Thursday, November 13, 2008

Racial Profiling- Uganda Style

Here is one of the highlights of this past week.

There is much positive talk in travel guidebooks and amongst other Muzungus (foreigners) here about safety in Kampala. You can walk around at anytime, even till mid-night and beyond, without feeling threatened. I can attest to the above sentiments; I routinely stay at the internet café till about midnight and occasionally even later before embarking on a 13 minute walk back to my apartment.

On Thursday, I left the café at 1 am. As I walked back home I saw a black owl, about a feet tall, on a street signpost.  The post was about eye level; even though I walked on the far end of the road I was still less than 15-feet from the animal. The owl starred and twisted its neck about 180 degrees as it watched me walk by. Black owl, hmmm… probably a not-so-good sign.

Earlier that day, as a result of some changes in my living arrangements, I had moved to a new apartment about a block from my old place. On my way back from the café I decided to move a few last things; I had some clothes that I could not move since they had been wet from recently being washed. I put the clothes neatly in a small box that fit right under one arm and I had my computer bag around the other shoulder.

After taking a few steps outside the gate of the old place, a security/police officer walks up to me. I started chatting with the guy and told him I was moving; little did I know I was a suspect being questioned. The policeman had a huge gun, probably an AK-47 and a 6-foot long metallic rod; these accessories are routinely seen on security officers all over the city. The barrage of questions begun: “Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? What are you doing at Makerere University? How long have you been here? Why are you walking around at night? What are you carrying? Do you have any identification? What program are you with? ...” So I answer all these questions and explain that I just moved to the new place a few steps from where we were. Fortunately, I had both my Yale and Makerere IDs with me. I also had a flashlight, which I used to show him the clothes. He proceeded to checkout my computer; “How sure am I that you did not steal this?” I opened the computer to show him my name on the settings. All the while, I was going with the flow; I had everything he asked to see and expected to be ‘released.’

After showing him all the evidence that I was a foreign visiting student, –anyone would garner that fact from the different accent the moment I begun speaking to him –he decided I had broken the law. My offence was walking around Kampala past midnight. He went on to say, “I am sure you got a proper orientation when you arrived in Kampala, but you decided to do what you want. This is Uganda and that is the rule. I will have to take you to the station.” All the confidence I had till that point suddenly dissipated. What in the world do you do in the face of  an unreasonable officer with a gun? I was utterly on the losing end of the exchange, and I could not run. I attempted appealing to his reason again, but it seemed to go now where.

So my options were going to the station as well as either paying a fine of 20K shillings or spending the night in detention. Either way, I still had to go to the station; there was no bargaining. I told him to get the police vehicle and take me there immediately so I could get the ordeal over. The cop says,” There is no car. You will have to carry your things and walk with me to the station. Also, there is no guarantee we would release you after you pay the fine. We may have to keep you for the night for your own safety.” I cannot remember my exact response, but as I simultaneously said a prayer, I responded in an irritated and firmer tone. Reasoning with this cop certainly could not get me out of the mess and I had had enough of the pushing around. I made it clear that my options were paying the fine or staying in detention at the station. I was not going anywhere until he was explicit that doing both was not an option. I was not in a position to make demands, but what the h#$%. Then I said, “Do you want me to call the US embassy?”

About 40 minutes had passed with the back-and-forth. I was done talking, the cop continued blabbing and 5 or so minutes later decided that he would let me go.

If I were white, like other Muzungus, would this cop have stopped me? Almost certainly not. Would he have let me go if I did not feign being American? Probably not.

It has not being much of surprise to me that white folks in Kampala are treated differently, as it probably is the case in many African countries as well as other developing ones. But, what continually shocks me is the lack of regard we show when we Africans treat one another. From these few weeks in Uganda, it seems if someone is not a family member, employing you, richer than you or a Muzungu, you have the license to treat him/her shitty. People care so much for their family members, but the idea of dignity for humanity does not extend to people one passes on the street, patients one treats in the hospital or other regular folks. I would dare say that our lack of respect for ourselves and others is a major obstacle that must be overcome for true progress. Respect for oneself would translate to having the same expectations from others and from the government. Having the mindset of self respect and dignity does not have any monetary costs but yet is invaluable; all the loans and aid from the IMF and World Bank cannot buy it. Our obligations must extend beyond immediate family to the nation and humanity at large.

It is unfortunate that Africans are treated as second class citizens in the West and even in their own countries.


                                                The End


I still have other posts in the works; I’ll shoot for early next week. Other highlights of the past week: going on a Safari for the first time ever and seeing wild animals in the wild; my laptop dying, finding an Apple store and partially resurrecting the machine, and spending time on the cancer ward.

Quote of the day 

“We have so many floor patients today.” 3rd year Senior House officer at Mulago  after a night of 70 admissions in the emergency department with about half of the patients with mattresses on the floor 

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