Friday, February 28, 2014

February 28, 2014 - Once on this Island/Meet the Po-Po

I am not sure if I have ever specifically described where we live before, but sticking out of the coastal city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania there is a little peninsula.  This is where we live.  And even though it is technically attached to the mainland, it oftens feels to me more like an island than a peninsula. 

Maybe not totally unlike in your (or anyone else's) daily life, we tend to see the same people at school, the grocery store, the pizza place, the beach, the butcher, the cafe...but compared to living in Nairobi or New York City, our community here is really quite small.  In my head, we live on an island.

As an example: the night before Valentine's Day Kristoffer and I were attending a fancy dinner at a hotel in the city center (he was officially there for the World Bank, I was invited along which almost never happens).  It was lovely. First, there was a classical quartet playing Pachelbel in the courtyard and I noticed that one of the musicians was a fellow substitute teacher/colleague of mine.  Then, there was a jazz band compromised of two teachers from the school where I work, two diplomats, and my ob/gyn (usually Noah's ENT is performing with them too).  

Kristoffer and I had a good laugh that if I should prematurely go into labor "so far from the clinic" (10-15 minutes max with no traffic at that time of night), it's pretty convenient that our local saxophone player also happens to be my doctor.  An island, I tell you.

But we did have a nice evening at the dinner party...with sweet Valentine's Day pictures to prove it.
(pictures of the pictures...they were hard copies!)

Which leads me to describe what happened later that night, after the lovely dinner and on our way back to the peninsula with a friend in the car. The short story is that we had a pretty unpleasant encounter with the police.  

To be fair, we definitely broke the law.  It was our fault.  True story.  But also to be fair, there were a few minutes where we were both legitimately scared and I was wishing that the saxophone-playing-doctor was in the car, just in case my stress level induced labor.

The problem started upon leaving the fancy hotel.  There is currently construction all around it and all of the roads that pointed to home were blocked off.  It was 11 pm and the streets are poorly lit; there were a number of signs for blocked roads, and we just couldn't see anywhere to turn.  So we accidentally - and unhappily - ended up on the road in front of the State House (Americans, read: White House) where the President lives.  It is forbidden to drive there from 6 pm to 6 am.  Because we got dumped there by accident, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

It didn't take long before a car pulled in front to block us. It was not a labeled police vehicle, but some kind of 4x4 full of guys in a not-so-obvious uniform.  We were later told it was the Secret Police.  The officer who approached our car did not start out with any pleasantries, instantly yelling at Kristoffer for disrespecting Tanzanian law.  Kristoffer started out apologizing, talking about the construction, asking how we could get home, etc.  He was calm, cool, apologetic.  But the police officer with his AK-47 (did I mention that?) proudly between him and Kristoffer was not buying any niceties. Normally, because we have diplomatic license plates we are not stopped by the police...but because we technically break the law - even if by accident - that was not helping us at all.

Kristoffer summarized the event to UN Security by writing this (he is much more succinct than I am, right?):

They asked me to get out of the car. I politely told them no. They asked to get into the car. I told them no. They asked me to turn off the car - I didn't. They asked me to walk with them (300m) so they could show me the no entry sign - I didn't. They said that if I gave them something they would forgive me - I didn't. They asked me how much money I had in the car - I told them none. They told me that they couldn't let me go unless I paid them something - I didn't. They told me to go to the police station, I told them ok but that I would then have to call "UN Security" because I am a diplomat - they let me go. 

When they asked us for all of the money we had in the car, that was the BOLDEST corruption I have seen here because it is usually much more like, "What do YOU think you could DO to solve this problem?" or "I am a little thirsty..."  This was just so overt and offensive...even when Kristoffer said, "You know I can't give you any  money.  It's against the law and I am a diplomat."

The whole process took 30 minutes; it was a little bit scary because we knew that if we just drove away that could shoot at the car, so we had to stay there to work it out.  There was that pesky AK-47 between us.  When I told them I was very pregnant and we were so sorry and just wanted to get home, they wanted us to turn on the light so they could see my belly.  Our friend in the back used her iPhone to record some of the conversation actually, but she was pretty worried too (and we were a little embarrassed because we don't know her very well!).  

In the end, we had to drive back to the hidden sign that we should have seen for them show us that we should have known not to drive there...which, of course, we did know.  We pointed out to them all of the road blocks and do not enter signs, but they told us just to go down one of the streets and we would have been fine.  But we have heard that other police are lurking in that area to catch people where they shouldn't be during this construction phase. It's just a trap in that neighborhood right now and we are avoiding that area entirely.

All's well that ends well, and we are lucky that this was likely an isolated event because we have friends here who are not diplomats and do have to interact with the police pretty regularly at road side check points (where they ask for bribes) and otherwise.  We were reminded that we are lucky, and will be grateful to never have such an interaction again!


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