I’d travelled to Africa for a job that would see me spend most of the year in Nairobi. Unlike any other time I’d gone abroad for work, on this occasion I wasn’t being sent out by a British firm to represent them overseas (and have the full protection and support that would entail) but was instead placing my hands in the safekeeping of a local Kenyan company at whose invitation I went. The project was ultimately for a giant, global company that is a household name the world over– so what could possibly go wrong?
‘Yes of course Debbie, we will go through all the necessary procedures to ensure you are working here legally and obtain all the paperwork and permits required for us to host you and for you to be in lawful employment.’
Months later, those words rang in my ears for the full 48 hours I was incarcerated by the border police at Isebania, the tiny border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania.
News on the radio that day was that the annual wildebeest migration in the Serengeti had officially begun – and I was tantalisingly close. However, my excitement at setting off on an African adventure was dashed at the first leg of my post-work travels. It appeared that the company had, in fact, not followed any procedure at all – my paperwork was only 70% in order and there was one crucial component missing. I now found myself at the mercy of the immigration officials, who were delighted to have stumbled across an opportunity for a potentially lucrative kickback.
I was grilled for three hours late into the night, my passport and credit card confiscated, bailed for £2,000, escorted to a hostel (the border was too small to have its own cells) where I was held and told to report to a court hearing the following day.
Having played bad cop for the past few hours, one of the officers visibly relaxed at the end of the ‘interview’ and asked me if I’d like to join him for a beer in the hostel as he’d love to hear how my time in Kenya had been and whether or not I’d enjoyed being in his beautiful country.
The following day I was brought back to the offices but the Chief Investigating Officer had been called away to a crisis meeting on the Ebola outbreak, so I was returned by an armed guard to the hostel.
Another 24 hours passed before I was eventually allowed to continue on my journey, but only after a further grilling from a Judge who thankfully took pity on me.
It wasn’t such good news for a British colleague who, in the same situation a week later, was hauled into the Nairobi High Court, fined and immediately deported. It was the Judge himself who, after finding him guilty, invited him for a drink to chat about how beautiful Kenya is and also let slip that it was the company we’d both been working for who had tipped off the authorities about his incomplete paperwork – which explained the predicament I’d found myself in.
Beggars belief that these people let down their own countrymen in such a pathetic manner.
So, having spent 48 hours being waterboarded (ok, slight exaggeration) I was finally on my way, now forced to hurry the trip up by hiring a Kenyan driver to ferry me around Tanzania.
Tanzanian traffic police in groups of up to ten are positioned every two miles or so along the major roads. Their rules about what makes a car roadworthy are far stricter than those in Kenya – something they exploit to a tee. They can spot Kenyan registration plates coming a mile off and can hardly believe their luck when they stop the car to find the added bonus of a ‘mzungu’ passenger – a whitey. It’s like Xmas, birthday and overthrowing a dictator coming all at once.
A perfectly straight-forward journey took an inordinately long time as we were forced to stop every 30 minutes or so and present driving licence, road tax, insurance, fire extinguisher, emergency first aid kit, spare tyre, jack, yellow fever certificate etc etc. Upon being able to successfully demonstrate all was in order with this ever-increasing list, the police were forced to get inventive. They went off into huddles to discuss what they should ask for next.
‘Show me your indicators are working, left, right.’
‘Water for your windscreen wipers?’
‘Reverse gear working?’
‘Windows go up?’
‘Windows go down?’
‘Radio plays music?’
We were chastised for the indicators blinking too slowly and out came the ticket book. The options we were given were to pay the official fine (£30) for which we would be given a receipt and be immune from further prosecution for the same ‘crime’ with subsequent police, or we could slip these guys £10 for their troubles – no receipt and no come back for the next group of police who might find the same issue.
This happened at regular intervals, every day for a week.
‘Nice that you have a mzungu passenger. Is she rich? She must be, you can pay much more than this.’
It was extremely difficult remaining calm but losing my rag would only have exacerbated the situation.
So late were we in reaching Dar es Salaam that the last ferry across to Zanzibar had left by the time we arrived – although a full five hours had been spent sitting in rush hour traffic covering a mighty two miles. The lovely hotel I had booked for myself as a treat for the hardship I’d endured did not see fit to reimburse me the night I paid for but couldn’t take.
Tanzania is a lovely country but I absolutely would not recommend travelling round in anything other than a Tanzanian-registered vehicle and even then, you need to leave much more time than you think you’re going to need.
Even the wildebeest refused to migrate in my presence – unless, of course, they took a detour to avoid the traffic police …