay him cash).
As we were meeting the contractor at the bank Mary, (our manager), and I went up to the 'executive' part of the bank up a flight of stairs. This is very posh. There isn't usually a queue, free tea, coffee and biscuits are available and you can conduct your business with a certain amount of discretion. We always feel like imposters when we use this section of the bank as you have to pay a fee each month for the privilege and we haven't signed up for it. I'm usually worried that someone will ask if we are 'members', work out that we are interlopers and ask us to leave. The contractor must be a paid up 'executive' as he told us to meet him 'upstairs' so we obliged.
At one point in our transactions I misunderstood the rules of queuing, (which are always confusing in Kenya). Unsure of who was next I kept an eye on the counter, trying to work out when it would be my turn. A guy stood up and queued behind the person at the counter so I stood behind him. After he was served I moved to the counter. Another guy in a very smart suit,who had been sat down all the time I had been in the room, said in a fairly loud voice;
“It is my turn now, I am before you. You must wait for your turn.”
Suitable chastened I sat down. As the smart guy stood up he looked at me, (now sat opposite him), and said,
“We do not stand here!”
Anyway. I wrote three cheques to withdraw a total of one and a half million shillings. The lady behind the counter was very efficient and charming, (this itself is something of a public service first). Unfortunately the hardware supporting her didn't want to play today. The machine that reads the numbers from the cheques refused to read the details of one of the cheques – despite being given at least twenty chances. It was like watching a very fast merry go round. When the cheque was finally cleared and the money was brought another machine appeared on the counter – (one of my favourites).
One of the most tedious parts of going to the bank is counting the money once we've been given it to make sure we haven't been short changed. As we usually bank with the commoners we have to huddle over the money in the most secluded space we can find and count it up. This essential check is probably the best signal we could possibly give to potential muggers. In the executive section they count the money for you. One and a half million shillings is a lot of bank notes so, to make life easier, piles of one hundred thousand shillings are dropped onto a machine which then flicks through them, counting the number of notes and displaying the amount on a digital read out. As it counts it makes a very satisfying noise. When I was about six there was a craze for attaching a stiff piece of card onto your bicycle so it flicked against the spokes on the wheel and made a clicking noise. The faster you went the more satisfying the noise was. The noise the note counting machine made was exactly the same. Except. The notes were a bit dog-eared so they had to be encouraged through, slowing down the count, giving the machine indigestion and interrupting the smooth purr of the sound effects. As each pile was completed the teller expertly scooped them up and snapped a rubber band around them. It was poetry in motion until about six hundred thousand shillings when hand eye coordination failed and a hundred thousand shillings fell on the floor. Both Mary and I tensed. Would the teller just put the rubber band on once she'd picked the notes up or would she put them through the clicky counting machine again. Fortunately she made the right choice, (though the pile had to be counted three times and a further search under the counter had to be made before the counting machine obliged by counting another hundred thousand shillings off).
At the end of the exercise we were all satisfied that the correct amount of money had been handed over, (despite the machine saying that it had counted one million six hundred thousand shillings). As experiences at the bank go it was very successful and, for the size of transaction, completed in record time. I'm thinking of going the whole hog and trying the coffee next time we are invited 'upstairs'. I'll have to check what the protocol for coffee drinking is. I wonder if they let you dunk your biscuits.