Several weeks ago we were preparing for a trip to East Kasai. Part of the preparation always involves fixing and maintaining the Land Cruiser. One day Tatu Sammy (the driver), Tatu Tshibuabua (the mechanic) and I were driving to town to have some parts repaired. We stopped at one place but they weren’t able to help us. On our way to the next place, driving along one of the major arteries in Kananga, a police officer waved for us to pull over next to the large market. To my chagrin, Tatu Sammy evaded the police officer’s instruction and kept driving, egged on by Tatu Tshibuabua in the back. In vain, I tried to convince Sammy to heed the police officer and pull over. It was too late. We were gone!
Less than a kilometer later, we made our second stop, not too far from the large market. Within a few minutes, two police officers arrived on a motorcycle, both donning their large riot helmets. As you might guess, they were not pleased with us and a heated argument ensued. Tatu Sammy played it cool, acting as if he hadn’t done anything wrong. Tatu Tshibuabua accused the police officer who attempted to stop us of being “a foreigner” and always stopping people for no reason. Somehow, the welder whom we had come to see became the arbiter of our dispute, as both parties were defending themselves to him. To complicate matters further, our vehicle was now blocking the side road. A motorcycle with three passengers tried to squeeze by, but failed. The motorcycle tagged the side of our car as the driver unsuccessfully tried to pass. Thankfully all three passengers were okay, but to the driver’s misfortune, he was then harassed by the police for not having a driving license. The police took possession of his motorcycle. By God’s grace I was able to stay calm in the midst of what felt like growing chaos.
Eventually I got out of the Land Cruiser and sat with the others outside of the welder’s compound. Tatu Sammy pulled me aside and asked for 5,000 francs (about $5) to appease the police. Feeling that we were clearly in the wrong, I suggested instead that we go with them to the police station. Tatu Sammy roundly rejected this idea, stating that going to the police station would only complicate matters. I gave Sammy the money, but told him that he would need to pay me back. He agreed. Tatu Sammy went to make amends with the disgruntled police officers, but they wouldn’t comply. They wanted $20, which we flatly rejected. I pulled Sammy aside and asked him if he had his driving license. He said that he left it in the vehicle of the Legal Representative, the car he normally drives. I gently chided him, asking if that was the reason that he evaded the police. Humbly he acknowledged that yes, that was the reason. He also informed me that Tatu Tshibuabua had gone to see the chief of police of the entire province, a probable advocate since Tatu Tshibuabua regularly works on his vehicle. Apparently Tshibuabua had told Sammy that we shouldn’t have to pay anything. About ten minutes later Tatu Tshibuabua arrived on a motorcycle taxi. With an air of unadulterated confidence, he handed a note to the two police officers. They read it and dutifully let us go. We were scot free.
Driving away there was a palpable sense of victory amongst our small band. We won our little quarrel with the police. On the exterior I couldn’t help but bask in the victory, but inside, I knew that we were at fault. Tatu Sammy was in the wrong for not pulling over. He acted to save face, thus getting us into more trouble. Yet, here we were, driving away with no fine, no penalty, no consequence. Sometimes living in Congo feels like living in the Wild West, where laws are bendable and what matters most is “who you know.” In this case, we knew the right person and we were thus exonerated despite our guilt. The next time I drove with Sammy, the first thing I asked him was, “Do you have your license?”