“That one is stubborn,” the chubby little Policeman explained to his dozing compatriots. ‘Stubborn’ would be the word of the evening, used again and again to describe my appalling behavior. “You sit down!”
I did so. I wasn’t sure what to think at this point, but the wooden floor of the wooden cell of this wooden police post seemed suitable for sitting. Cool air and mosquitoes leaked in through the gaps between the boards, prompting me to stuff my arms and legs into my shirt for warmth and protection. A necessary measure, though now my shirt was permanently stretched. It was too small anyway, I thought. Now to get out of this…
An hour earlier, I had been commuting. I spent the afternoon visiting my friends back in the Kazo ward in case I would never see them again. My friend and the director of the secondary school where I used to tutor had taken me to his favorite bar and bought me beers as, like old times, we discussed theology. I had taken a late taxi back to Old Park where I would find another to take me home to Bunga. First, though, I had to find a place to pee.
I strayed barely a block from the Old Taxi Park in search of a dark corner. I found nothing and was headed back to find a ride when an all too familiar call reached my ears. It never reached my brain, however, since I had long ago stopped responding to the overused racial slur, Muzungu. For this, I must have came across as particularly ‘stubborn,’ not stopping for the all powerful policemen.
“You man, stop!”
“Okay,” I turned, surprised to see two policemen. The first thing that crossed my mind, actually, was that they were imposters: stories have surfaced about uniformed men taking people into unmarked vans and stripping them of any cash. One of these guys lacked a beaten AK-47, the calling card of the police force, and was instead carrying a wonky stick stripped of its bark. Surely this punk is not for real.
He asked for my passport. I told him I didn’t have it, and jingled my change asking them if they wanted my money. Again they demanded identification, which I denied. “Why don’t you show me your identification?”
This might work in the USA to diffuse arrogant authority figures with no case, but it only makes ignorant, lawless policemen in Uganda irritable. They made me wait for their superior to emerge from the police post which, for all its crummy construction and typically poor paint job, was not very convincing either. They brought me in, making a show of gripping my clothes and shoving me about though I brought no resistance, and locked me in a wooden cell.
When everything had settled, the officer in charge lay on a bench under his Police poncho to resume sleeping. A policewoman was working similarly, leaning on the table in front of her with her jacket draped over her head and shoulders. I gazed through a caged opening in the cell wall into the parlor, feeling dumb but quite stubborn indeed. Empty mineral water bottles stood invitingly on the floor of the cell: at least I found my place to pee.
The two thugs were in and out of the post, stopping people regularly to demand identification. They actually made a desperate game of it, one of them saying to the other, “watch, I can manage to arrest this one…” A minute and an argument later I would be joined by another stubborn, identification-less criminal.
One of my peers made enough fuss to disturb the sleeping officers. When he wouldn’t shut up about the injustice being handed to him, the thugs loped into our cell and slapped the man around, threatening more vicious beatings with the wonky stick. Remaining silent, my status as the most ‘stubborn’ man in the room was revoked and pinned on my roommate. It was clear that talking would only make things worse.
I was hatching an ambitious escape plan. It was surely unworthy of James Bond, but as it was, I could easily manipulate the latch from inside the door, take one step over the sleeping officer, and sprint into the night before any of these suckers knew. So that’s what I did.
But only in my head. In reality I was still sitting on the floor of a cold cell, with no phone credit, and guarded by indignant policemen. With no phone credit, I couldn’t call for help. I remember thinking that nobody would be likely to call until the next afternoon when I wouldn’t show up at work. I was preparing for a long night when my phone did ring.
It was my boss, calling to check in. “How’s everything?”
“I’m being detained.” I managed to wake one of the officers and make him disclose my location to my saviors: David and his wife Flo. They’d be there in thirty minutes.
Soon enough, I was in the back seat of Flo’s car, recounting my experience. I even got my passport back. At the bar, my amigos waited up to see me return. “Welcome to Uganda,” went the greeting with a stiff drink. Sadly, pointless detention is common enough in Uganda that it’s seen, to some, as a rite of passage.
Some kind talk by Flo and twenty thousand shillings (about eight USD) was enough to release me and nullify the misconduct (the legal term for stubbornness) charge I was threatened with. Uganda is one of many places on the planet where police are in place to persecute rather than to protect. People have no rights in the face of authority who, though idiotic, have automatic weapons, nothing better to do, and enough patience and greed to hang on to your passport indefinitely unless you bend over and slip bribes.
“It’s all crazy bullshit!” came my summation after taking seat at the bar. A double whiskey came next.
“That’s pretty much Africa,” came the reply.