Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Speed Trap





In Tanzania, there is no speed limit – except in villages or along speed traps, where the speed limit is 50 kilometers per hour. Speed traps are the worst. At the bottom of a long descent policemen and women dressed in miraculously white uniforms and smart looking hats stand and wait like predators on the hunt. When they see our foreign Landy, our foreign plates, and our foreign faces they pounce gleefully on the prey. We meet on the shoulder
“This is a one-zero-niney!” (Series lll 109) “Very strong!” they say. “I learned to drive in this vehicle!”
“It’s 40 years old,” I say.
“Eish! Forty?! But it is STRONG!” Then, “Where do you come from?” and we never know if they are asking our country or where we spent the previous night. We usually answer incorrectly. But because we drive a car that reminds them of their youth, they smile and say, “Safari Jema. Proceed!”

Sometimes just for the heck of it, they ask for a “gifty” and when they do I give them a look that says, you aren’t corrupt, are you? so far, it works. “Proceed!” they say with a laugh as if they weren’t really asking for a bribe at all. Just joshing, ha ha!

Some days we get stopped at every police check along our route – 5 or 6 times a day.  One policeman, after expressing, as they all do, how strong Ndoto is said, “I like this car very much! I think I will come in the night when you aren’t looking and take it!”  “Ha-ha!” we say hoping he is just joshing. Another looked longingly at Ndoto and whispered, “I want. I dream…” Only one policeman in the eleven months we’ve been driving in Africa shook his head in disappointment, “This car is obsolete,” he stated with a tsk. The two policemen with him, loyal to Strong Old Landys, continued to argue the point with their unappreciative, much younger colleague as we drove slowly away.

Sometimes they check the working order of our turn signals, brake lights and such which is why Scott jiggles the fuse box below the steering column before each police check. One policeman asked us to engage the backup lights. “Back-up lights?! Ha-ha!” said Scott looking over at me in a panic. Do we even have back-up lights? “This car is older than your father!” said Scott. “It was made long before back-up lights were invented.”
“Proceed,” said the policeman with a smile – perhaps recalling a time his father, or grandfather, reminisced about the virtues of Old Landys, “…strong vehicles! But you know, they have no back-up lights…”

The first time we were stopped in a speed trap was in Kenya. There was a bevy of trucks, buses, and police clustered at the bottom of a hill. Up went the arms. Halt! As we pulled over a policewoman came to the window saying, “You have been caught over speeding.” Isn’t speeding enough? What is over-speeding? I wanted to ask. “The fine is $120,” she continued, “and I know you can afford it.”
“Speeding? Impossible!” Scott and I said in unison. So she brought the radar gun and showed us a photo of Ndoto doing 64 in a 50.

“Oh. Pole sana.” I said admitting guilt. “We are very sorry. We didn’t see the sign. We didn’t know our car could go that fast. Ha-ha! But isn’t she strong?”

Another Policewoman, Susan, came to my window barely noticing Ndoto fitness. “You have three options. I can arrest you and take you to jail now. Or you can pay the fine for which I will give you a receipt. Then you may appear in court at 8am tomorrow in (town two hours back on heavily potholed road the way we had come), where you will plead guilty, appeal, and have the fine reduced. Or you can pay the fine to me now and you can proceed.”

Naively thinking the options she stated were the only options, I began to plead my case on the spot. “We are stupid muzungu. We just left Uganda; we’ve only been in Kenya 5 hours! We didn’t see the sign. Can’t you let us off with a warning? No? Can’t we appeal in a court in a town in the direction we are heading, like Eldoret or Lamu?”
“No, this is not possible,” said Susan.
As I continued to beg for leniency, even professing, “We are not speeders” in the same way I would say, “We are not heroin addicts,” Susan began to get tears in her eyes.

She tried to find something extraordinary or likeable about us. “What are you doing in Africa?” She said. “Are you doctors?  Missionaries?”
“No,” I answered. “We are nobody.” Desperate to come up with anything that made us remotely worthwhile I added, “but in Uganda we visited a friend who is a doctor,” which was true.
Susan tilted her head, considering this new information. “Is she like me, or is she muzungu, like you.”
“She’s muzungu,” I answered. “But she is a doctor to Ugandans and she dates Ugandans, so she’s practically a Ugandan,” I added.
This made Susan laugh. Fifteen minutes passed while Susan and I played verbal table tennis.

Then Scott, trying out a tactic we had never discussed or agreed on (not that we had ever discussed any police check protocol) joined us at my window. He took out his wallet, pulled out a $100 and a $20, and handed it to Susan. “Here. We’ll just pay the fine and be on our way. This is all the money I have until we visit a bank in Eldoret,” he added.
“What?!” both Susan and I exclaimed. Susan glanced at the bills and got more tears in her eyes.
“Do you mean to say,” said Susan separating the bills and holding them on each side of her ample chest, “that further up the road, if you step on someone’s egg, you will be in trouble?”
Having no idea what it meant to step on someone’s egg but sensing possible victory I locked eyes with Susan. With all the seriousness I could muster I said quietly, “That is exactly what we mean, Susan.”
Susan sighed dramatically. “What if I make my own decision?” Without waiting for an answer she handed the $100 back to Scott and pressed the $20 to her bosom. “I will keep this,” she said.
“Oh thank you Susan!” I said as she strolled away. Then, because we had been through so much together, I leaned out the window and shouted, “Let’s keep in touch!”

“That was half scary, half infuriating,” I said as we drove away. “I couldn’t believe it when you handed her $120! If you had just given me a little more time I think I could have got us out of there without paying a dime.”
Scott looked over at me tearing up just as Susan had. I suddenly realized what had made Susan cry. Pity. Never in Susan’s wildest dreams would anyone actually hand over the usurious fine requested. It brought tears to her eyes that we, the stupidest muzungus she had ever encountered, were so unfamiliar with bribe negotiations that we were willing to hand over a king’s ransom of $120 cash money. No one does that.

“Didn’t you realize what was going on?” Scott asked. “She was waiting for us to offer a bribe! She never intended to arrest us, or to collect the entire $120.”
“Wha..? Huh? But you gave her that hundred dollar bill!”
“I’ve been trying to get rid of that hundred since we left Cape Town. It’s pre 1996. No one in Africa will take it. She saw the date. That’s the only reason she gave it back to me.”

I silently studied Scott seeing him with new eyes. “Clever man,” I said.

We later learned that to step on someone’s egg means to hit someone’s goat or cow or sheep, or to get into some other kind of trouble only money could solve.  I’ve used the phrase often when we are stopped for speeding since meeting Susan.
“Pole sana officer. If we pay you the fine we will have no money. Then if we step on someone’s egg further up the road, we will surely be in big trouble.” I wait.

“Proceed!”





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