Thursday, March 08, 2007


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do you value your life?

this happened in december, but it was just before our trip to rwanda, so it got lost in the shuffle of christmas, travel, guests and gorillas. it's probably the story that i tell the most here, though, (now eclipsed by bin laden's urine-mud balls) so i should get around to blogging it.

i enjoy driving around the city and i like the lack of rules of the road, or to put it another way, i like the one rule which is this: right-of-way belongs to the aggressive. actually, aggressive might be too strong a word, i wouldn't describe very many people here as aggressive. assertive. right of way belongs to the assertive. other than that, there aren't really any rules. this is changing, though. traffic lights are just starting to pop up in anticipation of the queen's visit in november. and lines are getting painted on the roads, though they only last a few days.

all around the city, police stand alongside the road and when they want to talk to you they'll take a step out and wave you down. it was my experience that the things they were concerned about dealt mostly with licenses, insurance, paperwork, that sort of thing. "your number plate is mounted too high on your bumper, i can write you a ticket or maybe you can settle this now." 10,000=/ (US $5.50) later, you drive off without having to deal with a ticket, and the policeman has just doubled his day's salary.

anyway. december. in downtown kampala, we dropped off tait and estela at the bank so they could get some cash. we drove around looking for parking or if none was to be found, just do laps until they were done. laps it was. when they came out of the bank, we were on the other side of the street, and unable to get their attention, i did a u-turn at the intersection to get over to the bank. when i stopped at the curb, a policeman came up and started talking, i thought telling me i couldn't park there. as it turns out he was telling us that the u-turn i just did was illegal.

paige pipes up: "there is no sign there!" "yes, but you can not turn there." so i'm getting ready to pay my way out of this and be on our way. but the policeman is young, and apparently hasn't yet realized or been taught that he could walk away 5,000=/ the richer. he tells us we have two options. he can write us a ticket and we can go to court the next day or we can go to the police station now. i spend the next one and a half seconds imagining how impossibly slow a ugandan court must be, so decide that we would go to the police station now. ok, i will go with you. uh, you want to drive? no (big smile) i will ride in back. so paige gets out, he takes off his helmet and ducks into the back seat. we make small talk on the way to the station, maybe six blocks away.

the police station has posters depicting car wrecks, smokers' bodies made up of a collage of photos of smoking-destroyed organs, and blackboards with grids showing the week-by-week number of accidents, fatalities, hit and runs, etc. hint: don't be a pedestrian or ride a motorcycle in kampala. our policeman, who had donned his white helmet immediately upon exiting our car, dropped us at the motor vehicle office and it was at this point that i realized that tait and estela were still at the bank and this could take just as long as a day in court. though no sooner had i thought it, than someone said we could see the chief now.

if our policeman looked young and green, the motor vehicle chief was at the other end of the spectrum. not that he was old, but that he looked like a uniformed african official that you didn't want to f with. we sat down and he said,
"what is your problem?"
"well, the policeman told us that we made an illegal u-turn, so we came here."
"where were you?"
"on kampala road, opposite barclay's."
"there is no sign there."
paige pipes up: "that's what i said!"

the chief proceeds to draw us an incredibly accurate map of the intersection and exactly what happened, which other lanes of traffic were stopped, which were moving, when i made the u-turn to the right, the works. he nailed it, i didn't have to describe a thing.
"there should be a sign there. there is no sign."
a pause while he marks the spot on the map. looking up,
"do you value your life?"
not the question you want to hear in a ugandan police station.
"so many drivers here, they do not value their lives. going here, there, it is dangerous."
the grids on the blackboard prove that last point. i tell him that i am a careful driver and that i do in fact value my life. he hints at a smile.
"you can go".

and we are off. i bet it was maybe 15 minutes from when we almost picked up tait and estela to when we actually did get them. by far the most efficient example of ugandan authority that we have encountered here. and i was pretty psyched to see that there were police that were playing by the book and not content to just pad their pockets. hopefully (though i doubt it) they're getting paid enough now that they aren't looking for extras.

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