We’ve heard awful stories about corruption and bribery since we crossed the border last year. Dire warnings from guidebooks and other travelers generally give the impression that officials are out to get you in every country. That hasn’t been our experience, but we have met a few bad apples.
Driving down a main street in Nairobi after dark, we were in the backseat of our friend’s Land Rover when we hit a police check point. Police check points are common throughout Africa, you may remember our last experience at one in Zimbabwe.
Motioning us to pull over, we maneuvered the SUV onto the dirt shoulder next to the police officer. Smiling at us, the officer inquired as to our destination, how long we had been in Kenya and for the driver’s license. All normal requests. Then he requested that we take the sunshade off the back window so he could “see everyone in the car better.”
Immediately he asked Danny and I to get out of the vehicle. Unsure what was going on, we asked if there was a problem. “You didn’t have your seat belts on in the backseat,” he told us. “This is a big problem.” Protesting as we got out of the car, we weren’t sure if he was serious or if he was looking for a bribe.
Soon enough it was clear. “You must pay a charge of 5000 shillings,” he said once Danny and I were safely back in the car. Immediately we started to protest and declared that we did not have that kind of money on us. “Then you will go to the police station, either in this car or the two in the backseat can get out and I will call for mobile transport,” he said expecting us to protest further. Instead, we agreed to go to the police station if necessary, but pointed out that we would not have the 5000 shillings there either. Confused by our acceptance to go to the police station, the officer stumbled and fell back on his original line- 5000 shillings. Denying again that sort of cash, we asked what our options were, since he refused to tell us the location of the police station. It was clear he was looking for a bribe, but unclear what exactly he wanted, since there was no way we were paying him 5000 shillings.
One of the vehicle’s owners, in the passenger seat, reached around back and produced a nice bottle of wine. Placing it in his lap, he asked the officer again what our options were. Looking at us, Danny again reiterated that we’d be happy to go to the police station, this time adding that we’d call our embassy upon arrival. Taking a step back from the car, the officer didn’t know what to do. Reiterating that we had no money, just a bottle of wine, our friend asked the officer again what we could do, noting that we were in his custody at this point until the situation was resolved. Clearly uncomfortable that we used the words custody and embassy, the officer quickly noted that we were not in his custody despite the fact we couldn’t leave.
Finally, turning off the car and interior lights, our friends look at the officer patiently waiting for him to declare a resolution. Reaching into the car for the bottle of wine, the officer noted that he would give it to his brother, on principle. The second officer, who walked up in the middle of the whole thing chuckled at Danny and reminded us again, that it had only been a small issue, nothing very big at all. Walking away, they set us free to go.
This is not a story meant to imply that corruption is rampant in Africa or that all police officers want bribes, far from it. We have not been in Africa long enough to know what is the norm and although we’ve heard countless stories similar to the situation we just described, it would be unfair to make any sort of judgement. Most of our experiences here with government officials has been pleasant and professional. A phrase we have learned and use regularly pretty much sums it all up- this is Africa and this is just sometimes how it goes.