bureaucracy

Electric elevator desks in Prague, 1937 / unknown photographer

Though it looks like something out of Brazil (the movie directed by Terry Gilliam, 1985), these desks were real. The Central Social Institution in Prague was home to the world’s largest vertical file cabinet, with over 3,000 drawers. The desks could move up, down, left, and right at the push of a button. (src: KevlarYarmulke on Reddit)

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Here I am in Mozambique, at the End

Today is my last day in Africa. If you consider Madagascar as part of Africa, which it technically is despite its geographical isolation, I have been in Africa for about two and a half years. Tomorrow I hop continents and fly to Thailand!

I’m at the end of a road here. As a kid I always dreamed of spending time in Africa because I was certain there was more to the 54-countried continent than the media showed. My assumptions were beyond correct. Africa is a luscious and thriving part of the world. There is SO much more to it than the sad ball of skewed crap we see represented in the western world. That skewed crap doesn’t even come close and it’s a damn shame.

I have never felt at risk. I have been surrounded by colors and culture and warmth and love and hospitality. I have also been engrossed in my own internal conflict. Africa doesn’t need my help. It doesn’t need anything from me or the west except for respect and an open mind. For that statement I am using the blanket term of “Africa” even though I have only been to 7 of the 54 countries.

Respect and an open mind, that’s it.

Of course Africa isn’t lacking of country specific political and racial issues… but where in the world doesn’t have these problems? Especially as an American in the Trump Era… I can’t say ANYTHING about other places having political issues.

Here I am in Mozambique, at the end. This isn’t the end, though. Mozambique will always be here and nothing will change when I leave.

I have only spent a few days in Mozambique because I have gotten tired. I’ve been traveling quickly these past two months, since I left Madagascar, and it’s caught up to me.

After roaming through Namibia-Zimbabwe-Zambia-Botswana, I took a long break in Pretoria, South Africa with one of my good friends from Afrikaburn.

It was a surreal experience. I slowed down, and sat down on one of the most comfortable couches I had experienced in 2 years and it was hard to remove myself. My South African friend was living her normal life, as a recent graduate of university she was surrounded by social activities and work. It was a lifestyle I hadn’t touched in years and it gave me culture shock. I was in it, but I wasn’t IN it. It was only temporary.

In South Africa I caught a cold. I was supposed to go to Swaziland, then head to Mozambique in time for my flight. I had time for it all but it would be quick. Moving pretty much every day, like I had in the other countries. I have trouble staying put when I am in Travel-Mode.

My friend’s mom was shocked. “You should take a break. You look exhausted. Skip Swaziland! Come stay with me! Use wifi! Relax!” She was the sweetest.

I wasn’t going to. I knew I had to keep going. But then I started to have stomach pains reminiscent to the flu. My body wanted a break.

So I caved. I spent 5 days sleeping, cooking vegetables, drinking wine, cuddly with a cute dog, and watching BBC Earth and war movies with my friend’s mom as I prepared to head to Mozambique.

Here, at the end, I present to you the most African experience one could have. It is a journey of uncertainty, complications, complete kindness of strangers, and everything magically working out after all:

Getting a visa for Mozambique was a nightmare! To get a visa at the consulate ahead of time I needed “proof of accommodation.” To get “proof of accommodation,” I had to contact a place to stay in Mozambique and have them fill out paperwork for me. Most cheap places I found didn’t have emails. The one I did find, Fatima’s Backpackers in Maputo, required “proof of transport.” Since I was originally planning to take local, unpredictable transport from Swaziland to Maputo, I couldn’t acquire “proof of transport.” (You book things like that in person, on the spot).

When my plans changed, I still was hesitant to book transport because buses that counted as “proof” refused to take someone who didn’t have a visa ahead of time. BUT I didn’t want to book transport until I had a visa in my hand and knew when I could leave!

It was a cycle of crap. A cycle a cycle a cycle.

After a few days of suppressing the issue and relaxing, then thinking about it with no real solution, I finally decided to book transportation for a night bus from Pretoria to Maputo for the upcoming Monday. I was hoping over the weekend I could get my “proof of accommodation” then go to the Consulate and hope they could process my visa in one day.

After many harassing emails to Fatimas (their server was down apparently), I got my “proof of accommodation” Sunday evening!

Monday morning I went straight to the consulate. The woman there was much kinder than the first time I’d gone. She said I could pick up my visa between 2:30 and 3:30 pm, but I had to deposit 750 Rands, approximately $50 to the consulate’s account at a First National Bank.

I called an uber ride from the consulate and told the driver I needed to go to the mall near where I was staying. I asked if there was an FNB bank there. He said no. He also told me I would need my passport to make a deposit…which I’d left with the Consulate. Since I have a second passport, I decided to have him take me straight home and I’d leave early to pick up the visa, stopping at the bank on the way.

I shouldn’t have listened to him.

Around 1 I made my way to an FNB in the neighborhood.

Their system was down, but “maybe I could deposit in an ATM” they said!

The ATM ate my money and processed nothing.

Time was ticking away.

A teller went to get someone to get my money back from the ATM. During this time, the line at the bank expanded to 30 angry people. Most things weren’t working and I was on the verge of a panic attack. I was so close!!

I’d used the last of my cash for the deposit so I’d need to withdraw more for my uber ride, but the line was out the door. So while I waited for the teller to return with my eaten money, I tried to change my Uber settings to use a credit card so I could race across town the second the deposit went through.

But Uber wouldn’t take either of my credit cards. It was confused with the zip code versus the country I was in. Nothing I tried would take.

My throat was getting tight. I was SO close to getting this damn headache of a visa!

2pm.

The teller returned with my money and brought me to an ATM to try again. The manager of the bank asked the group in line if I could go first since I was in the middle of a hassle and a very angry man yelled “Hell No!”

So I got in line as my stress level mounted.

Eventually the deposit went through and I was on my way out the door towards the other side of town to get my visa!

I tried to call an Uber but it didn’t work.

“Verify your credit card” It said.

“Use Cash as Payment” I pressed.

“Verify your credit card” it insisted.

It would not let me order a car.

Time was passing and I was stuck. Panic revved up inside me. No! I’d made it this far. I was going to Mozambique that night! I was going to get my damn visa!

I screamed at my phone each time Uber refused. I needed an alternative. I asked people nearby where I could find a cab.

No one knew.

A girl saw me in my fit and came over as I slumped in the shade next to a different bank to try and think. She offered to find me a cab with a different app.

A well-dressed man came up to us and said “Hi girls, I work for the Ghanaian Embassy and I was robbed here last week. You need to put your phones away.”

The kind girl said “Embassy? Is that near the Mozambique Consulate? This girl has an emergency and needs to get to the Mozambique consulate by 3:30.”

The man replied, “I think I know where that is. My driver will take her.”

I looked up in disbelief.

He guided me to his car and told his driver where to go and to collect him at the bank in a hour.

What?!

I got in.

The driver was excited to see me. He was from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After asking me what I was doing, he promptly asked if I would marry him. I told him I was already engaged.

He then asked how I felt about Donald Trump. I told him he was a terrible con man causing a plethora of trouble. The driver said “No honey, I do not believe you. He is not that bad. You are being narrow-minded, you must forgive him!”

I told him he didn’t understand. Trump was cutting every program I believed was progressive blah blah blah all of my thoughts…

Driver: “No, God doesn’t want you to hate Donald Trump. You must forgive him.”

I huffed and said never mind.

Then the driver asked “you do believe in God?”

I told him I was not religious.

This greatly offended the driver.

“Oh no dear! You see how you needed a ride to the Consulate!? You were desperate, but God brought me to you! You must appreciate what God does for you.”

I told him I greatly appreciated the circumstance and his God for helping me. This answer wasn’t enough. We spent the rest of the ride arguing about how he believed my life was nothing until I found God and I told him my life was full and wonderful in its own way even though it was different from his.

I was SO CLOSE to getting that visa! So. Close.

Finally we arrived at the consulate. I told him I didn’t have a phone number he could call when he asked, but I told him to thank his employer profusely for letting me use the car. He told me to thank God instead. I shut the door.

I collected my visa in the office right in the nick of time and I almost cried. Since Uber wasn’t working for me anymore, the woman called a cab for me.

That night I said good-bye to the pet dog and my cushy, relaxing life in Pretoria and hopped on a night bus where I promptly passed out.

By 4 am we’d reached the border but had to wait until it opened at 6 am to cross. It was the most hectic border I’d seen yet. Lines of minibuses packed to the brim with goods, people meandering, goats sifting through trash. There was a heavy mist blanketing the eerie yellow lights of the cars in line.

Finally I crossed the border’s mess. I probably could have gotten my visa AT the border because so much was going on and the bus would have never known, but oh well. I had it in advance and hopped on over to Mozambique with ease.

I’d made it to my last African country as the sun slowly rose in the heavy fog.

In Mozambique I have been tired. It’s the end of Africa for me and my body knows. I took a chappa from the hostel in the capital to a beach town up north called Tofo at 5am the next day. I spent two days relaxing in Tofo.

I didn’t do much. One night I skinny dipped with some Estonian guys I’d met as the full moon lit the surprisingly warm water. It was euphoric thrashing in the waves.

Tofo is a great place for scuba diving but I’m getting certified in a few weeks in Malaysia and I also have a new tattoo so I didn’t want to spend too much time in the water.

Mozambique looks like Madagascar. The palm trees, fields of corn (instead of rice), grass huts, stands selling tomatoes, women in colorful fabric carrying goods on their heads. There was a Peace Corps Youth Empowerment Camp taking place at the place where I was staying. It felt like home. But it wasn’t. It was a parallel universe to Madagascar. It all looked the same, but I was an alien. I don’t speak a word of Portuguese.

After two relaxing days in Tofo, I returned to Maputo and here I am, mentally preparing for the end of my time in Africa and my next adventure in Asia.

Whew. It’s been a long road. Almost 4 years abroad. I think this new phase will be reinvigorating! A change of scenery and huge cultural jump will be fun.

Thank you for all of the love, Africa, especially Madagascar. I wouldn’t be the women I am today without all of these crazy experiences.

What makes something Kafkaesque? (in loops)

The term Kafkaesque has entered the vernacular to describe unnecessarily complicated and frustrating experiences, like being forced to navigate labyrinths of bureaucracy. So, what makes something “Kafkaesque”? Here are some mind-bending animated loops to help you understand.

Franz Kafka’s tragicomic stories act as a form of mythology for the modern industrial age, employing dream logic to explore the relationships between systems of arbitrary power and the individuals caught up in them. 

For example, in “The Trial,” K, the protagonist, is arrested out of nowhere and made to go through a bewildering process where neither the cause of his arrest, nor the nature of the judicial proceedings are made clear to him. While this story seems to focus directly on bureaucracy, the vague laws and bewildering procedures point to something far more sinister: the terrible momentum of the legal system proves unstoppable, even by supposedly powerful officials. This is a system that doesn’t serve justice, but whose sole function is to perpetuate itself.


Franz Kafka’s stories do indeed deal with many mundane and absurd aspects of modern bureaucracy, but accompanying the bleakness of Kafka’s stories, there’s a great deal of humor rooted in the nonsensical logic of the situations described. So on the one hand, it’s easy to recognize the Kafkaesque in today’s world. We rely on increasingly convoluted systems of administration that have real consequences on every aspect of our lives. And we find our every word judged by people we can’t see according to rules we don’t know. 

On the other hand, by fine-tuning our attention to the absurd, Kafka also reflects our shortcomings back at ourselves. In doing so, he reminds us that the world we live in is one we create, and have the power to change for the better.

From the TED-Ed Lesson What makes something “Kafkaesque”? - Noah Tavlin

Animation by TED-Ed

It can be painful to fill out forms, when the only options are “male” and “female.” It’s wrong that bureaucracy demands these ridiculous sacrifices from us.

But no matter how much these systems try to whittle at our resolve, wage war against our sense of self, or flat out refuse to acknowledge that we exist,

we are stronger than them.

We are better than their ignorance.

And a little peice of paper or page on a screen can’t ever change that.

Man’s feeling of homelessness, of alienation has been intensified in the midst of a bureaucratized, impersonal mass society. He has come to feel himself an outsider even within his own human society. He is trebly alienated: a stranger to God, to nature, and to the gigantic social apparatus that supplies his material wants.


But the worst and final form of alienation, toward which indeed the others tend, is man’s alienation from his own self. In a society that requires of man only that he perform competently his own particular social function, man becomes identified with this function, and the rest of his being is allowed to subsist as best it can - usually to be dropped below the surface of consciousness and forgotten.

William Barrett

Worst of all for Washington, the investigative reporter looks for scandalous illegality when he should be looking into why the government doesn’t work. What’s wrong with government today seldom has to do with illegality… most of the time the explanation of what is wrong lies in the cultures of bureaucracy, Congress, the White House, and the judiciary-that is, in the customs and rituals and pressures that govern conduct in these institutions…

Consider how long it took the Pentagon press corps to wake up to the big way they were being conned by the reported 80 percent success rate of air missions in the Gulf [War]. They even failed to understand when Colin Powell gave away the key to the hustle on the first day by explaining that the rate was based on ‘arriving at the target and delivering the ordinance.’ If the reporters had had the experience in government to give them a first-hand feel for the con, they would have noticed that there was no mention of the ordinance hitting the target.
—  Charles Peters, “How Washington Really Works, Fourth Edition,” 17-19
There is some enormous organisation determining what is said by this court. In my case this includes my arrest and the examination taking place here today, an organisation that employs policemen who can be bribed, oafish supervisors and judges of whom nothing better can be said than that they are not as arrogant as some others. This organisation even maintains a high-level judiciary along with its train of countless servants, scribes, policemen and all the other assistance that it needs, perhaps even executioners and torturers; I’m not afraid of using those words. And what, gentlemen, is the purpose of this enormous organisation? Its purpose is to arrest innocent people and wage pointless prosecutions against them which, as in my case, lead to no result. How are we to avoid those in office becoming deeply corrupt when everything is devoid of meaning?
—  Franz Kafka, The Trial

“Everyone knows how compromised the idea of bureaucracy as a meritocratic system is. The first criterion of loyalty to any organization is therefore complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit but on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, or with the fiction that rules and regulations apply to everyone equally, when in fact they are often deployed as an instrument of arbitrary personal power. … As whole societies have come to represent themselves as giant credentialized meritocracies, rather than as systems of predatory extraction, we bustle about, trying to curry favor by pretending we actually believe it to be true.”
- David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules (2015)

Our society constantly proclaims that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough, all the while reinforcing privilege and putting increasing pressure on its overstretched and exhausted citizens. An increasing number of people fail, feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed. We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system.

A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise freedom. Along with the idea of the perfectible individual, the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman neatly summarised the paradox of our era as: “Never have we been so free. Never have we felt so powerless.” We are indeed freer than before, in the sense that we can criticise religion, take advantage of the new laissez-faire attitude to sex and support any political movement we like. We can do all these things because they no longer have any significance – freedom of this kind is prompted by indifference. Yet, on the other hand, our daily lives have become a constant battle against a bureaucracy that would make Kafka weak at the knees. There are regulations about everything, from the salt content of bread to urban poultry-keeping.

Our presumed freedom is tied to one central condition: we must be successful – that is, “make” something of ourselves. You don’t need to look far for examples. A highly skilled individual who puts parenting before their career comes in for criticism. A person with a good job who turns down a promotion to invest more time in other things is seen as crazy – unless those other things ensure success. A young woman who wants to become a primary school teacher is told by her parents that she should start off by getting a master’s degree in economics – a primary school teacher, whatever can she be thinking of?

There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed. And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity. The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us.