The place: Nairobi, Kenya
The scene: Three American women in a car with a trustworthy Kenyan taxi driver (affectionately called “Small Paul”) returning to their compound lodging after dinner and shopping at a Very Western Mall (something that 2 out of 3 of the ladies have zero access to in their residential nations of Rwanda and Burundi).
From the information above, deduce the answers to the following questions.
1) Which person would the three ladies least prefer to see at 9:30pm on a Nairobi thoroughfare?
- A pack of rampaging Juggalos (is “pack” the correct mass noun? Extra point.)
- Robert Mugabe in full drag
- A Kenyan police officer, beckoning your taxi to the side of the road for an impromptu checkpoint (not the least bit in drag)
2) Fill in the blanks: The police officer barrages Small Paul with questions in __________ and demands to see his __________ before noticing __________ in the front seat.
- Pig Latin / wedding ring / a roasted chicken
- rapid Spanish / suede driving moccasins / Peter Gabriel
- Swahili / driver’s license and taxi documents / a short white woman
3) The police officer then demands to see all three of the women’s __________
- wedding rings
- roasted chickens
- passports and visas for Kenya
4) The police officer then threatened to __________ the women since they could not prove when they had entered the country and might be there illegally.
- play poker with
- sing showtunes for
Answers: 3, 3, 3, 3
In retrospect, and in quiz form, the anecdote transforms from heart-stopping, stomach churning moment of panic on the side of a Kenyan road to a breezy stories, one of those “can you believe that happened?” gleefully shared later in safer environs. The event occurred last week, when I was in Nairobi with five colleagues, presenting at a conference. The police “checkpoint” was an unexpected detour.
It’s easier to tell the story this way, a whew of relief, instead of the way that it felt, my stomach knotted up in panic, my usually organized brain spinning out of control. He attempted the shakedown with a smile, a cold curl of his lips. My friend/colleague later summarized the terror that I felt in seeing that look: he was a man without empathy, without humanity to avail one’s self to. That is the most frightening person you can encounter, armed with power and uncaring when wielding it freely. The officer was looking for a bribe, jostling us with the weight of his legal authority, abusing his power for the purpose of frightening a few women into a shakedown. This is fear experienced by those who have no power: that those with power will use it destroy them.
He threatened to take us to prison, his words cold: “Then I will have to arrest you and take you to prison because you do not have your documents. How do I know how long you have been here?” We apologized, needlessly (police officers, are not, after all, immigration police, and I don’t know anyone who travels around a city with their real passport- only a photocopy). He continued in this vein, and we continued with apologies and dogged self-flagellation. It only ended when his partner stepped in after we associated ourselves with the Embassy.
We would need to call our supervisor, an Embassy official. But none of us had phones. Small Paul would help then- he could call the other three guys in our group and they could get in touch with the Embassy, right? My brain spiraled. Did they have a women’s cell in the jail? Would we be in a cell with a bunch of criminals? What if they took our wallets- our money, identification, phones- and left us with nothing? As we drove home, I shivered to think of what worse events could have transpired. But, in the end, it would have been fine. We are backed up by a powerful institution that, Paul informs us, the Kenyan police don’t really want to mess with.
This isn’t uncommon in Kenya, a nation rife with corruption- one site reports that the average Kenyan pays 16 bribes a month. and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranks them as 145– with Somalia bringing up the worldwide rear at 174. It was a shattering contrast to my sweet Rwanda, coming in at an impressive 55, where my only police interactions have been waves as I drove down the road (carefully following the speed limit). It was, on the side of the road in Kenya, a realization.
As we sped away from the officers, Small Paul reassured us that we did the right thing: play dumb (“Oh, we didn’t know”), apologize, (“We’re really sorry”), promise to do it different in the future, contriteness etched on our faces (“Did we mention we are sorry? Would you like to talk to the U.S. Embassy to explain the situation?”). And, the trump card that acts as magic or poison: we work for the U.S. Embassy. Here, it was magic. Within a few moments I could breathe again and chuckled at Small Paul’s jokes. “#bringbackourgirls,” he proclaimed as he slowed and eased the car over the speed bumps in our South C neighborhood. International incident averted, at least this time.
And this photo is just to end the post on a happy note… and recall what Kenya has to offer beyond corrupt police.