So your friend is taken to Kenyan Prison,Now what?
Just seconds before, two Kenyans in light blue collared shirts, navy blue pants, white caps and rifles abandoned their posts under the police flag depicting a Maasai shield pierced by two assegai and the slogan, Utumisi Kwa Wote (Service to All). A despicable crime had been committed in front of their very eyes! With full conviction of their authority, they charged towards M. shouting, “It is illegal to take pictures of government buildings!” and “Give us the camera!” By that point, they had wrestled screaming M. down to the hot stones covering Mombasa’s Old Town.
M., startled, shouted, “No! Let me go!” and the officers yelling, “She is resisting an arrest!” and me saying something and them responding “You want to be taken to prison too!?” No, I did not want to go to prison.
M.’s visibly upset eyes communicated “Why aren’t you helping me?” when I stood helplessly still across the street as the female police officers aggressively searched her body before the two officers grabbed her by the arms, turned right and walked down a hall. M. disappeared from my sight. On the exterior, it was impossible to calculate the size and depth of the police station. The walls were cement, and windows filled with vertical, rusty bars. Would M. get her own cell? Would they rape her?
As the crowd dispersed back into their individual niches that make up Mombasa’s Swahili landscape, I stood alone among the peeling cement walls, white mosques, intricately-carved terraces, brushstrokes of fruit vendors and dirt.
A man wearing a white izar comes up to me. “I can help you get your friend out. I am a lawyer.” I look at his teeth which were the closest thing to rotting teeth I had ever seen. His atrocious breath billowed towards me as he named his compensation. “Two thousand dollars”. M.’s capture, the timing and confidence of this man’s appearance, the subject of dollars, led me to suspect that we had been caught in a corruption ring played between the police and locals on tourists for bribes. The police captured the tourist, the locals played their part, the helpless tourist paid for the lawyer, the lawyer would do his magic and the police would receive commission. I politely declined. “I will try to do this myself, and if nothing works out, I will come to you.”
The truth of the matter was that I had no plan. The remainder of the National Museums of Kenya field school had already left for Nairobi. We, and a couple others–including Mr. D., a Foreign Service Officer in training–were scheduled to take the night train to Nairobi the following day. I had no one to run to for help, because the directors had all left.
A familiar face runs towards me with sincere panic in his eyes. It was the owner of the internet cafe where the field school participants had typed up and printed their fieldnotes. He was a trusted source and enquired within the police station about M.’s whereabouts. The police officers said that they needed M.’s passport, which she did not have on hand.
I reach for the Nokia and call Mr. D. to get the passport. He said that he would contact the US Department of State. I call Mr. Mza, the director of the program, who coincidentally, was related to President Kibaki and was in the process of being appointed by his uncle to head a government commission intended to “check” executive power (but that is a different matter, or is it?). So, who would free M.? The US Department of State or Kibacki’s kin?
Armed with my political weapons, I walk into the station, ask to be taken to M. and am led down the cement corridor into an unpainted, cement-covered room that was absolutely empty. In the rear, underneath the window with the metal bars, sat a senior police officer behind a simple desk (without any drawers), filling out a crossword puzzle. There was nothing else on the desk (no files). Was this the interrogation room?
Standing in the doorway, I notice two chairs, an empty one on the right and an occupied chair on which M. sat to my left. Her mere presence had a monopoly over all the colour, texture and expression of life in the room. This pretty white girl with long chestnut hair in a flowery dress, had been broken in. Her puffy, red face was covered in a salty layer of tears.
The officer looks up at me and informally complains, “You see? She won’t even apologise!” Hands shaking, M. pleads annoyingly for what seems to me like not the first time: “I’m sorry!! I’m so sorry!! I promise I won’t do it again!! I’m sorry!!” He ignored her and continued on with his crossword puzzle. M.’s criminal activity had evidently inconvenienced his busy schedule! A verbal apology was not enough. The crime had seemingly been against him, not the legal system. The man wanted money.
As I stood at the doorway, the man and I exchange a tug-of-war of “Please sit down” and “No” and “Please sit down” and “No. I would rather stand” and “Please sit down” and “No. This won’t take much time. I can stand.” The point was, I was not there to negotiate and sitting down would mean that I would have accepted his position of authority behind the desk.
Mr. Mza’s call was perfectly timed. He asks to talk to the officer. While I hand over the Nokia to the officer, I smugly say, “There is someone who wants to talk to you”. The officer takes the phone, hums in agreement a couple of times, and in less than ten seconds, he hangs up the phone and says that we are free to go. No passport needed, camera back, and a clean record. What could have Mr. Mza said in those ten seconds? He fought corruption with corruption. As M. and I exit the police station and greet the sun, Mr. D. comes running in with the passport.
While this may seem like a this-won’t-happen-to-me story, think again! If your friend is ever taken to a prison in the developing world, keep this advice in mind: (a) physically separate yourself from the incident. Do not fight the police, lest you would also like to get put in prison; (b) do not accept help from strangers who supposedly know the “answer” out of the solution; and (c) think of the highest-ranking local official you know, or have access to, who could help you. This could be at a local embassy or another government branch. Expanding the awareness of the incident across official branches of government(s) will bring oversight and debate to the event. And most important of all, always invest in a cellphone.