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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

On arbitrariness and stress

I wish we had counted the police road blocks one must go through to drive the thousands of kilometers we have passed over in four countries.  They are ubiquitous in Africa, where police do not have the vehicles or communication equipment to cruise the roads or chase the wrong-doers.  Instead they set up rusting spiky metal strips staggered half-way across the two-lane roads, and then raise their arms heil-Hitler like if they want you to stop, or wave you on to weave through the barriers if they are less interested in you than the next vehicle.  Usually they just seemed bored and wanting to look us over, ask where we're coming from or going to as they assess the interior of the truck, ask what we're carrying, ask about the kids.  They check the insurance sticker on the front windshield (our favorite slogan:  "we won't make a drama out of a crisis" . . which is probably true since I doubt the insurance would do ANYTHING dramatic  or otherwise for us, but we're required to buy it).  Or they scrutinize our Ugandan drivers' licenses.  I have talked to taxi-trucks in Bundibugyo who expect to pay about 5,000/= per roadblock (or 20,000/= per trip from Fort to Bundi) in "fines" which might be interpreted as bribes.  We had no problem other than an inebriated after-dark police-man when we were on the way to dinner in Nairobi, who slurred his words then was impatient with us for not pulling out the proper papers . . . but no fines or fees.  

Then add to those dozens and dozens of potential stopping points, four borders, each with a set of exit officials and entry officials, each a 45 minute to two hour process.  And in no case is there a clear posting of fees, or a procedure to follow, it is all hit and miss and obscurity.  There are offices for stamping passports, for dealing with the vehicle, for paying for visas, for declaring the luggage.  There are immigration officials, police officers, and numerous other bureaucrats, plus hawkers of everything from peanuts to dress shirts, prostitutes, beggars, and fellow travelers, all in the hot equator-intense sun.  At the various windows the idea of a queue is replaced by the huddle of push-your-way-to-the-front, but most people in the no-man's-land of the border zone seem to be merely spectators waiting for a scene.

If it was just a matter of time, or inconvenience, I think we would take it in stride, this is Africa, efficiency is not expected.  But at all these police checks and border offices, there is the hanging cloud of uncertainty.  Did we do all the proper paper-work, or not?  Will it cost nothing, 10 dollars, or a hundred?  Will we be waved through, or told to turn around and go back to the previous border or town?  Are there rules of justice here, or are we at the mercy of greed?  The reaction of any one officer can be so completely arbitrary.  For instance on the way INTO Tanzania, we were told the official who clears the vehicle had gone far away to his home for the night, so we would have to park in the border area and wait for the next day.  However after hanging out with the immigration people for a half hour, they took pity, and walked a hundred yards to the home of the correct official, and he walked briefly back and cleared us.  But it could have gone either way, and perhaps we were just so oblivious to the bribe hints in this case they gave up .  On the other side of Tanzania, the first official we came to at the initial border gate looked at Scott's paperwork and said:  you were in the country 8 days.  Yes, Scott said, we told them at the entry border it could be up to two weeks (which was clearly marked on the form), but it was a bit shorter.  Well, the man starts to yell now, you have broken the law, if you are in the country more than 7 days with a vehicle you have to pay a tax.  Fine, Scott says, I'll pay, I'm very sorry sir, they did not tell us that at the when we entered by the other border.  By now the man has worked himself up, and keeps screaming angrily at Scott, waving his arms threateningly, accusing him of not knowing the laws, saying it was Scott's job as a visitor to search out the regulations, not the other border agents' job to tell him, spitting out angrily that we have not respected the laws of Tanzania. This goes on for about 20 minutes while he makes Scott wait in his office listening to his outrage, practicing the wisdom of turning the other cheek.  It is unnerving and unpleasant to say the least, the degree of hostility spewed forth, over a mere $20 that we were quite willing to pay.  

The stress of these encounters tends to fatigue Scott more than the rest of us, as he always bears the brunt of the interrogations and bureaucracy.  One evening I watched "The Great Debaters", a movie about racial tensions in Texas in the 1930's.  And I see an echo of the same emotions in our experiences here.  We are not at risk of lynching, so I don't want to take the analogy too far, but I think we perceive a small taste of what it was like to be constantly at risk of being the victim of a small-minded, insecure official deciding to put our class of people (in this case, white foreign aid workers) in their place, to push us into obsequious apology, to demonstrate to nearby companions just who is boss.  Our skin highlights our difference, our otherness, our not-belonging, something anyone can see from far away.  And in our case, the legacy of oppression and colonization gives Africans a legitimate suspicion.  So I think Scott is one of the few 21rst century American male doctors with white skin, who can empathize with the discomfort and tension and potential harm of being stopped by a police officer without having done anything wrong.  I suppose there is some value in that, in spite of the cost.


Katy Lin said...

wow. thank you for this post! i'd be lying if i said it didn't make me more than a little apprehensive about the travel my husband and i will inevitably be doing in that continent, but it is very enlightening to get such a detailed first-hand account! Praying for your stress levels :)

Burden Bearers International
the great adventure

harryk said...

Dear Scott and Jennifer,

First, thank you for this and all your other chronicles as they give us insights to your lives and work that we would otherwise never have. They also help us empathize and pray for you.
Second, thank you for all you do in service to God - both intentionally and unintentionally. In my mind's eye, I can see Scott in the border official's office patiently listening while the man rants and raves. It reminded me how the Lord Jesus, when He was reviled, reviled not again (1 Peter 2:23).
I think you were doing double service. You were serving Christ and gave witness to His patience and humility. And you served as an example for others like me who all too often (daily) fail to be humble and fail to be patient and fail to be forgiving. May God grant you continued humility, patience and forgiveness and grant to me (and any others who need it) the same qualities in some measure.
You know, despite the trials of checkpoints, perhaps you can see the Lord's help and protection in that you weren't required to pay fines or fees and that the immigration people at the Tanzanian border took pity on you and aroused the missing official so you could be cleared. Also, maybe some police and immigration people don't expect you to pay them bribes since you're not working for a "rich" NGO and when they see you are Christians, figure that they won't get much out of you or are ashamed to "shake you down" because they know that real Christians are always giving away their stuff and their lives for others.

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