Sorry, Officer, I just don’t do fines.
Days go by and I often forget how life in Africa can be so different than life in the States. Events from this past weekend remind me that I am going to really miss Tanzania when I leave in June.
On Saturday, I was driving to a friend’s house when I was stopped by a policeman who flagged me down from the side of the road. In Swahili, he asked for my license and then asked for me to show him that the brakes, lights, windshield wipers, etc. work. Seeing that everything worked properly, he started talking about something outside the car. Unfamiliar with these Swahili words, I got out to see that he was pointing to rust on the side of the car. He led me around the car to point out all the spots that had some rust. I replied in English (due to my limited Swahili) that it’s true, that it is an old car. He told me that the rust was “a problem” and that I would have to pay a fine of 20,000 Tanzanian Shillings (about $18). Flabbergasted, I responded saying, “I’m very sorry, but I don’t do fines. Please just take me to court.” We argued about it for a few minutes. He kept saying that court was unnecessary, but I insisted that I preferred going to court. He then left with my license to deal with another driver. Returning five to ten minutes later, he asked if I was ready for the fine papers. I said no, and insisted that I just wanted the court date. Having grown up in East Africa, I know all too well of the common occurrence of “kitu kidogo” (Swahili for the polite way of asking for a bribe). At that moment, I remembered that humor was probably my best tactic. In broken Swahili, I laughed saying that receiving a court date was better for me since I would just get the owner who I borrowed the car from to show for court. He then laughed with me and finally he let me go.
Sunday brought me more amusement. I was walking from my home to the grocery store to buy some margarine when I met an eleven-year-old girl named Mariam on the road. She struck up conversation with me since we were walking in the same direction. Although she was from my neighborhood, she looked like a typical village girl, all except for the fact that she was wearing slippers instead of walking barefoot. She had a sarong wrapped around her over a ragged, oversized dress. On her head, she carried a large, heavy plastic bucket of rice which she was taking to the mill to be processed into flour for her mother’s roadside snack business. She rejected my offer to assist her with the bucket and made her own offer to carry my umbrella.
Walking side-by-side, we used up all the Swahili I know. Going an extra half-mile out of her way, she accompanied me to the grocery store, located (ironically) at the most modern mall in Tanzania. The contrast between this girl, with the big bucket on her head, and the westernized mall around us intrigued me. After buying the margarine and some chocolate, as was her request, we then walked to complete her chore down some muddy back roads where chickens dart across the street. Somehow, at the end of the walk, I felt like we were two peas in a pod.
Making friends and laughter with strangers is an everyday experience here that I will dearly miss when I go. Life in Tanzania is lived in a sense of community in which people prefer to sit with strangers than to sit alone. I find that if I am ever alone at a roadside restaurant waiting for a friend, people who come in and see me by myself often choose to join my table although there are empty ones nearby. Not only do they want to “alleviate” me from my aloneness, these strangers courteously welcome me with a “karibu” to the food they have ordered. Life, I am ever finding out, becomes richer and more amusing when we all accept each other as peas in a pod.