“I can’t get your fax through to Zambia,” Jenny wailed. Jenny was the “fax and post lady” in the busy commodity trading company where I worked, and she’d been trying for a week to get this extremely important fax through to a small town in northern Zambia. I was the Africa trader, sourcing raw feed ingredients to supply to the animal feed industry in South Africa and some neighbouring countries.

I had bought a few thousand tons of bagged cotton seed and was trying to get the contract, with all its terms and conditions, through to the seller for approval. I had to buy the forex, organize the transport to South Africa and then on to the end buyer and I needed all the terms agreed before doing so. Dealing in Africa meant having hair on your teeth and big, big ones. It also meant understanding not only the culture, but also all the little difficulties involved in dealing in Africa… many.

This was in the days—not too long ago, come to think of it—when a fax was the fastest way of getting correspondence anywhere and, while it was still not considered a legal document, at least it got the ball rolling. The ball, in this case, inspection of the product and bags, fumigation, testing for protein content, aflatoxin, etc., ensuring it was ready to be loaded and would be on time.

“What do you mean, Jen? What do you mean you can’t get the fax through? What’s the problem?”

“Well, for the first few days the fax machine just rang without kicking in. Now, for the last two days some child answers the phone. I don’t know what to do anymore.”

“OK, let me give it a try.” And I did, every half an hour I would go and dial with the same result… it just rang and rang. Late one afternoon, someone at last answered—a hesitant, little voice.

“Hello …?”

“Hello. What is your name,” I asked.

“Wanda.”

“Hello, Wanda, my name is Jane, how are you?” Very different from my normal “Hello, what’s going on with…” This was a child.

“Fine thank you, and you?” Yes, yes, yes kid, just… I grit my teeth and plough on.

“I am fine. Is your daddy home, Wanda?” and I giggle. In a western country I could be some perv or child trafficker and children would be taught either to never answer or to give some elusive answer to this question.

“No, my daddy isn’t home now.”

“When will he be home?”

“About 7 tonight.” Oh dear, that raised a number of other ugly heads—power failures being the greatest.

“OK, Wanda. How old are you?”

“I’m 9.”

“Wow, you are a big girl. Tell me, can you read?”

“Yes.”

“Fantastic. Now tell me, is there a fax machine in your house?”

“Yes.”

“Are you speaking to me on the phone at the fax machine?”

“Yes.”

“OK, I am trying to send a fax to your daddy, and I need you to help me. Can you do that?”

“I think so.”

“We will go slowly, so we both understand, OK?”

“OK.”

“First of all, do you have electricity?” If they only used a generator, I was in trouble as there was no way this little girl could get it running.

“Yes.”

“Is it working now… do you have lights that are on?”

“Yes.”

“Great. Now look at the machine. You know the little button that is on or off? Is the machine switched on?”

“Yes.”

“Is there paper in the machine? Can you see a roll of paper, or do you see some paper sticking out of the machine?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now I want you to look carefully at the buttons on the machine. Can you see the buttons?”

“Yes.”

“Is there one—probably a green one that says “Start”?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now listen carefully. I’m going to push a button on my side. It’s going to make a funny noise in your ear and you won’t be able to talk to me. When you hear that noise, I want you to push the “Start” button on your side, count to ten and put the phone down. Do you get what I am saying?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me what I told you.” She repeated it perfectly. “OK, Wanda, here we go then, I’m going to push a button here, you’re going to hear a noise and you must press the “start” button, count to ten, then put the phone down. It was lovely speaking to you, now here comes the funny noise.”

It went through. Jenny looked at me in astonishment. “How did you know to do that?”

I laughed, “Easy. If the phone just rings, it could mean there’s no paper or no electricity or the machine isn’t on. If these are eliminated, then look for another reason. It’s Africa!”