Tuesday, July 3, 2012

When your kid bribes the police

It was one of those hand motions I'd dreaded when we considered moving to Uganda. That wide wave of the arm by the police offer clad in all-white: a traffic cop, pulling us over. At times, I have feared the police officers here. Most are toting AK-47's. (Even the guards at the grocery store have those or rifles, which brings a whole new meaning to "mall cop", if you ask me.) And policemen can be corrupt. It's one thing to have a person who doesn't love justice. It's another thing to put him in power and hand him a machine gun of his very own. But I digress.

J. and I were on the way home from a trip to the copy shop and the grocery store that had taken a lot longer than intended. As far as I knew, I wasn't doing anything illegal. (I typically feel like I am one of the tamer Kampala drivers. No comments on this please.) But we'd had a few of these before when John was driving. John and I had previously decided we would not bribe--a decision that has already been challenged by circumstance--and we'd been told not to pay an officer directly for a ticket. All right. Let's do this thing. Window rolled down.

Strategy #1: Pull out the Luganda with a big ol' friendly-mzungu smile. Some would say it was over the top, but in my very limited experience, the more enthusiasm here, the better. "Olyotya, ssebo?" (How are you, sir?)

Strategy #2: Have the kids pull out their Luganda, then have them engage the officer in conversation. This tip, given by a previous resident, has had remarkably positive results.

"J., can you say, 'Olyotya, ssebo?'" J. thankfully is in the mood to respond, and loud enough to delight the officer. Now, I know I am biased. But in the right disposition, J. could charm Castro. Sometimes I look at that impish little grin and think, I could have had six of you!

This obviously translates to the officer that I am teaching my kids Luganda, too. My little guy's greeting brings a huge smile from the policeman, who reaches across the passenger seat to shake my hand Ugandan-style: Grasp the hand with fingers around bottom of the other's wrist (like a normal handshake), then fingers on top of the wrist, then on bottom, then on top, ad finitum. The officer laughs and looks back at J. "Belungi! Olyotya, ssebo?" (I'm good! How are you, sir?--even little boys are called "ssebo" here.)

We continue in Luganda as far as I can. As I've previously alluded to, using the central-region tribal language here is not necessary for most foreigners. The vast majority of people speak English well, because it's spoken in the schools. And I sometimes will attempt Luganda with those who don't speak it because they're not native to the region. But all in all, it's a significant bridge builder. It frequently exposes these huge white smiles on those beautiful African faces--if not an outright laugh, to hear someone with blonde hair and blue eyes speaking this language. Even more, it seems to automatically give them a way to be an expert, a teacher. I can learn a phrase, or even let them laugh at my foibles or little language victories. It somehow communicates there's something to learn--a humility, a teachability, I guess, and a genuine interest in this relatively obscure culture, none of which white people have a great legacy of charging in with.

Anyway, the guy is remarkably friendly. Asks me how I am doing no less than three times. Explains that it's just a routine traffic stop. Does not ask for my license.

In the midst of this, J., who is thrilled with the $.30 pack of gum I've purchased for him from the story, pipes up again around the little wad in his mouth. "Hey, you wanna piece a my gum?" He benevolently holds out a Chiclet-sized square from the packet cherished in his sweaty little hand.

This was not one of my strategies. But, hey--way to go, kid! Wait. Does that count as a bribe?

The officer enthusiastically accepts. Chewing, he asks if I am a teacher for a living (after I've explained my homeschooling run to the copy shop), and finds out what we are doing here in Uganda. For the second traffic stop for our silver minivan, once the officer discovers that we help the poor, we are free to go.

Now, I suppose this may sound manipulative to some. Oliver found it hilarious, particularly about the notion of my three-year-old unintentionally greasing the wheels with gum. But I guess I see it as just trying to spread the fragrance of Christ to people who probably encounter mostly grouchy folk. And I think it's also a little of shrewd stewardship, protecting our support dollars from being spent toward  traffic tickets, some unwarranted.

Overall, it represents an allayed fear. Somehow I had this idea of these fearsome checkpoints around the city, with my kids in the car and who knows what would happen. Grant it, I doubt all of our stops will bring that much relief. But as it was, God was very gracious. And a Chiclet here and there can't hurt.

...I think.

1 comment:

Maggie said...

With the changes that are coming, slowly to be sure, your experience may become the new norm. Let J continue to greet and meet and use his God given gifts in the service of the King. Your fears are hereby vanquished and vanished.