By Joachim Buwembo
In this photo taken Thursday, December 6, 2012, Kenyan police stop a car at a vehicle checkpoint in
Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: AP
It is now a decade since I started driving on Tanzanian roads but I am yet to encounter a burning car. Could it be because possession of a fire extinguisher in the car is the most enforced traffic law on Tanzania’s highways? During a “two-year” road trip across the country (from late December at Mutukula to early January at Namanga) covering almost 3,000 kilometres, I got stopped at least 20 times. The car was in perfect condition, all its documents and mine in good order, but I was still found guilty of not having a fire extinguisher and a reflector triangle by every traffic policeperson who stopped me. They all forgave me and received a New Year gift of five thousand Tanzania shillings. By the time I exited the country after a weeklong working drive, I had spent enough money (Tsh100,000) in New Year police gifts to purchase four brand new car fire extinguishers.
A typical highway encounter with Tanzanian traffic personnel on the highway starts with your failing to slow down in time to 50 km/hour at the spot where the fading sign says you should. You get flagged down and they show you the speed gun digits reading say, 53km/hour. An excruciating lecture starts, with the traffic cop sounding like an eloquent law professor, quoting sections of the Traffic Act. After finding all your papers in order, he inevitably asks for your fire extinguisher and triangle reflector. After you fail to produce those, another lengthy lecture follows, quoting legal subsections and preaching the necessity of promoting safety for yourself and other road users. The whole process takes about 30 minutes after which you donate a 5k gift.
When you get to Kenya, the approach changes. The Kenyan police value their time — and presumably yours. They tell you have broken the law and in a menacing tone say you should escort them to the station because any delay amounts to obstructing the process of law enforcement. Your mind replays the horror stories you have heard about what happens in Kenya police stations. One common story goes that at the station, as the contents of your pockets are being listed, the officer pulls out a drawer and gets out stuff to include among your properties. Stuff that could include a few rolls of marijuana or some firearms ammunition. To avoid such a fate, you pay up quickly, without daring to go and find out if the stories are really true.
Then you finally enter Uganda at Busia to see a different face of policing. Like elsewhere, you get flagged down. But not for lectures or threats as in Tanzania and Kenya respectively. The Ugandan cops assume a humble position before the motorist and start telling you about the pangs of hunger in their stomach. They call you Big Man, Mzee, Madame, Auntie and say things to make you feel important and them, unfortunate souls. You do not want to hear their tales of misery so you quickly part with what you have and they flag you off with prayers for more blessings from God as you drive off.
Such are the three faces of the three original East African territories; philosophical lectures, stone faces and pleas for aid in exchange for prayers and blessings.