Friday, July 29, 2011

I have the right to remain silent

Yesterday was a red letter day. I was "arrested" for the first time in Sierra Leone....or any country to be precise. And I would just like to point out that at no time were any of my rights read to me. Here's the dillyo.
Last month I bought a car. His name is Boris. Boris is what you might call... a fixer upper. I've been up country for the last month so one of my friends has been working on fixing some things so that it will be ready for me to take back with me. I drove it the other day and noticed some things that weren't working so well. Yesterday I had an errand to run in Freetown so I decided to take Boris along to see if there was anything else that needed fixing. Also, Freetown is a ridiculous place to drive and I've always been afraid that I'm going to get in an accident and damage the car that my friend is letting me borrow. If someone ran into Boris....I doubt anyone would notice.
ANYWAY, Boris and I started out at about 9:30 yesterday morning. It takes about 45 min. or so to get to Freetown and I go over a very rugged mountain road to get there. Since it's rainy season, the dirt turns to mud and some places start to feel like you're driving on an ice rink. I noticed that I was sliding a TON so slipped him into 4 wheel drive and got some better control. One of the things that Boris needs is new tires. Definitely. Since I'm going to be driving up country a lot where the roads are less than ideal, I decided that if I'm going to invest in anything, it should be a good set of tires. (The vanity in me wanted a paint job it is). They're coming on Monday. Yesterday was Friday.
I made it over the mountain road with only two heart catching moments in which I started sliding toward the edge of the mountain uncontrollably, but arrived to the paved roads of Freetown without incident. I had one objective in coming to Freetown and that was to return to the internet office for the third time to see if they can please get my internet to work. After two weeks without it, I was going through withdrawls! That's half of my new niece's life in which I haven't been able to stalk her via pictures!
As I was driving towards the internet office I suddenly remembered that I left my wallet on my dresser at home. Dangit. Since I have been pulled over frequently for them to just inspect my license I knew this could be a problem. Shoot! "Well," I thought. "I was here all day yesterday and didn't get pulled over. I'll just hope it happens again today." No sooner had I thought those words than a female police officer waved me to the side of the road. Dangit. Double dangit.
She was very friendly and asked to see my drivers license which I explained to her that I'd forgotten. Then she told me that my tires were "smoot." Smoot? What the heck does that mean? Are they flat? Smoking? Not sure. I got out to take a look (keep in mind this is in the middle of a very busy area and it's a white girl in trouble so there were no shortage of onlookers!) She pointed at my very, very bald tires. The were bald. Ah ha!
"You have two great offenses" she said.
"I understand! You're absolutely right. What do I do now?"
She proceeded to get into the front seat of my car and we started driving. I asked her if she was taking me to jail. She laughed and said, "No. I don't want to take you to jail. I don't want to waste your time. We will work this out between us. You are my friend. I don't like to cause trouble for women especially"
"Ok, that sounds good. I totally understand that I broke the law. In America sometimes the police officers will give you a warning and let you go, but if I need to pay a fine I can do that. I'm just going to need a receipt for any money I give you."
"You need a receipt? I can't give you a receipt."
"Well yes, I need a receipt because I have to account for where all my money goes. Otherwise my bosses will think I've stolen the money! You don't want me to lose my job do you???"
We had this conversation about 5 times. Round and round we went as we drove around Freetown. Finally she said, "Ok, I'm not arresting you. Forget about that. You are just my friend."
"Ok," I said laughing. "You are my friend. Next time I'm in town I'll take you to lunch."
And that my friends, is where I think I made my fatal mistake.
She said "Ok, let's go back and you'll give me some money for lunch and you'll go your way and I'll go mine."
"No, I can't do that because you've already arrested me. I can't give you anything today!"
Of course, the point was not that I needed a receipt. The point is that these police officers constantly pull people over and ask for a little something to keep them from being arrested. The injustice of it drives me insane. Abuse of power to the max. I put my crusader hat on. Maybe I should have left that one at home.
At this point we'd pulled up to the police station. She got out of the car and just stood there....seemed to be debating what to do. Then she told me to come with her. Until this point I'd been hoping that she'd just give up and let me go with a warning. Negative.
She took me into one of the rooms in the police station where she told another officer what my offenses were. There were three.
1. 2 smoot tires
2. Inconsideration for other drivers on the road (because of my smoot tires).
3. Failure to produce my license
As the new officer started taking my statement, the arresting officer stood up and left. Not even a goodbye! Some friend. If she keeps this up I'm going to revoke the lunch we were going to have next time I'm in Freetown!
After he wrote down my offenses he had me read it and see if I agreed. I read the statement, told him that I did agree but asked if I should add that the policewoman told me she would let me go if I gave her some money. He gave me a little half smile and said no, we didn't need to put that in the statement but I could talk with the magistrate about it. In hindsight I wish I would have written it down. Next time!
At this point I'm having a delightful time. As I mentioned before, I didn't have a lot to do that day, so I had the time to spare. Plus it was my first time being arrested in any country, so it was an adventure!
After they took my statement they sent me upstairs to one of the bosses. When I got up there I waited for a few minutes and eventually the bossman came out. He looked at me and then asked another officer in Krio why they brought me to him. Then he turned to me and asked if I was a diplomat. What? A diplomat? Just a volunteer. I told him what happened and that my friend was coming with my license. Then he told me to sit down here with a couple other girls....NOT over there with the guys. Okey doke.
So I sat there chatting with the girls and the other officers for the next hour while I waited for my friend. One of the benefits to working upline is that a lot fewer people speak English so my Krio is slowly but surely getting decent. When I started chatting with them in Krio everyone got really excited. "Eh, yu wan tok di Krio?" "Ah de try, Ah de try." Another benefit of having worked in multiple different areas in Sierra Leone I've picked up a few phrases from several of the different tribal languages. People always like it when I bust that out. :) The downside to this is that my fraud quickly becomes apparent when they continue the conversation in their tribal language and I stare at them blankly. Anyway, the next hour or so were spent rehashing what happened over and over again as people kept asking what the white girl was in for. But no problem. I was having fun. The officers, the other two girls and I were all laughing together, drinking sodas and eating cucumbers. Couldn't imagine a better time being detained. :)
One of the officers decided to make it her mission to get the offense for not producing my license dropped. I think it was because when one of the male officers started yelling at her I told him he needed to stop yelling and be nice to her. I said it with jest....but I think he got the point. She whispered "thank you" to me. :) Ha!
I was "arrested" at 10:30am and it was now almost noon. They told me that the magistrate court wouldn't start until 2:30 but that they were going to try and get me in early. One of the officers (the one who wanted to help me get one offense dropped) and I got in my car to drive to the courtroom. I would like to mention that this officer told me to go the wrong way up a one way street right in front of the courthouse and when I mentioned that maybe I could go up the neighboring street and then come back down she said, "Oh, yeah that's a good idea. How long have you been driving? You're a very good driver." Thank you!! I've been trying to tell people this for years!!

Wow, this post is really long. I'll try to speed things along. As I mentioned above, the next step was to go to the courthouse where I would speak with the magistrate. I got there at about 12:30 but he was eating lunch. They told me it would be about 5 minutes. An hour and a half later he was ready for me. I would also like to point out that while we were waiting, the officer who was wanting to help me said that since she had left her work, and came over here just to help me, when this was over she hoped I wouldn't tell her I needed a receipt for anything I gave her. Really??????? Are. You. Kidding. Me? Don't you realize that I'm mostly here on principle??????? I thought it was obvious, but now I think maybe I was the only one who realized that.....I told her I definitely would need a receipt or they would think I stole the money blah blah blah and told her that I appreciated that she wanted to help me but she really didn't need to and she could totally go. She stayed.
The magistrate finished eating lunch and I was led to his chambers. Outside the door the officer stopped me and told me that when they read the offenses I was to say "guilty." When we walked in the magistrate's assistant (who incidentally had been super cranky since I'd walked in 1 1/2 hours ago) pointed to a chair and told me to put my bag down. When I went to sit down where she had pointed she said "No! Stand up!" Oops. Party foul.
They read my offenses again one by one and I admitted my guilt to each one of them. The judge started writing a bunch of stuff down while I waited. I put my hands in my pocket and cranky lady said "Take your hands out of your pocket!!" Oops. Strike two.
After the magistrate finished writing everything down he gave me my sentence. He dropped the offense of not producing my license because I had produced it. My sentence was 200,000 leones (about 45 bucks) or 2 months in Pandemba prison. I'll be honest and say the thought crossed my mind to say that I'd take the 2 months in prison please. I wonder what kind of ruckus THAT would have caused. Ha! I giggle to myself just thinking about it. Probably wouldn't be giggling after day 1 though.
It's now almost 2:30. I need to pay my fine, get my receipt and get the heck out of there. I pay the fine to cranky lady and she tells me they will come with my receipt shortly or maybe I can wait until Monday. Sorry lady. I've spent 4 hours in this funhouse already. I am NOT leaving without my receipt. So I told her I'd wait. I start chatting with some of the officers who are waiting for the various court cases to start and text my friends and family to tell them I'm in the slammer. :) Sorry for the heart attack Mom. :)
At about 2:45 they send me to wait in the peanut gallery. As I'm waiting the magistrate comes out and the first case begins. Husband vs. wife in a "failure to support the wife and children since leaving 7 months ago." FYI per the magistrate, the wife cannot demand spousal or child support while she is still married. She needs to file for divorce first. Just in case you were wondering.
As interesting as it was to watch the legal proceedings, I had been waiting for my receipt for about 45 min. and was afraid they were going to forget about me. This is the first time that I start to feel frustrated. I mean....45 minutes to write out a receipt???
I noticed that cranky lady was leaving the courtroom periodically so I snuck out so I could ask her about my receipt the next time she left. She told me I needed to wait a little longer. They were coming with it. 15 minutes later they came with the receipts (there were a bunch of us waiting for them) but wouldn't give me mine because she needed to make a copy. I let her know I was frustrated. It had been 5 hours. I still needed to go to the internet place before it closed or I wouldn't be able to pay the WMT employees tomorrow, which I'm sure they wouldn't appreciate it.
Looking back, my biggest regret is that I let her see that I was frustrated. How cool would it have been if I never showed any anger at all the whole time??? Darn. Maybe next time.
Anyway, during this time I was chatting with the people around me. One guy came up to me and said, "Hey, you like justice."
"Sorry, what?"
"They told me what happened. That the officer wanted money and you told them you had to have a receipt. You really like justice."
"Ha, yeah," I said. But inside I thought, "Why yes, yes I do really like justice. And thank you for noticing!"
Thirty minutes later I had my receipt in hand. V.I.C.T.O.R.Y!!!!! (Incidentally I spent those 30 minutes trying to convince a 23 year old kid that if he is farsighted, he really does need to wear his glasses.....even if his friends call him "Harry Potter."
Left the courthouse, got my internet fixed and picked up some material to make some curtains for my house. All in all, not a bad day. :)
My day was fine though, because I had the 45 bucks to pay the fine. This experience gave me insight into why taxi drivers always pay the little bribes to the officers when pulled over (which they are pulled over all the time!) There's no way they could afford this fine which means they'd have to spend months in prison...not earning any money for their families. It just made me madder at the whole system! My little personal crusade was something I could afford to do, while others couldn't. I'm not saying it justifies the corruption, but my experience has helped me to understand the complexities. Maybe we could get all the taxi drivers together, collectively decide NOT to pay any more bribes....hhmmm....interesting. Taxi drivers of Sierra Leone Unite!!!
Anyway, it was an experience. Not one that I'd necessarily like to repeat but I don't regret having it. At least I got a good Facebook shock and awe comment out of it. :)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a great laugh!!! I needed that today! Only you, Emily, only you! Thanks for sharing your experiences with all of us!