Everyone here has a story about run-ins with the local traffic police. Sometimes these stories end with being taken to the police station, where the unlucky ones have to wait for our security folks to show up and negotiate. Of course this is even more of a problem if you don’t speak French. You don’t have to be doing anything wrong — in fact in most cases, nothing is wrong — it’s just that the cops like to pick on vehicles that look like they might be carrying occupants with money. They make a pathetic salary, and as a result rely on bribes and gifts to make a living. I feel sorry for them, actually. But nothing will ever improve if we keep feeding the beast.
So far we’d been lucky; no one had attempted to pick on us, until today.
We were running a quick errand to the local market in Fungurume. Yes, the place we usually need security clearance when we walk on Sunday mornings. We were having a dinner party and needed some tomatoes, so we jumped in the truck. On our way home we passed more than the usual number of “canaries” — the traffic cops who wear little yellow helmets. They were out in full force, for some reason. Cops here don’t have cop cars or sirens; they pull you over merely by whistling and pointing. Some drivers ignore them and keep moving. In our case, a group of five or so stood in the roadway so that we had no choice but to stop and pull over.
Three or four canaries crowd around Seb’s window and ask, in turn, for different documents. Driver’s license, insurance, registration, mechanical checklist, parking permit. Two documents Seb cannot find. Even in French, I can understand the canary when he clicks his tongue and mutters “infraction.” Seb calls his guy in charge of the fleet and asks where to find the insurance. It’s just a sticker posted in the window. Seb says as much to the canary, adding, “you ought to know where to look.” 2011 is missing, something I’d happened to notice earlier that day. When questioned, Seb points out that he just got the 2010 sticker recently; as usual, we’re waiting on the government. The same story is repeated when it comes to the parking permit. It takes about 15 minutes to check out all the documents. In the end, the canaries agree that everything is in order, there is no infraction.
But they won’t let us go just yet. They say we have to pay a “tip” before we can leave. Meanwhile they’ll hold on to the documents. So Seb calls the guy in charge of security, who says he’s on his way. “Give us something,” they say, once he’s off the phone. Seb says, “Don’t worry, someone is coming to give you something!” This sounds menacing enough, and they reluctantly pass the documents back to him. But the four closest canaries crowd Seb’s window, adding, “Listen, man, you cannot leave us like this! We’re agents of the state, you should give us something for our work. We’re working hard.” Seb retorts something about how the state should pay them, then, and not for harassing innocent people. No one is in front of the vehicle anymore, so Seb starts pulling away. The guys step back but become even more frantic. “Give us a coke! Give us a pen, a pen!” (My bag was sitting in the front seat, where a pen was the only thing visible.) Seb repeats “no” over and over through the open window as he pulls away.
They last comment they made as we drove away: “You’re not a nice man!” Seb hollers back, “I know!”