Every time I see a cop, I tense up. It’s reflex. And no, it’s not just because of my hair.
It’s more because somewhere in my Kenyan life, I realised that cops were far more scary than thugs.
Some weeks back, Maina Kageni was promoting Safcom’s latest offer on Matatu FM. Something about Opera Mini, 10MB, and 8 bob. He asked guys to call in and explain how and why they use it.
This one guy called in. He was very eloquent, spoke pretty good English with a bit of slang thrown in. I think he might have been from Buru [don’t ask me why].
I was paying attention until he said he was a cop. Apparently, he uses his Safcom to browse while he works.
The only part that Maina heard was ‘cop’. He immediately diverted to ‘Afande vipi’ mode, and the previously polished cop downgraded to the Kiganjo accent. He and Maina carried a two-minute dialogue in full policeman register, complete with the mixtures of Cs and Gs. It should have been quite funny, but I just got upset.
We have this stereotype that all cops talk with a certain accent – which is allegedly learnt during Afande Boot Camp. So I was jazzed when I heard this cop speak so well. When he slipped into cop mode so easily, I started to wonder what else he was capable of doing, and I hadn’t even seen him yet. He was no longer a person, he was a uniform.
For the record, I would never date a cop. At least not a Kenyan one. If I fell for a guy, and years later found out what he did for a living, I can’t swear that I would not dump him. That goes double for members of GSU.
My first encounter with cops was in high school. I blossomed quite early and had serious weight issues, so I looked like a grown woman at 12. I also had aversions to my school ID. So one morning when I was coming from the phone booth, I was accosted by cops. I was 14, and there were four of them.
I’d gotten up at 6.30 to call a certain boy, because that’s the only time that there was no queue. It was really cold, so I was wearing my warmest [and shadiest] outfit – an orange tracksuit. If pictures of it ever show up on facebook, I shall scream.
Anyway, the boy didn’t answer the telephone, so I was cranky on the walk home. Two minutes from my dad’s house, I was surrounded by cops. I don’t even know where they came from. They were just suddenly there.
They started asking me stupid questions like where I was coming from at that hour. It was 6.45, broad daylight, and so cold there was fog in my breath. I claimed I’d come from the kiosk, which was partly true, since it was next to the red public phonebooth.
They asked which kiosk was open that early, and why I wasn’t carrying groceries, then they demanded my ID. I said I was only in Form 2, so they asked for my school ID. Crap. I’d just woken up to go make a phone call. I hadn’t even stopped to take a shower. Of course I didn’t have my ID! And who carries around their school ID?
They suggested I had come from the rave joint; Carni isn’t too far from where I live. I asked why I would possibly go to a rave joint dressed in a shapeless orange suit. And after all, I don’t rave.
Two more cops materialised, so now there were six tall men around me, with guns. They had covered me so that no one could see I was inside, and I think some light went off in my head, because I started to scream in mother tongue.
Please note that I do not speak my mothertongue.
I don’t know what exactly I said, but the armed circle suddenly vaporised, and I heard one of them say, ‘Huyo ni mwenda wazimu.’ I resumed walking home, but I couldn’t stop screaming vernacular curses, and at some point, I noticed that I was shaking.
These days, when I see a policeman, I don’t scream in vernacular. I cross the road without looking suspicious, and put as much distance as I can between me and their AKs.
Another time, a GSU guard stopped me outside Statehouse and questioned me for over ten minutes. They were personal questions – what’s my name, where do I live, who lives with me and etc and etc. I answered all his questions while staring at his gun, and was relieved when I got away. I think he was hitting on me, but between the red beret and the barking voice, I honestly thought he wanted to shoot me.
Some weeks back, I was giving my daughter the ‘what to do if you’re lost’ talk. I made sure she knows all my phone numbers, and that she knows not just the route, but the names of the place where we live. I got to the part of finding an adult and asking them to phone me. I was just about say, ‘Ask a poli…’ when I stopped myself. Do I really want her walking up to a cop and announcing that she’s lost? *shudder*
I settled for policewoman, because they’d be less likely to hurt a little girl. I think.
My brothers live quite near my flat, so we visit a lot, and they often leave after dark. Each day I see them off, I say, ‘Get home safe, don’t get arrested.’ I don’t really think about it, it’s just for good luck. I mean it’s a five-minute walk from their place to mine.
Yesterday I realised that my little brother actually had been arrested while leaving my house, more than once. They even made him ride around on patrol with them and hang out for ages at the station while they chilled for him to bribe his way out. Reason? He was riding a bike at night. And the house is two minutes away from the police station.
I almost got mugged twice this week. These days, people don’t help you when you’re robbed, because they think you’re stupid to let it happen. Some guy was trying to grab stuff from my backpack, and I kept feeling the tugs. I turned around to look, but I couldn’t see anyone. 200 metres later, this guy stops me and lectures me for not realising that some robber had tailed me for ten minutes trying to get my bag open. The warner walked away as I was checking my now open zipper, so I didn’t even see his face. I couldn’t help thinking that he was the robber.
The irony is that I’m wary of theft, especially backpack theft, so the outer pockets of my bag are always empty. It’s kind of annoying because the beauty of my backpack is its tens of compartments, yet I can never fully use them. So the robber managed to open my zipper but didn’t get anything.
I was still shaken though, because for months, I’ve felt safe with my bag on my back. For ages, I’ve wanted to write a post about how Nairobi is so much better now, because you can wear a hat, bandanna, or watch without fear of it being snatched off, and you can wear a backpack without looking pregnant. I didn’t write that post because I didn’t want to jinx things.
Similarly, some chick was facebooking in a mat during traffic when a phone snatcher snuck up on her. The other passengers noticed him and yelled, ‘chunga simu!’ She was startled by the noise and turned to face the yellers instead of the robber. Her phone went. The passengers then started ragging her for not being alert.
It happened to me too, except my phone was a basic mulika mwizi, and the lady who yelled a warning was staring at a half closed window. There was no way a hand could have got in at me, and my phone was safely low, so I wonder of she wasn’t distracting me to make space for a thief.
I wanted to write a post about how I’ve never been jacked, but then just this week, we got into a mat and a few minutes later, some passengers started heckling the makanga. They wanted to pay ten bob to ride from Tusker to the roundabout, and when the makanga wouldn’t let them, they caused a scene and alighted. One guy jumped out in mid-traffic to talk to a second guy whom he’d been yelling at through the window.
The hecklers that alighted were five – two in the front seat, two in the back seat, and one in the middle. The makanga asked us to check our phones, and said they probably looked at the passengers and decided that we didn’t have much money. If they had stayed on board, we couldn’t have escaped.
Yet even as I think of these near violations, I’m still more scared of cops. You may have heard the joke of the off-duty policeman who walks into his house and finds his wife miserable because she has no food. He tells her to light the stove and put water for ugali, puts on his uniform, and leaves the house. Ten minutes later, he comes back with Jogoo, Sukuma Wiki, and a kilo of meat.
A part of me says the cops exploit us because they’re paid so little and they have to survive. Another part of me is terrified by this guy who can arrest my baby brother for riding a bike in the moonlight, right outside his own house. I used to have high-minded ideas about bribes and corruption and never paying a cop. But if they stop me and I have to get home to my daughter, I’ll do what it takes to get free. Heck, if they stop me on my way to run errands, I’ll pay them just to stop the inconvenience.
It’s frightening that we’re protected by bullies with guns. I saw this white backpacking couple ask some cops for directions near bus station and my blood froze. I wanted to grab their arms, yank them away and say ‘run!’ even if the girl was insane enough to wear orange harem pants. Luckily, the cops they got were a decent pair.
I don’t know if we can screen police officers so we can only get the good guys. I don’t know if there’s something in their training that rots the gentlest ones among them, or if you have to be rotten to make it to Kiganjo in the first place. I don’t know if we can just pay them more, or if there’s anything we can do so that we’re not all so terrified of cops.
In high school, I had an epiphany when I realised that the hot, singing bishop was my buddy’s first uncle. We talked about how he visits them at home, and I said it was a pity he was celibate.
Just like this charming Catholic priest, the cops out there are somebody’s brothers, fathers, wives and sons. But when I look at them, all I do is shudder at the uniform. I can’t embrace the person beneath it.
It would be so cool if I didn’t have to cross the street in shivers every time I see a boy or girl in blue.
♫ Rise above this ♫ Seether ♫