Well. Today was interesting.

I went to Kibera, the biggest slum in all of Africa.

For a court date, where I was found guilty in a real live Kenyan court. Of driving with a break-light out, for which I was apprehended yesterday.

Here's the thing: in Africa, when it comes to dealing with law enforcement, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. The easy way is to give them money and leave, and this is the one you are taught early on and are supposed to stick with. The hard way is refusing to pay their bribe, and forcing them to actually do their job.

When I was living in South Africa, I was new and didn't know much. The first time I got waved over for speeding, it took me a while to figure out "the process" - which is tantamount to lots of prolonged conversation about the difficulties of having to drive all the way to the station to process the international license and this that and the other thing, and then comes the part where you're supposed to give them money. I didn't catch that the first time and finally the "officer" uncomfortably said something along the lines of "Perhaps we can just sort this out here somehow?" Ooooh. Right. You want cash. OK. So I give him like 10 times as much as I should have, not knowing any better, and thinking I was making off like a fiend compared to fines in the US. After a while I got the hang of it and could handle the whole interaction in a couple of minutes with the right attitude, words, and small amount of cash ready to change hands.

You never really think of it as something wrong, so much as just the way you have to deal with things here. Its just the system of corruption that's been in place for who knows how long. And its everywhere - Kenya's no different. You complain about their greedy, extortionate ways as you drive off, you silently thank God you're not the matatu driver who's day they're really destroying, and you do the same thing the next time you run into the police. Here's some cash, leave me alone.

Because that's what everyone does. That's all everyone expects. Nobody ever asks them to actually do their job.


Yesterday morning I'm driving to our office on the other side of town from the one I usually work in (I'm in Westlands, the distant one is Karen). Of course, at one of the major intersections, instead of guiding traffic (there's exactly 4 intersections in Nairobi that I know of with working lights), they are strolling through the stopped traffic, looking for people to exploit.

"Oh crap," I thought as the officer passed me, "Brandon told me on Sunday that I had a break light out, and I haven't gotten it fixed yet."

Tap tap tap on the window. Yeah, I have a break light out. Pull the car over there on the other side of the road.

So I wait while he walks around the intersection hassling some more people, all the while holding my driver's license. Then he goes and talks to someone else he's pulled over for a bit. Then he gets on his cell phone to take a personal call. Then I go wave him down and tell him he's making me late for my meeting, which he pretends to care about for about 2 seconds before he goes to start hassling a bus they've pulled over. So I pull the "I want to talk to your supervisor" and he starts to pay attention to me and says we'll have to go to the station to write the ticket, and what a hassle that will be and so forth.

And stupidly, I finally had rash of furious resistance to this endless corruption, and I say "FINE, let's go." His jaw drops but I'm already getting into the car. So he too hops in my car and I drive him to the station while he's laughing away on the cell phone. He makes sure to get off in time to suggest it would be easier for me just to pay him, before we drive all the way there, and I don't even respond to him, I just drive the rest of the way with my jaw clenched. He asks me why I appear annoyed.

Of course, they haven't seen a mzungu in the station in who knows how long, so his supervisor is a bit off-put at the idea of actually writing a ticket, but they eventually do it, and I post my bail of 5000 schillings, with a court date set for 8am this (Thursday) morning.


The magistrate I'm sent to is in Kibera, as mentioned. Its one of the parts of Nairobi I've not been to yet because I'm not allowed to go there without WV security, who I had with me. It dawned on me in retrospect that I should have taken a camera, who knows when or why I'd be back there again anytime soon. Anyway, it was of course the same other-worldly feel that I've gotten in slums in other countries, but the sheer size of it was oppressive. There are no realistically accurate estimates for the number of people who live there, but its commonly accepted to be above a million.

We bounce through the stalls of chickens and bananas and sewing shops and family houses and as we dodge puddles I'm wondering what its like there when it rains (it will rain all afternoon in Nairobi today). We find our way to the courthouse - I'm supposed to be there at 8am but at 8:30 the building isn't even open yet. We stand outside with a hundred or so other people. I'm the only mzungu, again, and everyone's looking at me and talking about me and they all assume I don't know it. At 9, they open the gate, and everyone pours into the various court rooms, we find the traffic one.

We sit there, waiting for the judge to show up, for an hour and a half. The cops, the lawyers, the court admins, everyone's reading newspapers or chatting and I realize rather early on that this happens every single day. I work on emails on the blackberry, thinking about how much I'm not going to get done today, because I had to insist on pursuing justice, for a change.

They start reading names, and lo and behold - for once - the system actually worked, somehow my paperwork had made it from the police station to the courthouse in good order (funny how that happens when there's cash at stake). "David Charles" the court admin calls, he doesn't even try with my surname, which is actually my second middle name on the paper, they never even wrote my actual last name on the bail receipt from yesterday.

I walk up to the box, wait as they read my infraction in terse English, nod and mutter "sawa," and the judge announces my fine, and that's it. Some bills trade hands and I wait 10 minutes outside for a receipt.

We find our way back out of Kibera, and I spend the drive back to the office wondering whether or not its a better use of time / resources / etc. - for myself, for the organization, for the beneficiaries at the end of the day - to just pay the cop a few hundred schillings cash and be done with it on the spot.

I don't reach an answer.


gwyneth said...

i fail to see how this is any different than daily life in america.

i totally bribe cops all the time.



your life over there is crazy. i hope you keep blogging.

Dawn (Alba) said...

so how much was the fine?

Joel Bitar said...

"And stupidly, I finally had rash of furious resistance to this endless corruption, and I say "FINE, let's go." His jaw drops but I'm already getting into the car. So he too hops in my car and I drive him to the station while he's laughing away on the cell phone."

Awesome. Apparently there are two ways to deal with these police officers, paying them off or forcing them to process you through the system. The former appears to make life easier but enables the corrupt system to continue. If you want to change the corrupt system it seems that the latter would be the better choice. Don't let them get away with such a dastardly scam.