It was a beautiful afternoon. One of those days when the Nairobi sun shines brightly in the sky and everyone just feels happy. I was driving into the city to pick up my brother in my mother’s old Volkswagen Passat. With my windows rolled up to keep the hot air out, and the music loud, I was trying to make the most of what was a boring and tedious journey.
My brother was waiting for me in Westlands, an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of the city that is usually dense with traffic. Luckily, that day it wasn’t so bad. It was the 23rd of December, a day away from Christmas and the roads were pretty clear.
As I got closer to my brother’s location, I called him and we agreed to meet at a nearby petrol station. But just as I exited a roundabout, about 150 meters from my brother, everything changed. My whole day just turned on its head.
A policeman. A stocky angry policeman whose face I will never forget, stood in front of my car signaling me to stop. I was surprised and genuinely confused.
I turned down the music and rolled down the window as he approached me. “kijana unaendesha gari kama huku ni Southern Sudan” he said. Meaning, “young man, you’re are driving like you’re in southern Sudan.” He was obviously hinting that I had made a mistake.
“Nimefanya makosa gani?” (what mistake have I made?) I asked him. Which I’m sure is a frequently asked question to Kenyan police. Anyway, he went on to tell me that I had blocked the traffic to my left coming into the roundabout. A serious offense in his eyes. He signaled for me pull off to the side of the road where he continued to castigate me. But after what was a very one-sided conversation, he suddenly opened the passenger door and jumped into the car.
WHAT?! It surprised the heck out of me.
So, there we were, sitting side by side, with this aura of tension around us. It was awkward. The policeman then commanded me to drive to the police station.
Still bewildered and confused, I asked him why. He just looked at me angrily and dismissed my questions. Eventually, I reluctantly followed his command.
Now, before I go further with the story. I must explain that at the time, I had just come back from the United States. I was still relatively new to driving in Nairobi, justifying my complete confusion at the policeman’s actions.
So, we began driving to the station.
Somehow, even in all that tension, I remained calm. I told him that I still needed to pick my brother from a nearby petrol station because he had been waiting for me. Somehow he agreed and after driving only a few minutes, we stopped close to my brother’s location. My brother saw the car and began walking towards us.
He looked happy to see me because he’d been waiting for some time. But as he approached the car, you can only imagine what was going through his head; “What? why, in hell, is there a policeman in the front seat of the car? …Kim, what is going on?”
Without saying a word, he slowly entered the car and sat behind the policeman with this look of complete bafflement on his face. It was almost comical. After an awkward silence, he finally asked us both; “ni nini kimefanyika?” (what is going on?”)
The cop went on to explain the situation in the most ambivalent way possible. Even I didn’t really know what was going on. My brother, not being a very passive person, began to question everything the policeman said. I just sat quietly and kept driving to the police station.
For my brother and I, it became obvious what the policeman wanted. He wanted me to bribe him. “Alikuwa anataka kitu kidogo”. A common Kenyan phrase meaning “he wanted something small” in exchange for my freedom. Knowing this, I tried to treat the situation with integrity. My father always taught us never to give a policeman anything. Never! So I didn’t say it, but I made it clear that I was not going to bribe him.
As we got closer to the station, it was as if the policeman realized that he wasn’t getting anything from me. We parked the car at the station as he began to speak softly to me. It felt like he had given up. I suppose the hassle of arresting me was not worth his effort anymore. It felt like he was going to let me go.
Then my brother snapped.
Filled with anger, he told the policeman; “You can’t do this! My brother hasn’t done anything wrong! How dear you…”
I felt some pride in the fact that my brother was standing up for me. But it was crazy.
It’s like he just suddenly turned into Denzel Washington in ‘Training Day’; in that scene, near the end, where the hood confronts him.
The policeman did not like this… not one bit.
He turned to my brother with rage in his eyes; like he was about to turn into Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction. And then unexpectedly, like he’d suddenly gotten a new idea in his head, he just paused. He didn’t even argue. He just told us to get out of the car and follow him. So we did. We walked into the police headquarters. My brother was still talking angrily to the policeman. In fact, it felt a little inspiring. So I, following the example that my older brother had set, began arguing with the cop as well.
“I was on the roundabout, I had the right of way, I didn’t block anyone… I didn’t make a mistake…” I said angrily. The policeman knew I had done nothing wrong, but he just calmly watched us, unable to prove otherwise. He was writing something in his log book as two other policemen came to see what was happening.
That’s when he said the magic words. “Weka huyu ndani!”
As fast as anything they grabbed me and ruthlessly threw me into a cell behind them. Suddenly all my brother’s screams faded, the light dimmed and a big metal door shut loudly behind me. I was in Jail… locked up, like Akon in his song with Young Jeezy, except it wasn’t a music video. This was real-life. I was behind bars for my very first time.
I didn’t just write this story to entertain. For me, this story underlines a very profound truth about human behavior in different cultural settings.
If this same thing happened in America. My brother would have probably pulled out his phone and filmed the whole thing. And if the cop was white, there would have been campaigns in all the black neighborhoods and I would be an internet sensation.
But this kind of thing happens every day in Kenya.
Here, the police are known to lock people up for the pettiest of things. Simply just being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have you thrown in jail like I was.
But I know what you’re thinking, where are the legal systems that should prevent this kind of thing. How can a policeman do that??
Let’s go a little deeper, why did the cop do that? Where is his sense of fairness or integrity?
What you’ll come to realize is that there is a profound lesson in human behavior from this situation. The policeman who locked me up is not a bad person; in fact, he is merely acting as a product of his environment. He doesn’t see anything wrong with what he’s doing because it happens all the time. On that day, it was Christmastime and he needed the extra money. So, what better way to get it than to solicit a bribe from an unsuspecting teenager.
In his eyes, I am rich because I have a car, I am also vulnerable because I’m young. He needed the money and I was the perfect opportunity.
I remember when I was a growing up in Kenya. We didn’t have a lot of access to music. We heard it on the radio but we could never listen to our favorite songs when we wanted to because we couldn’t download them. Then, life changed. We got the internet and LimeWire (software to download music from p2p sharing sites).
Even with our slow dial-up internet, my brother and I got thousands of songs from the internet. Obviously, from a moral standpoint, this was wrong… in fact, it was illegal. But my brother and I would never consider that. In our minds, we were just taking what the world was not giving us. We were acting from a mindset of lack and poverty. It did not hurt our integrity to ‘steal music’ because the “rich white men in America have enough money anyway.”
It’s ironic that this is the same mindset that the policeman had when he arrested me. He was just taking advantage of an opportunity. Using his power to get the money he felt he deserved.
This is what poverty does. It removes integrity. We all talk about having enough integrity to never do anything wrong, but just wait until there is no one around to judge you. Wait until everyone else around you is also ‘stealing’ or taking bribes. Then maybe, just maybe, you will be doing the same thing…
PS. I got bailed out several hours later by my family, and it never went on my record. I’ll take the “street cred” though.