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Going to the Bank in Rwanda – a.k.a. Does It Have To Be This Hard?

January 31, 2010

So, I went to the bank at the weekend. ‘Big deal’, I hear you say.  Ah, but this is not just any bank , my dears… it is a Really Big Bank.  So let me tell you exactly what it is like.

Firstly, I walked into the head office branch of that giant bank, which sits in a giant building in downtown Kigali.   I say I walked in, but in fact I hopped; the whole footpath outside was gone: a Chinese-led construction crew had dug a great trench all along the sidewalk, so it was a case of having to hop over ditches to get into the bank entrance.

Really Big Bank, Kigali

Past the guard (skinny chap in a baggy blue para-military uniform, big pump-action shotgun slung over his arm).
Row upon row of waiting chairs, like at a cinema, except where the screen should be there were tellers’ windows. Not many tellers, just windows…  Flat panel TV on the pillar keeping the sizable crowd of people chilled out with UK football coverage at least.

Take a number system. Except that, after 5 minutes, I noticed nothing had happened, no windows had cleared, the indicator board just mockingly glowed with number 207…and my ticket said 233.

After getting too impatient to wait, I found out from a guard I should go to window 1 to get a deposit form.  I get a deposit form; but it is for cash, and I have a couple of cheques. More chat, find out I need to go to the desk beside window 1 to get the right deposit form.  I queue a little, I get it, fill it out, and I’m told to go to Customer Service (other side of the bank) to deposit it, because it is in US$.  Another (short) queue, finally get to the front and I am ready to deposit the cheques.

Goes smoother this time at the bank; the girl fills in her “Bank Use Only” side, itemising each cheque in painful detail.  But it is smoother, as I said: the first time I deposited cheques here, the teller handed the form to me and told me to fill in the bank side of it; when I said no, it is ‘Bank Use Only’ she thought for half a second, brightened and pushed them back across the desk to me saying : “it’s alright: I give you authorization!” Nice try, cheques get pushed back across the desk; eventually she ended up doing it.

This time, no issue: carbon copy of the form given back to me.  Messy but it works.   Ah but, I need to get some US$ I want to withdraw from my US$ account to change outside from the hole in the wall forex guys (better rates).   I ask; I am told to to go back to the other side of the bank; I go to the other side of the bank.  I jump the queue and go straight to window # 4, the US$ window (as I overhear someone say).  No-one complains. It is cool in the bank.

I ask for a withdrawal slip (they are nowhere to be seen); blank look. I ask to debit my account. Still a goldfish look. I mime it out: “I put my money…in…Now I take my money…out….”

Money, please? Or is this

Eventually a spark, and ever so painfully slowly I am told I need to go back to the desk beside window 1…again… I gallop down there again, another small queue. Not only a small queue, but people have no hesitation in jumping that small queue; a couple do, with bits of paper flapping around in their hands until they are sent away to other parts of the bank; blank looks when reminded that they have jumped the queue; ah well, I wonder how the football is going on TV.

Finally my turn. I get 5 minutes of “you want to do WHAT?” type reaction when I say, clearly and simply, that I want to take (my own) money out.  I get a lecture from the teller sitting behind the desk:  you should have a cheque book, don’t you have a cheque book, where is your cheque book? I don’t, and after saying that 10 times, she begins to realise she will have to actually do something.

Finally, the woman slowly reaches over to a binder, slowly opens it, slowly finds a sheet in it that is pre-printed with a simple form per half-page, slowly unclips the binder, slowly takes out the sheet and (you guessed it, slowly) finds a plastic ruler so she can tear the sheet in half.  Voila: I have a little ‘debit authorisation form’ to fill in.  So I do: quickly.  Then she slowly takes it, slowly checks it and then turns it over and tells me to write a bunch of details on the back. OK, no worries:  do that, then she (slowly) opens a big log book, like a visitors’ book, flips the pages and finds the next blank line and writes all my details from the form onto it. I seem to recall at least two sideways glances as she does it, that pained ‘look at the trouble you are causing me’ that almost made me feel so mean…

Finally it is filled in (did I mention she went for a walk half-way through, and she let someone else rock up to the counter and interrupt for a couple of minutes?); I sign in the space, and she initials the form and – I can go! To window # 4, the US$ window.

Like a bird released (that last episode had taken 10 minutes), I zip down there, encouraged there is no queue…only to find no-one is there. I wake someone from window # 5 up by asking, after a few minutes, where is teller # 4?  A roll of the eyes and a muttered “she’ll be back”, as if I am an idiot to have any doubt, then back to sleep it seems (did I mention, the waiting room area was 2/3 full, and nothing seemed to be moving? Number 214 was up on the board…).

Finally, someone appears at window # 4…and then disappears. Someone else rolls along 5 minutes later; looks through the glass at me suspiciously like I am a “religious visitor” on the doorstep, and says: ‘yes?’, as if waiting for an explanation of why on earth I’d be standing there with a piece of paper in my hand.  OK, I explain clearly; that seems to register. The guy (it is a guy) takes my form, and begins a mysterious process of entering half an essay of data into the computer it seems…I wait hopefully, and my optimism isn’t dashed: my faith restored, the transaction is done!  Money about to appear!

Then (slowly) he digs out a stack of $20 bills and counts a few of them a few times. Hands them over.  I say: but I want 100’s – the exchange rate out on the street is much better for 100’s.  Blank look.  Say it again.  And again.  Slowly.  Big sigh; slowly I get the story: there are no 100’s, they are out. I huff and puff a little, tell him therefore I want to cancel the withdrawal then, and that puts him into a slight panic at the thought, presumably, of having to do two transactions in a single hour!  Blank helpless shrugs for a couple of minutes from behind the counter of window # 4, until a colleague shuffles over, has a bit of a think and makes a suggestion in kinyarwanda. I wonder if they have just decided to go have a tea break. But no: a little bit if shuffling occurs from window # 4 to other windows; finally the teller comes back with some 100’s and 50’s. Done.

So I ask for a transaction record for the withdrawal.  Blank look. After the third request, another teller says, duh, there aren’t any.  If I want a transaction record, I have to get an account statement printed. I think for a moment I’m on a winner here: I ask for an account statement.  I get a “huh” look in return. Ask again, and then get the answer I should have expected: I need to walk across the bank to customer service again.
Another walk, another window, another queue. Get to sit down at the counter, finally (football was just getting interesting, darn it!): bright smile, yes sir I can print you a statement. Efficiency! She does print it. It takes 30 seconds!  I have a record of the simple transactions I just made. Transaction is complete. Life is good. And they charged me US$5.30 for the privilege!


Since I’m there, sitting down, (expensive) statement in hand, I brightly think of a way to avoid some of this in future: I ask for the ATM card I applied for on an earlier visit that also became a long, long afternoon….  Quick check on the system: yes I applied, no she doesn’t know where it is. I ask how long it takes. Two weeks sir.  But I applied over a month before. Yes sir. Where is it? It is not here sir. Why not. Because they sometimes take 2 months sir… but we’ll call you!  I ask, as I’m about to leave: could you check the phone number in the system then? I gave it when I applied. Clickedy-click. Yes sir. There isn’t one sir…

Manchester United 2, Everton 1.  At least I was up on the football scores that weekend.

And that my dears is how 90 minutes of a Saturday can be passed in a delightfully relaxed manner in dear old X Bank.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rob G permalink
    February 2, 2010 11:21 pm

    Perhaps mobile micro-payments ( will arrive in Kigali before you next need to go to the bank. If they don’t, you could always spend the next 90 minutes texting IOUs.

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