Playing chicken with the Maputo Police

jinty jackson

This chicken - some of the best I've ever eaten. At some point later that night it began to look like it might become my last meal too.

It was already the chicken’s last meal; a fact that really bothered my friend Jinty, who doen’t like eating chickens when they still looked like chickens, but didn’t really have a choice because we were in a proper late night frango place in Maputo, Mozambique, and they don’t do skinless, boneless breasts around there.

We’d stopped for food, and to de-stress, shortly after being pulled over by a cop on the way home from Motala Jazz club. The officer loitered menacingly by the window, asking if we could perhaps offer him anything to drink – if we maybe we had some stuff in a coolerbox in the boot. I had heard of the Maputo police’s reputation for being corrupt, and picking on tourist drivers, who are always easy to identify by their South African or Swazi number plates.

He let us go without much of a fight. We were clearly sober, and clearly unwilling to bribe him. But we felt a bit shakey, so we pulled over to grab something to chow. Even a policeman who’s just abusing his power to beg a six-pack of beer out of you is pretty intimidating when he’s carrying a loaded rifle, and it’s 1.30am.

Anyhow, great chicken. Moist, throroughly cooked, charred by not burned. And the restaurant (Avenida 24 Julio, in case you’re there) is such a trip; such a weird mix of the old and the new. The clientel were all cool partying locals, the lighting the usual unromantic neon, the music was african, the tables simple and the beers large-size or gigantic. But the walls are still decorated with line drawings of the old days in Maputo – drawings in which there seemed to be only Portuguese people on the streets, all wearing the kind colonial clothing that the Waterfront Cape Union Mart branch sells to Germans visitors year round, marking them as TOURIST beyond all reasonable doubt.

Maputo, in colonialism's heyday.

Maputo is boom town right now… and of course, there are those who are only in it for what they can take. The SA tourists exploiting the poor for cheap sex, cheap labour, and cheap beach holidays. The foreign construction companies exploiting the need to rebuild after the war (the city’s looking much improved since I was last there in 2004.) And then the corrupt civil servants.

We left the chicken place, and headed towards Hotel Halima – more of a guesthouse of faded 70s glam. As we turned into Julius Nyrere avenue, we saw a crazylooking drunk-acting white guy standing at the side of the road, desperately gesturing to cars to turn around, turn around. I didn’t pay any attention. I don’t pick up strange dudes.

Maputo today... a chicken lovers' paradise, where late night clubbers go to heaven when they die.

Yes, I could see the police road block ahead, but I thought “Come on… clearly the reports of corruption are exaggerated. I’ll just tell them sorry, no beer.” And I hadn’t been drinking. I’ve always wanted to be stopped when I was sober!

This time, however, we were pulled over by five men with a decidedly more military vibe, who demanded to see my licence.

My license. My license… oh. No. No-no-no… It was at the hotel.

I tried to explain this. The policeman just kept repeating “License”. Eventually Jinty took off her seat belt, found her drivers’ license in her bag, and gave it to me. I handed it over.

The policeman looked through the window at Jinty.
“Why you’re not wearing your seat belt”, he said. “That’s R100 fine”.
“But… she took it off to find the license!”
The policeman ambled off with my license in his hand.
I got out of the car, and chased him.
“Give me the fine”
“You have to come with me to the police station. You want to go to the police station?”
“No problem,” I said… I hoped I’d call his bluff. “Just write out the fine for me, like you are supposed to.”
“I don’t have paper. You must come with me to the police station.”
“Ok. I’ll drive behind you.”
“You want to go the police station?”
Across the road, a few of his buddies pulled over a 4×4 with a South African family in it, and started working them over too.
“You must pay.”
“Fine. Write out the fine please.”
And so on… luckily, at no point did our guy realise that Jinty and I didn’t really look alike. That would have been worse; even worse than the fear I felt as their hands casually touched their rifles each time I furiously demanded my license back.

But just as I was considering swallowing my shame and my pride, giving in, and coughing up some cash, the ‘crazy guy’ who had been gesturing in the road earlier came walking up.

“English?” he asked us. “Why did they stop you.”

I explained. He took a couple of the cops aside and rapid-fired them in Portuguese, friendly but with the confidence of someone who had clearly had a fair bit to drink, and some power somewhere. He explained to both parties that this was clearly a misunderstanding, and that if we were both happy to leave it, he would let it go.

After a few minutes, and once I’d agreed to give the dodgiest of the cops my telephone number, we were allowed to go, and agreed to give our saviour Paulo Frederico a lift home. “They know me in these parts,” he said. He was a journalist, which explains the booze. He said that the cops do this all the time: stop foreigners and ask for bribes late at night, and that it’s scaring off the tourists. And so on… I could feel exhaustion wrapping me up as I sat there at the wheel, listening to him raging on with the rage of the drunken just. I just kept nodding, thinking that we needed to get up at go in about three hours time, wondering how I was going to do it now.

Eventually the nice man got out the car and waved goodbye from outside the window.
“Paulo Frederico”, he said. “Never forget the name.”
“I won’t,” I promised. And I never will.

A few days later, safely back in Swaziland, I spoke to one of Mbabane’s many NGO professionals about it. He said that in Mozambique, you pretty much have to bribe your way into a job in the police force, so by the time you get a job, you owe too much money to pay back from your salary, and are forced to take bribes. “So in a way, bribing is just part of the system,” he said. “If you are doing it, you are helping things work.” He laughed unhappily.

I managed a shocked, exhausted little smile. Perhaps I’m a prissy, pale over privileged South African chick, but I find that impossible to condone. Unlike him, I’m from this continent. I have no other passports. I don’t feel I can afford to become part of a system so unfair, so threatening and so embarrassing to me. And I say this for selfish reasons, because I’m the one who’ll have to live with it in the long run.

Forget the separation of church and state. That’s a luxury! The separation of the law enforcers and the criminals may be an even better start.

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3 Responses to “Playing chicken with the Maputo Police”

  1. Lakita Reda Says:

    You need to add a facebook button to your blog. I just tweeted this post, but had to do it manually. Just my $.02 🙂

  2. World Wide News Flash Says:

    Playing chicken with the Maputo Police « Jean Barker's Sign Language…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  3. gavinmac Says:

    Interesting report on Maputo. Thanks.

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