Expat Life: Off to Prison (Part One)

by missfootloose on February 1, 2014 · 8 comments

in adventure, Africa, Uganda

Do you think traveling in foreign countries is exciting? Well, it certainly can be, but sometimes as an expat or a globetrotter you get more excitement than you bargained for. Here’s the story of what happened to me and my man and two of our friends when we went on a camping trip in Uganda, East Africa.

(I was prompted to post this tale by Sine whose post Have You Been to Prison? made me think of my adventure in Uganda.)

Sometimes Stupid Happens

We’re off to jail, a bush prison somewhere in Uganda, not our intended vacation destination. Our passports – two American, one Norwegian and one Dutch (mine) – have been confiscated. Back in Kenya, where we live, no one will miss us for weeks. Cell phones have not yet been invented.

We are young, idealistic and innocent, and we were on our way to go camping and look for big game in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Only we were arrested before we got there.

We’ve been ordered to follow the police car in front of us. We are in our rented Peugeot, the rear window shattered. With a convoy of fifteen big trucks behind us on the narrow road running through the protected game reserve there is no escape possible. Besides, the policeman in charge is armed and dangerous, not to mention drunk out of his skull.

We are silent, the four of us, too stunned to think of what to do.

How did I find myself in this bizarre situation? I could have been in Holland in my mother’s house drinking tea and eating windmill cookies. But no, I had to follow my heart and come out to Africa to be with my beloved American, who is a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya.

And then I married him, which led me to accompany him and a couple of friends on a camping trip to the game parks in Uganda to admire the elephants, the rhinos, the hippos and crocs in the Nile River.

Hippos in Uganda. Photo by Chrissy Olson

You can be a nice Dutch person, eating cheese and leading a responsible life, and one innocent step at a time you arrive at this moment and before you know it, you’re perishing in an African jail cell.

What kind of place will this jail be, out there in a bush village in deepest western Uganda? I think of this as we follow the police car in front, like lambs to the slaughter. I think of being separated from the others in a cell by myself, of rats and repulsive food and malaria and dysentery and every horror I’ve ever heard of in my life.

“It will be an international incident,” says Norwegian Lillian hopefully. “Three western nations involved.”

If they ever find us, I answer in silence, the words too terrifying to speak out loud. We may be dead and buried before our friends in Kenya will even miss us.

I squeeze my husband’s hand. We’ve been married six months and maybe we will never sleep in each other’s arms again. You think of these things, you know.

We should not have come here, knowing what we know, but we are young and, okay, stupid. We started our trip a couple of days ago in Nairobi, Kenya. The news on the radio that morning was not good. In Uganda someone had tried to shoot President Obote and the country was in a state of emergency with roadblocks everywhere and heavy security at the borders.

Nothing to do with Americans and Europeans, we all agree that morning. Purely an internal thing. Why call off our trip? Nobody’s going to be interested in the four of us.

Ah, the naïveté of youth. Have we never heard of being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

We ride the train to Kisumu and cross Lake Victoria by boat. On the other side we rent a car, load it with our camping gear and some food and off we go, direction Kampala, the capital.

Slowly.

Roadblocks everywhere. Long lines, lots of waiting. The police and soldiers are not interested in us, as expected. None of them search our car for weapons or suspicious persons.

In Kampala the roads are clogged, but once we are out of the city things ease up a bit. The scenery is spectacular, lush green hills, terraced and cultivated with a variety of crops. How beautiful this place is! How happy we are we didn’t change our plans!
Uganda terraces
We stop for food in a rustic eatery in a small village and order the local grub: matoke, a starchy dish made from boiled plantain. People are friendly, interested. We laugh, we chat. We are far from the capital and everything here is fine.

We roll on, through small towns and villages, past shops and markets, enjoying the drive, until after several hours the countryside becomes less populated. We’re driving down a narrow road through a wooded area when out of nowhere appears a cute little boy. We’ve not seen a sign of life for miles, no villages, no people, no roadblocks. Where did he so suddenly come from?

An explosion of sound breaks the peace as a rock hits the back window and shatters the glass into a thousand pieces that go flying everywhere in the car. The cute little boy, running, disappears in the trees.

We are not hurt, but our hearts pound with shock. Not knowing what else is lurking in the trees, we drive on without stopping. Of all the dangerous wildlife we might have come across, a little boy was not what we had expected.

Finally, we reach more open country, a game reserve. A sign warns us we are in a protected area and it is prohibited to leave the road and cruise across the reserve in search of game.

Uganda Road. Photo by Alexandra Mitchell

We have to do something about the broken window, about our possessions covered in shards of glass.

We find a place to stop and turn the back of the car off the road into the field to sweep the glass out of the car and keep it off the surface of the road. Other people must be using it, although we’ve hardly seen any traffic. Neither do we see any big game wandering around, but perhaps that is just as well at the moment.

It takes a while to clean up the mess. Our food boxes are closed and fortunately we find no glass amid our consumables. We decide to have a little something to eat before driving on, and I take out a knife to cut up some bread. I look up to find the road no longer empty.

A long line of trucks is winding its way towards us, a police car in front escorting the convoy.

The police car stops. All the trucks stop. They hail from the Congo, we can tell, hence the Ugandan escort. A huge, fat policeman rolls out of the car and comes barreling toward us. It is clear from his ferocious expression that he is not a happy man. He is also armed with a gun and these two facts do not a good combination make.

Trouble is upon us.

To Be Continued Next Week. (I know you don’t have all day.) Okay, never mind, here it is.

* * *
Have you ever been in a dangerous situation abroad? Have you ever done something not too smart?

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Jonelle Hilleary February 1, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Oh, but Miss K, I do have all day. .. don’t leave us hanging!
Tell us more!

You picked a perfect spot to break for a commercial. .. and leave us with aTV cliffhanger.

Can’t wait till next week when we get the rest of the story, as Broadcast legend Paul Harvey used to say!

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missfootloose February 1, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Sorry! Next week all will be revealed!

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Sami Veloso February 2, 2014 at 3:55 am

I’m on tenterhooks now, can’t wait for the next episode! That photo with the green hills is spectacular, never imagine Uganda to be so green.

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Sabina February 3, 2014 at 8:29 am

The way you write really drew me in… I’m so excited to find out what actually happened now! I know those crazy moments are always terrifying when you’re there, but – as you’ve just proven – they make for really good stories! ;)

Personally, I can’t think of anything too insane that happened to me, but as I live in Moscow now, I do have a story or two – starring Russian bureaucracy and my naiveté.

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missfootloose February 3, 2014 at 11:26 am

Sabina, thanks for stopping by and yes, life in Moscow should offer lots of story inspiration. I’ll look forward to your adventures.

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Sine February 4, 2014 at 8:41 pm

I love it! And glad to know that my blog post prompted it. I can’t wait to hear part 2. Waiting with bated breath…

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Gordon Barlow February 4, 2014 at 10:44 pm

Is it next week yet?!

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Seana - Sydney, Kids, Food + Travel February 15, 2014 at 5:52 pm

Oh dear, yes I have been in daft situations when I was young and daft and full of nonsense, but not so life threatening at all. How lovely to meet you via our mutual pal Annabel. Can’t stop, off to read next installment.

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