Tuesday, October 6, 2009
A Local Friend & Our First Run-in with the Gendarme
We often visit a near-by boulangerie for coffee and our weekly bread (the only place to get bread products is at a bakery). We made friends with one of the waiters, Dexter, who is very pleasant and is trying to learn English. He goes to Omar Bongo University and he has been teaching us a lot about the local perspective (plus, we now get fresh bread without having to wait in line).
We decided to take Dexter out to dinner one evening as an American thank you. Keeping with the American theme, we just went for pizza, which is actually quite good here, although with an obvious "French" inspiration like unusual toppings (ham, several different cheeses, egg, etc.) and everyone eats it with a fork and knife.
Dexter is always impeccably dressed; as are many of the locals, regardless of their socio economic status - another custom the French left behind. We would have never thought it to look at him, but the evening we took him to dinner was the first time he had ever been to a restaurant. We will have to step it up a notch next time.
After dinner we were giving Dexter a ride home. Since he doesn’t drive, and there are no street names or signs, we followed his directions from the back seat. Unfortunately we turn the wrong way up a one-way street. Although we are in Center Ville, it’s pitch black, there are no lights, no cars and no people on the streets. We actually didn’t notice we had gone the wrong way until we were at the next intersection. Before we can turn, bright lights are shining in our faces and a large truck comes speeding at us head-on. I thought we were being robbed. Three men get out of the truck with guns and surround our vehicle. It turns out to be the police, the gendarmes. They are screaming at us in French. The guy on my side of the van has a twitchy eye and he is pulling his gun out of its holster. Dexter is translating from the back seat and he is obviously very scared…”Bret, I am very sorry, I will pay you back, we have to pay them”. What, what do you mean, how much do they want? “$70,000 CFA (about $140US), we don’t have a choice, they will bring us in”. My girlfriend, who speaks enough French to get around, screams at them in French – “I am an American Diplomat and I am not paying anything!” Viola, like magic, the 3 officers step away from our van. They wave us on and yell at Dexter to keep an eye on us.
Corruption in Africa is common. Local cops don’t give tickets, they demand money, make up an amount and put it in their pockets. Locals may negotiate, but eventually end up paying something. No one wants to be brought into jail. The courts only see cases 4 times per year. When they do try cases, they start with the most important ones, or at least the ones who have lawyers requesting a trial. This means that you can be picked up for jaywalking and essentially receive a life sentence, unless your family knows a minister or a really good lawyer.