“My back-up generator is out of fuel and if you could arrange for somebody to deliver a spare canister of cooking gas to our house…today…then my wife would be very grateful.”
Accommodation officer, Liz, rolls her eyes. A feeling of dread washes over her every time the phone rings. Since taking up a local hire position at the embassy in Tanzania, she’s rued the day that she agreed to a low salary in return for a deal of stress. But then ‘general dogsbody to a host of expatriate staff located on an upper floor’ was not exactly in the job description.
“I wish I had a bloody back-up generator.” Liz mutters. “When the electricity goes out for us at home, it’s candles and sweat.”
For the millionth time, Liz once again weighs up whether it might not have been preferable to have raised thousands of dollars for a local work permit that is valid for just 2 years, to enable her to work in a more fulfilling job but strict immigration laws mean that the chances of her finding decent employment as a foreigner here are slim.
Liz is working through a pile of invoices and receipts submitted for services provided by local suppliers and contractors. The accounts system is a little backed up so payments are late. Many suppliers set up camp in the embassy reception area for days awaiting payment. Mosquito net manufacturers, water delivery trucks, electricians, plumbers, air conditioning and fumigation technitions, furniture suppliers, generator fuel suppliers, the list is endless. Embassy contracts make for lucrative business and Liz has had many a ‘free’ gift or lunch offered to her in the past, all of which she has politely declined.
The latest groaning task for Liz that hangs over her, is to manage the expectations of three new families who are set to arrive from the UK over the next couple of months. Since UK foreign spending has been cut, much of the housing is no longer owned by the embassy but rented from local landlords. Emails with lists of questions from new arrivals have started coming through but before getting to that, Liz spends hours wading through a slew of email correspondence from demanding ‘in-country’ consultants who are unhappy with their lot.
“I simply don’t understand why the Barringtons managed to get that house with a swimming pool when he is a whole pay grade lower than we are?”
“I heard that the Smiths had a new gas barbecue and a roll-top desk as part of their furniture pack, so can we have the same?”
“Do I have to buy my own lawnmower or will you supply it?”
What the overseas consultants do not understand is that keeping up with the Joneses will not necessarily bring unmitigated happiness in what is viewed by the embassy as a ‘hardship’ posting. Put simply, they will never be satisfied. Recently there was a business class flights embargo announced from Head Office.
“It’s a long haul flight, so I assume that you will be booking me a business class seat?”
“I am very sorry Mr MacDonald but we are no longer allowed to book business class for anyone other than the ambassador and his deputy.”
“Well then, I am sure that you can do your best to get me upgraded.” He said snappily, before adding with some menace, “I have some very important meetings to attend and simply won’t be able to do my job properly after an economy class flight.”
At this point, Liz daydreams about turning left instead of right inside a plane. Her own husband’s private sector business is struggling, she hasn’t been home to see her mum in two years and wonders how they will manage the extortionate international school fees this year.
25 year old development graduate Claire recently arrived in Africa with her partner Gary (they’ve been dating for all of two months) who she is not married to, which made life tricky when it came to visas and dependent’s passes. Apparently Gary is happy to sit in Claire’s apartment playing his guitar all day courtesy of the British taxpayer. If only he didn’t keep sending those maddening emails about wanting help with finding a decent housekeeper. Liz has just had to organize flights and accommodation for Claire and Gary’s ‘breather visit’ to Zanzibar which both are entitled to after only three months in post.
At around 11am, Mrs Bahati arrives with Tiffin tins of greasy samosas and bhajias. A welcome distraction. As Liz parts with shillings in return for her greasy snack, the receptionist tells her that there are at least three suppliers waiting to see her. Uniformed embassy drivers hang about the coffee area gossiping and laughing in their own language. No doubt they have a lot to talk about after the ambassador’s function last night. Liz decides that she must work harder on her Kiswahili so as not to miss the nuances of their chat.
When she gets back to her desk, the phone is ringing again. Liz’s heart sinks.
“We’re having a barbecue tonight, is there any chance that one of the drivers can drop round a couple of bags of charcoal. It’s official.” Claire adds as an afterthought.
“I’m afraid they’re all very busy,” Liz says, glancing through the glass partition at the chuckling men in the common room. “But you can buy it from most local supermarkets.” She says, trying her best to sound civil.
Getting back to the Joneses. Next she has a house visit booked at Mr and Mrs Jones’s home for which she is now left and Mr Jones has worked from home all day specifically to meet her. Apparently Mr Jones (happy with his pool and gas powered bbq) now wants Liz to persuade the embassy to pay a for garage conversion at his rental home in order to create space for a new bedroom.
“The landlord is happy for us to make the changes and I don’t mind the disruption…as long as the embassy pays.”
Liz smiles and dutifully makes notes in her cheap, lined notebook. No one will ever approve this but it’s her job to listen and let down Mr Jones gently later … via email.
“Somebody save me,” Liz mutters to herself in the car on the way home as she looks out over a palm tree lined ocean. “There must be a better way to make a living than this.”
As a trailing spouse, It’s not possible to work in a foreign posting unless you apply for a costly work permit from immigration. However there is one loophole, work at your own embassy as a ‘local hire’ employee and you are officially on home turf, so foreign employment rules do not apply.
Full credit (and shameless pilfering of this post title) goes to: Six Degrees North: Trailing Spouse – the graveyard of ambition?
Image Credit: Unsplash/Benjamin Child