The officer’s eyes burn into mine. It calls to mind Forest Whittaker’s performance as Idi Amin in Last King of Scotland, and the final shot of the film where the real news footage of Amin’s fiery stare leaves the viewers with some hint of deepest, darkest Africa. I think about corruption in Uganda. Bribery in Uganda.
I want to shout “You’re just a fucking mall cop”, but I know better.
I’m being shook down. Shaken down. Given a first-hand taste of corruption in Uganda. He saw my shining muzungu legs from a block away, bright against the red clay soil.
It’s my camo shorts, he says, then sits down in a white plastic chair outside the little police stand at the mall. The other three officers are women. One of them talks to me for a bit, telling me that my shorts resemble the uniform of some group. She’s wearing a mask that has Jesus written on one side, and a giant cross on the other. It muffles her, and I can’t hear the name of the group, though they repeat it many times.
“These are US army shorts. From the American military.”
“You’re American?” she says, looking slightly uncomfortable at her role as an arm of corruption in Uganda.
“Yes.” I say, knowing that it is my strongest shield against bribery in Uganda, and pull out my passport. She flips through it, unable to find my visa or decipher the page with with my data.
Then I am sent back to him. He tells me again that my shorts resemble fatigues.
“These are US army shorts.” I repeat. “From the American military.”
The American military that has trained Ugandan troops to fight in Somalia, the DRC. That has used them to wage our wars by proxy, knowing full well that the youngest age for enlistment in Uganda is 13.
“Why are you here? In Uganda.” he asks.
I think about the truth. The quest for the 193. The urge to know.
“I’m visiting friends.” I lie.
“Are you on holiday?” he says. I have to work today, until 1:00am. On US time zones. Doing email marketing for a personal development coach, helping people live lives they love. I think about the number of times I have been asked that question, and how it irks me. I travel full time. Not on holiday. I live here. I live everywhere that I am.
“Yes.” I reply, knowing it’s the only thing he’ll understand. Knowing he just needs to know what backs up corruption in Uganda.
“And when you go back to America, how would you like to tell your friends that your holiday ended in jail?” he asks.
I stifle a laugh. This is the point at which I realize what’s happening. He has just reached out his hand and asked me to dance.
It’s my first round, but I know the steps well.
“I would not. Would rather change my shorts. I did not know.” I say, while thinking to myself that I will now get to tell my friends the story of bribery in Uganda, and how can that be a good selling point.
“Here in Uganda, not knowing is not a defense.” he says. He motions to another white plastic chair inside of the guard stand. It is dark olive green, and his uniform is lighter. His name is on his chest.
I sit in the chair.
“Why are you wearing these shorts?” he asks.
“I told you. These are US Army shorts. I did not know that they resembled anything in Uganda.”
“I just told you that not knowing is not a defense. So it is you that are showing me that you do not comprehend.” he says.
“I mean no disrespect, sir.” I pause, bracing to say the line I know he wants me to, but my mouth is thick with distaste even though today I am wearing a pollution mask. The air in Kampala seems a greater risk than Sars-CoV-2 this day. Uganda’s population is the second youngest in the world, putting them at low risk for complicated or lethal Covid-19. The AQI hasn’t been measured in months. That’s corruption in Uganda.
It is January 28. 15 days after the controversial, contested election. The incumbent, who has been in power for over 35 years, has “won”, but is being accused of election fraud. His opponent, a young music star-cum-politician, is being intimidated and held in his home. He has 5 more days to contest the election. And he will not be allowed to do so. That’s corruption in Uganda.
I have already crossed the military checkpoints guarding his home and studio. Wearing these shorts. Tested the limits of my white privilege in a country in turmoil, trying to ignore corruption in Uganda and the endless repetition of dictators who wipe out their opposition.
The streets are lined with posters and billboards of said dictator, smiling prettily for the camera, looking like a grandfatherly beneficiary, an oasis of stability in a safari hat.
And, scrawled in paint and chalk on broken walls, only appearing for brief moments before they are erased, are pleas to free his opponent.
The internet was shut down completely during the election. Now, social media is still blocked, and it is illegal to use a VPN. I have an International SIM based in the US. It works for social media, with no VPN. I’m connected just for the fact of being USAmerican.
According to many, whole villages are being wiped out to erase records of opposition. According to most Ugandans, he has violently stolen the election.
I know the risk. I know where I am. I know about bribery in Uganda. So, I suck it up.
“Is there any way I can take care of this here and go change.” I say.
“The fine is very large.” he says, not missing a beat.
“How large?” I ask.
“300 dollars.pi he says.
“I don’t have that kind of money.” I say.
“Well then you will just have to get it.” he says.
“Sure, I’ll just go over there to the ATM at that mall and get it.” I say, knowing that the mall was opened by the dictator himself.
He’s dumb, but not that dumb. He knows I’m not that dumb either. He knows that I know that this is a bribe, not a fine.
“And how will you do that?” he says, shaking his head.
I pull half the money I just got out of that ATM out of my pocket. The other half is in my other pocket, less the $10USD I spent on lunch most Ugandans could never afford, and some passion fruit juice to wash down the Malaria drugs I’m taking. Malaria is the #1 killer here. It takes 27% of Ugandan lives. Or so I am told. So easy to use disease to explain away death.
“I will give you all I have.” I lie. It turns out to be 300,000 Ugandan shillings. At this time, this is roughly $80 USD. The election has hurt their exchange rate.
I count out the money. He frowns at me from under his red beret. He is standing over me. I am sitting, looking up at him. He doesn’t scare me. I can tell he knows this.
He lifts the corner of a notebook, some sort of handwritten register with names and dates. I wonder what its purpose is. I slide the money under the notebook. He places it back down. Of course he doesn’t take it directly. Plausible deniability. Classic bribery in Uganda.
“I’m sorry officer, I meant no disrespect.” I say, and then, I say the other line that I know from experience doesn’t actually work. “Am I free to go?”
He narrows his eyes at me and places his hands on his hips.
“You are lucky I am feeling good today.” he says, in his final power play, and motions for me to leave.
Yeah. So lucky.
I launch out of my seat and walk back towards the mall.
300,000 UGX is roughly half of what I am paid per day. The average salary for police in Uganda is about 1,500,000/month, but I suspect that his salary is lower. So I’ve probably handed him roughly a week’s pay.
He is a mall cop. Not private security. The mall has its own, and they have guns. None of the officers in the public police kiosk were armed.
While walking back over rutted, unpaved roads, around uncovered holes, over open sewage, to my comfortable Airbnb, I struggle with the implications of what I know I will do once I leave Uganda. If it were anywhere else in Kampala, it would have left me without ammo. But it is not. It is a mall. The mall is valued at $500,000,000USD. It contains international stores and restaurants, including Addidas, Chilli’s, KFC, and MAC.
I think about what could happen to him when I contact the right people. Over $80 and mistaken profiling during bribery in Uganda.
I think about the line between justice and Karen.
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1: Pink Taser