Corrupt Traffic Cops and a Scared Mzungu

Last week, I had momentary doubts about the guy who is driving me around while I’m in Uganda. Alex and I had the pleasure of being stopped by a traffic cop when we were driving from the goat farm to the poultry farm. There was really no reason to stop us, and besides, no one in Uganda really obeys traffic laws anyway, but the cop came up to the passenger side window and began talking to Alex across me. He asked to see Alex’s driver’s license. Alex told him he had forgotten it, and the cop threatened to write a ticket for 100,000 Ugandan shillings (about $40). The trouble with that is, he couldn’t write out a proper ticket unless he was looking at a driver’s license, so that was an empty threat. The cop asked Alex to get out of the car, and Alex told him he wouldn’t. Next, the cop began speaking his local language so that I wouldn’t be able to understand him. Alex told him, “I don’t speak your language. I speak English.” Finally, he asked where we were coming from and where we were going. Immediately after learning that we work with Watoto and we were coming from one of the children’s villages, he said simply, “You go.” And we went.
The entire time he was speaking with the cop, Alex was acting bored and borderline-disrespectful. That was unsettling to me, because where I come from, you say “Yes, Sir” and you show respect to law enforcement. I was wondering if the cop was going to detain us, and why Alex was being rude, but after we were on our way he explained to me that most of the traffic cops here are corrupt and are just looking for bribes. I had heard of corrupt cops here before, but I hadn’t realized that it was so extremely common. Corrupt cops are the norm here. Once you have given them your license, they can hold it until you pay them what they want. The cop spoke another language and asked Alex to get out of the car so that he could get a bribe without a mzungu (me) witnessing it. I didn’t really need another reason to be thankful that I don’t have to drive myself around while I’m here, but I got one in that experience. After a few minutes had passed, I wasn’t scared anymore, and the whole situation seemed kind of funny.

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