There are five people in our party when a Kenyan friend who stays in Kampala takes us to a nyama choma place (East Africa’s equivalent of a chisa nyama) during a literary festival. An American, our host, another Kenyan and a Ghanaian. I’m holding it down for the SADC region. The joint is no Busy Corner for ambience but it’s passable. A man in a white jacket sitting on the next table summons our host as soon as we order the food.
According to Phil when he returns to the table, the man who called him is a police officer and wants to see our passports or, alternatively, we ‘treat him nicely.’ Everyone on our table knows what treating an officer of the law nicely on the continent means. We agree that Vincent is not going to see as much as USh500 from any of us. Our party chats and ignores the cop and when the food arrives, we dig in. As we are finishing our meal, he comes to us.
“Good evening. My name is Vincent. I am a Ugandan officer on duty and I would need to see your passports.”
Ghana responds, “No. You’re not on duty. You were drinking.”
Vincent is looking for something to set him off. The statement from Ghana is it. “Are you saying I’m drunk?” he asks angrily. “I want your passports, now.”
Ghana answers, “I didn’t say you were drunk. I said you’ve been drinking. An officer on duty cannot be drinking.”
I wink at Ghana. This guy is disturbing our fun night out. So I say, “Sorry sir. May I see your police ID.” TIA. People have had their pockets emptied in the past by civilians who just know a good hustle when they see it. He shows us his ID. I then give him my passport. The two Kenyans pass on their IDs. But then it all becomes problematic with Ghana and America. They give him their driver’s licences and he insists that he wants passports. “You’ll have to come to the police station with me if you don’t have a passport.”
Our suggestion to Officer Vincent that he get on a cab with us to our hotel so that he can come and see the passports falls on deaf ears. Another suggestion that America and Ghana go to the hotel while he waits with the other three is again ignored. Bribe is what he wants and bribe is what he must get. We have the money but we are not giving anything to crooked officers today. By some miracle Ghana realizes that he in fact has his passport in his bag. Officer Vincent scrutinizes the passport carefully.
“May I have my ID now?” Ghana asks. Officer Vincent then goes through a crazy song and dance as he tries to remember which pocket he put the driver’s licences. If he wasn’t an officer of the law who is on duty, I’d say he’s drunk. He finally finds the pocket (top left of his white blazer) and hands it back to Ghana. But he is still insistent that he wants to see America’s passport. And for this reason he says he is taking America to the police station. We tell him we are all going with him. So we accompany him and America to the police station.
It’s quite some distance to the police station and on our way, we joke with Vincent that he took us from our drinks and as soon as this is all sorted, we hope that he will buy us a round or two. “Don’t worry, I shall buy you drinks all of you.” These words shall return later. America hopes we can sort it out before the police station. “I’m wearing a short skirt. They may put me in jail for my short skirt.”
“Don’t worry, it won’t happen,” we all assure her – as only people not wearing short skirts on their way to a police station in Kampala can. Ghana keeps talking about profound stuff like international law and rights and what what but Vincent is not hearing any language that’s not shillings. I think he is surprised when we get to the police station because he thought we would have relented long back. But now that we are here, he has to make a case out of it.
When we get there, Switzerland is playing France. The Officer Commanding Station (OCS) listens to us in an attempt to resolve the issue. “Our neighbours in Kenya are having terror attacks,” Vincent justifies to his superior, “I picked this woman because she is white.” America pulls out the race card from her back pocket, “you are being racist.” My writer’s mind comes to play. I whisper to Kenya that now that Vincent has said it, America could be the White Widow’s little sister. I mean, how well do we know her? How do we know that her ID and American accents are not fake? Vincent back pedals, “I mean European,” he says.
“You said white. It’s racist. And I am not European, I am American.” America asserts.
Our host then poses a question to Vincent in the presence of his colleagues, “if you thought there was something criminal about our activities why did you offer to buy us drinks after we’ve cleared this issue on our way here?” OCS wants to know whether Vincent did offer to buy us drinks. Vincent says yes he did, “but I had to. I was feeling intimidated. They were five of them and I was alone, that was the only way I’d get them to come.” Ghana says, “Yes of course, because we are all so intimidating.” Vincent smirks. We all laugh including the OCS and Vincent.
Later while trying to put a point across I say to Vincent somewhat patronizingly I admit, “But boss…” I don’t get to finish.
“I’m not your boss. I’m your brother,” he answers. I never do get to make the point I wanted to make.
The moment Vincent disappears to the toilet, OCS Peter tells us, ‘we know he’s wrong and you’re right but we can’t embarrass him so stop arguing with him otherwise we will have to lock all of you up and let you go tomorrow.’ Dickens was on to something when he wrote of laws and donkeys.
Later, much later after conversation about our countries, the games, our children and and and, the OCS tells us to write our names on a piece of paper and our phone numbers so we can leave. We do. Honduras and Ecuador have just finished playing.
I am convinced we stayed that long at the station because the OCS and the other two policemen at the station wanted company to watch the game with. The OCS insists that Vincent accompany us and ensure we get our transport home safely. All the way to the boda boda stage Vincent keeps apologizing. “I was just doing my job,” he keeps repeating. He also keeps saying two things to Ghana who, in addition to being a writer, freelances with the BBC and The Guardian and made sure the OCS knew it, “why didn’t you tell me you were an international journalist?”
And, “I would have let you go a long time ago but your sister here abused me,” pointing at yours truly. I admit to having said what he was doing was nonsense as he knew there was no case a few times but abuse? Ghana asks in an awed voice, “she abused you? Was it sexually?” It goes over Officer Vincent’s head.
Before we leave him, Vincent gives us his contact details and asks us to keep in touch so that he can take us out next time we are in Kampala. “I’m not a bad guy,” he asserts.
“None of us are,” I answer as I jump onto a boda boda.