This weekend, I was faced with the hard decision of bribing a police officer or paying a hefty fine that would require surgical removal of my kidneys for auction. I seem to have a high affinity towards police officers. Last year, I missed my Spanish DELE exam because the matatu I was in was stopped by traffic officers. I was arraigned in court because the rickety van had no seat belts and missed an exam that is as infrequent as hair on a baby’s chin. This year my interaction with the police has revolved around my driving. I’m a good driver (at least I like to believe so) but somehow the boys in blue seem to smell me from a mile far. There were hundreds of cars on the road in all times but somehow they chose to stop me. Maybe I should tone down the colour of Raul (our car) to a subtler one that will blend in with the masses. Raul has gold coloured rims and a silver body. The contrast is magnificent.
However this wasn’t the case.
It was dark, you see. There was no chance of spotting Raul’s contrast. I saw the white beam of the torch dance in the Ngong’ road darkness beckoning me to come to a halt. My wife was seated on the co-driver’s side. Brad, Ken and Vivian, our lovely friends were in the back with unfastened seatbelts. We had come from folding origami in preparation for the Art and Beer Fest display. The cop beckoned to lower the co-driver’s window. I obeyed gratefully. He checked my wife’s seat and checked mine too. He checked the rear and sighted the anomaly. No buckled straps in the back was a no-no!
“Why haven’t these ones in the back buckled up,” he asked in Kiswahili.
Our silence proved our culpability. “I’m going to need to see your driving license,” he said. I produced it. Valid. Police 1. Raul 1.
“Step out and open the boot,” he said. I did. He hardly inspected the boot. “Close it,” he said. It was a decoy to lure me to the back. The stage was set and I walked right into it.
“Where’s today’s tea?” He asked is Kiswahili. He was asking for a bribe. The conversation proceeded in Kiswahili.
“I’m sorry I can’t do that,” I responded.
“Well then I guess you have an offense committed.”
I was cognizant of the new traffic rules. The financial damage would probably come to a hundred thousand. I didn’t have that kind of money at my disposal. I was tempted to bribe him and settle it but my conscience wasn’t seared.
“Sir, I only have a few coins with me. I was dropping my friends to town. Even if I carried any money with me…”
“Then ask your friends in the car to contribute and we’ll forget this whole mess.”
“I can’t ask them that sir,” I responded, hoping he wouldn’t confuse my conviction’s stance with arrogance. He was beginning to get unnerved by my responses. Why wasn’t I playing along? I prayed in my heart. Lord give me the words to speak.
“And why is that?”
“I’m a Christian sir.”
The man chuckled. He had heard that excuse before. He wasn’t going to buy it.
“Listen, everyone is a Christian.”
“No, I’m a practising Christian.”
“And what does that mean?”
“That I can’t ask my friends for money to bribe you. It will kill my testimony before them. If I must pay for the offense, so be it.”
I thought I was crazy to be saying what was coming from my mouth. I imagined being taken to a police cell for the night. I was angry at myself for a moment for doing the right thing but I was at peace.
“Where do you go to church?”
“CITAM Valley Road,” I responded, “Not far from here.” I decided to do a little asking too. “What about you?”
“I’m Catholic. I go to the Holy Family Basilica in the CBD.” However at times, I attend the Catholic monastery not far from here. So are you paying up or not?”
I thought the church conversation would break his stance. This was it, I said to myself. You’re going to either bribe him or face the ramifications.
“I can’t do that sir. I will offend Jesus Christ in doing so.”
He laughed lightly. He was going to enjoy tackling this one.
“Young man. Everyone has sinned. We are all full of flaws. Refusing to pay a bribe will not make you cleaner.”
“That’s true. But it will honour Jesus at this moment.”
“We Africans are religious but we have a very long way to get to God. There is no point in trying. We are all unclean aren’t we?”
“Yes, that’s true,” I responded, “all humanity is unclean and that’s why we need Jesus. He takes our dirt. Even the best of us is terrible. Isaiah 64:6 says all our righteous deeds are but filthy rags before God.”
When I quoted the verse he took a keen interest. He softened his pose and countered the argument.
“If we are all filthy, then paying a bribe will not change anything.”
“It will. It will change my conviction. It will change my stance on right and wrong and it will dishonour God. I have been forgiven for my sins. I can’t continue to sin intentionally expecting God’s forgiveness. That is abusing The Almighty. I’m sorry but I can’t bribe you sir.”
“That’s the way this country is young man.”
“Then you and I must change this country. Bribing…”
“Enough with the bribing,” he interrupted. “I’m talking about all kinds of evil. Why are you always referring to the bribe?”
“Because I believe that is the predicament that stands between you and me here on this highway.”
He went silent. He moved his rifle from under his arm and spread it across his torso. Then he spoke, not as a police officer, but as a fellow human being.
“Listen, life is hard. I stand here in the cold on this highway trying to do my job and earn a fair wage while our leaders steal millions. How do I make up for that?”
I paused at what he said. Ken, who was seated at the back stepped out of the car. I beckoned him to return. He listened. I thought hard on what he said and when I believed I knew what to tell him, I responded.
“I honestly don’t know. But I know this; our political leaders did not start by stealing millions. They began by offering small bribes. If someone like me ever got there, I need to be different and I will have to start now officer. I can’t offer you a bribe.”
He handed me back my license.
“I hear what you’re saying but we Africans have a long way to go. Go on, be on your way and drive safely.”
I rejoiced silently within me and it exuded in a smile.
“Hey, listen,” I told him, “I’m glad we talked and I feel we need to talk some more. You have many questions and I feel I may have some answers especially concerning God.” I gave him my card.
“Please call me,” I said, “coffee next week and it’s on me.”
“I see you’re an artist and a writer.”
“Yes I am.”
“Have a good night young man.”
“Good night to you sir!”
With this, I returned to the car to find a concerned wife and three sombre faces in the back buckled to the seat. I shared with them the story as I prayed in my heart that the man would give me a call the following week. Who knows? A coffee date may just encourage a discouraged member of the Police force.