Why is it that I’ve been stopped twice in two weeks, driving down the same stretch of Namuwongo Road at night?
It’s not far from my house to the centre of town. As the (local) Pied Crow flies, it’s probably only a mile or two but, in a developing country where virtually the only infrastructure is what’s left behind from the 1950s, following the tortuous road through the maze of thousands of potholes and random speed humps is quite a feat. And a drag. Late at night, and with no other traffic around, I can get from my house to the main intersection in town in approximately 7 minutes; during the day you need to double that; at rush-hour, forget about moving at any kind of speed: it’s not uncommon for the journey to take an hour.
So late one evening, I returned home from dinner at a friend’s house on the back of Michael’s boda boda. I trust Michael’s driving; he doesn’t drive too fast and he doesn’t do silly manoeuvres, at least not until a night two weeks ago.
As we turned off the main roundabout onto Namuwongo Road, two policemen on another motorbike overtook us, suddenly cut us up, trying to force us to pull over. Michael braked hard to avoid hitting them, and at the last second swerved sharply to the right, pulled on the throttle and we sped off down the dark road. We sped across the railway line that cuts across the tarmac, up the slight incline towards The Monitor newspaper headquarters. In this 200 metre section there must be 200 potholes. In the last few months, each one has been individually and laboriously filled in by hand. They haven’t fixed the section beyond that yet and we careered around the potholes and over the occasional speed hump for the next kilometre, Michael frantically checking his wing mirror over his shoulder to check we’d made our getaway.
“Mpole mpole sebo (slow down mate)” I whined from the back.
“Those guys – they want our money!” he exclaimed.
It was simple. It was highway robbery.
Incident # 2
I always lock the car doors as soon as I get in. It’s not that I really feel you need to in Kampala, it’s just a habit.
I was halfway home, it was around midnight and I just knew I was going to get stopped by the police that night. I couldn’t say why, but I just knew it was going to happen. There was a period where I got stopped several times in a month, but that was a year ago.
I took my earrings and my necklace off and stuffed my money inside my bra, all except a single 1000 shilling note I left on the dashboard. (There’s no point looking like you have money to throw away – it’s an assumption too many Ugandans make about us muzungu anyway).
Namuwongo Road is deserted that time of night. It’s a road I know very well and I feel very comfortable driving up and down it. I couldn’t quite believe it when a police pickup overtook me and indicated for me to pull over. Was I imagining it? Was I in some kind of deluded state and making it happen?
So the policeman came over, we exchanged greetings and he asked me whether I realised that one of my headlights wasn’t working. “I’m very sorry Officer; I must get it fixed tomorrow.”
It’s very common to see a car with only one headlight working – and mistake it for just a boda boda. I’ve mentioned the headlight to Patrick; he looks after the car, I wouldn’t know where to get anything fixed and I’d get even more ripped off than he does. He’s had a few things fixed recently, I guess that just got overlooked. The policeman asked to see my driving licence and I produced the paper photocopy that I keep in the glove compartment. I’ve heard stories of people who’ve had their driving licences taken; I’m not prepared to make seven visits to the central police station to get mine back.
“You are going to pay a fine of 50,000 shillings” said the officer in the dark blue uniform as he started to write something down. I assumed it was a ticket. “You can put the light on,” he told me, pointing to the light inside the car. He put his arm through the open passenger window and went to unlock the door. I quickly put the windows up. Interesting that he didn’t complain (they’re not supposed to get into your vehicle).
“Hello madam, how are you?” asked a younger policeman with an ingratiating voice and a sickly smile who appeared next to him. Two can play the charm game: I answered him in Luganda. He thought it was hilarious.
I was tired, I just wanted to get home and I wasn’t really in the mood for playing games. I tried to play along but my heart wasn’t in it. “Can you just give me the ticket please?” That floored him.
“Anyway madam, the police station it is shut and we don’t want to waste your time. Maybe you can give us some money for water?” I knew where this was all heading; if the guys in the truck didn’t know they were dealing with a muzungu to start with, they sure did once I’d put the inside light on.
“Okay you can have this, this is all I have. I’m just on my way home.” I held up the 1000 shilling note.
“Is that it?” he asked, “is that all you have?” (1000 shillings should buy two bottles of water). “It’s okay, we know you now, we can find you another time.”
My heart sank.
I think he thought he was doing me a favour, letting me defer payment until the next time they pull me over. Now I’m thinking I’ll have to run the gauntlet of these ‘stupid hyena’ (words not to be used lightly) every time I’m out late at night.
Patrick laughed his head off when I told him this story. “These ones aren’t allowed to stop you, they are not traffic police! Only the traffic police can stop you and even they can’t stop you after five o’clock.”
So now I know: the jewellery’s back on, the cash is in my pocket – and my headlights are on full beam.