Ever been in trouble traveling in a foreign country? Easy to do if you forget to use your common sense. Here we are, dumb expats on a bush road in Uganda, stopped by a drunk policeman. This is Part Two of the story. Here’s Part One.
The Expats Get Arrested
The furious police officer, gun in hand, attacks us with a barrage of words. We are trespassing! Breaking the law! Committing a crime by being in the reserve! His hostile attitude is not comforting.
We politely point out that only the back wheels of our car are in the reserve, that our window is broken and that we, being responsible people, wish to keep the road glass-free for other vehicles in this remote area. Such as the convoy of trucks from the Congo now stopped behind us.
In the meantime, the Congolese truck drivers have decided a little entertainment is welcome after spending hours on the road. They’ve leaped from their trucks and have formed a circle around us to watch the spectacle. All this even more interesting to them because it’s now clear that the cop is so drunk, he’s practically reeling. What a show!
Our officer of the law is not interested in our story. He is interested in having an audience and showing off his superiority and power, he with the gun in his hand threatening us white foreigners. With his mean little eyes, he has all the charm of a wart hog.
He demands to see our passports and makes a great pretense of inspecting them, then starts in again and gives us hell for breaking the law while the Congolese truck drivers stand by and watch, mesmerized.
Then we notice something else. Another African, a young, handsome man in civilian clothes, has emerged from the police car and is now standing unobtrusively near us. “Don’t say anything,” he says quietly. “Stay calm.”
The policeman looks at me, stops his tirade for a moment, his beady eyes focused on the bread knife in my hand. If we thought the man was angry before, he is now livid. He demands to know what I think I am doing with that weapon in my hand. Am I going to kill the president?
“This is a bread knife,” I point out in a tone not likely to be appreciated by the officer. “I was going to cut bread.”
“Shut up,” my mate hisses in my ear. It’s not something he tells me on a regular basis, so I freeze. Of course I should have known better than to answer the cop the way I did. The cop, sweating and swaying, is now beside himself, captured by the idea that we are out to kill the president and that it is his duty to save Uganda from the likes of us. He shouts that we’re all going to jail and waves our passports in the air with one hand and his gun with the other. The truck drivers are having a good time.
“Get in your car! Follow me!” the madman shouts at us. “I’m taking you to prison!” Our passports in hand, he staggers off to his own car, followed by the handsome young man who has said nothing at all to him. Wimp, I think. We do as we are told, kept hostage by the man’s gun and inebriated mind. The road through the reserve seems endless and empty, leading us deeper into danger and despair. No villages, no people, no other cars. I think terrifying thoughts. About perishing in an African bush jail. About never seeing my family again. About being separated from my husband.
We drive and drive and if there are wild animals by the side of the road, like these zebras, I don’t see them. All I see are visions of what lies ahead, none of them happy.
If they are there, I don’t see them.
Then we reach a junction, the first one we’ve come across, and the police car stops. We stop. The convoy of trucks behind us stops. Out comes the handsome man in civilian clothes, striding toward us, passports in hand.
“Please,” he says as he hands them back through the open window, “please, accept my sincere apologies for this incident. You are guests in my country and this was an appalling incident and . . . ” He goes on to apologize effusively, in perfect British English, his embarrassment acute. He tells us he has spent time in England and was treated with friendliness and respect and wishes we could have been granted the same treatment in his country, but alas.
Through all this, the plastered officer of the law does not make an appearance. It occurs to me in a flash of brilliant insight, that our hero was unable to do anything earlier because making the drunk lose face in front of his audience would have been counterproductive. Alone in the car with him, he’d obviously used his diplomatic skills successfully. Not a wimp after all. I am ashamed of myself, of my ignorance. However, I am smart enough not to hug the man in full view of a bunch of Congolese drivers, and possibly that of one drunk cop who is now prevented from saving his country from evil foreigners.
Our hero goes on to suggest we get rid of the knife. These are bad times, he says, and people are nervous about the attempted assassination of President Obote and why take risks? He then points to the left. “This road will take you to Queen Elizabeth Park,” he tells us. “Please have a wonderful time and don’t let this incident ruin your opinion of our country.”
We thank him from the bottom of our relieved little hearts and watch him climb back into the police car, which continues on the road across the intersection. We turn left, driving as fast as the car and road will allow.
I’d like to end this story by offering my thanks to all of you English people who treated our nice Ugandan with friendliness and respect while he sojourned in your country. You may well be the reason that three Americans, one Norwegian and one Dutch person did not perish in a Ugandan jail.
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So, dear reader, tell me a harrowing tale from your travels. From what dangers have you escaped? What scary confrontations with foreign officials did you survive? Go ahead, give me the shivers.
I drove in Dakar, Senegal when we lived there many years ago. I was stopped by a police when the stoplight changed to red when I was still stuck in traffic in the middle of the junction just like many other people do. Now it’s a distant memory and it makes me nostalgic. I’m glad your story had a good ending! I admire British people.
ha – I now see that I did read this story before but had forgotten the conclusion. Also, a new question: did you? I mean, did you get rid of the knife? Somehow I must know. I would have hated to give up a perfectly fine bread knife, always hard to come by!
Yes! But I doubt it was a very good one, as we were very poor 😉
I was also scared shitless while present at this incident. I’m the American Peace Corps Volunteer husband of Norwegian Lillian. I cannot match Miss Footloose for drama. You know she does write romance novels for kicks. Miss Footloose forgot a third American volunteer present at the incident. Art had the stupidity to protest the gun-waving drunk. The drunk grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him against a truck. With double stupidity, I protested, “But he didn’t do anything!” and got the same treatment. My ears still ring when I think about it. The drunk repeats that all you men… Read more »
Oh, Doug, how cool to see you here! And to think I forgot such a dramatic part of the story. I think I must have blocked it out out of sheer terror! Thank you so much for adding this!
Hello again, thank goodness for him, and of course I would now love to know ALL about him, but these are the mysteries of travel. Africa is that bit different is it not, much more visceral and life threatening at times than other places… and so, so very beautiful, with fantastic folks. A great highlight of my travels was a few weeks spent in Ghana, blooming marvellous… lots of priests, no cops luckily!!
Can’t imagine not want to see the world. It is so interesting. We lived in Ghana twice, my most favorite country because of its warm and fun-loving people.
Hahaha, the queen of understatement: “His hostile attitude is not comforting.” How about: “I almost shit my pants when he stood there waving his gun and yelling obscenities at us”? This reminds me of a brief incident my (then not yet) husband and I had at the border of Spain. I was young, 19 maybe, and we were driving from Germany to Spain, into the sun, one summer. Made it all the way through France, in his Golf convertible with a surfboard strapped on top , and it was my turn as we were passing through the Spanish border somewhere… Read more »
I love stories like yours, and they do take on a patina of humor and fun with age, even if terrifying in the moment. I love just driving through Europe without stopping at the borders. I remember the old days and the time wasted. One day just a few years ago my husband and I were driving around the countryside in the eastern part of the Netherlands — green fields, nice farms, small country road. Then we drove through a little village with some signs and shops and I realized the language was German and we were in Germany and… Read more »
Gosh that was a narrow escape! I’ve had a few brushes with the law in my time too 😉
I doubt if anyone can beat this story! Wow, I don’t think I would be able to keep my cool, I would be bawling my eyes out! I think I would be on the next plane out, just in case…
I was arrested by Ugandian policeman for taking photos of marabous. On the way to jail i offered him 5,000 shillings ($2), which helped to make a deal. But my overall memories about that country are rather good.
Hi Vahe! Yes, I remember hearing about that! Uganda really is a very nice place, and beautiful!
“So, dear reader, tell me a harrowing tale from your travels.”
Few of us will be able to compete with that tale, Karen! The best I can offer is told in a blog-post of mine in June 2012 titled “Stoned in Alexandria”. The title was deliberately ambiguous. Egypt’s cities are indeed known for the availability of their psychedelic substances; but on this occasion the stones were real.
That IS a scary story, I would have been wetting myself. It’s hard when you’re from a country where you view the police as your allies to come to terms with the need to view them with suspicion and perhaps even fear.