Police Road Block (Tanzania)

There is nothing unusual about a police roadblock in Africa. I have dealt with many in different countries and in different situations. Luckily I never got fined or needed to bribe my way through. The occasion I have been closest to a fine was driving between Muguga and Nairobi in the early 80s. I was caught in double radar trick. This is a simple, crafty and frequently practiced manoeuvre that involves placing two speed traps separated by a few km. You pass one and then, thinking that you escaped, you speed away only to be caught by the real thing a few km further on. On that occasion the policeman had even written the fine but I still managed to get off the hook, I do not know how or why he let me go! A colleague in Kenya said I manage to say the right words in most situations, and my own family fully agrees! I do not know!

In 2010 I went to Arusha for a meeting to discuss a cattle vaccine that was very successful among the Maasai of Tanzania. The meeting over we had the Saturday free as I was flying out on the Sunday. So, we decided to go for a drive to enjoy the countryside, to visit some Maasai manyattas where my veterinary friends needed to do routine check-ups at and end with a visit to the snake park, nothing too exotic.

We left in Beppe and Lieve’s ancient but still serviceable Nissan Patrol with Lieve driving and Beppe as our navigator. I was in the back seat, chatting away with them, trying to catch up on several years of news. After a few km driving towards Moshi we came to a police road block. “Nothing unusual” I thought and my companions agreed, remarking: “They are always here”. There were several cars queuing and also quite a few police officers in sight.

After queuing for a few more minutes, a polite police officer approached and he explained that they were performing a roadworthiness inspection on vehicles “today we are looking at fire extinguishers” he declared. The exchange of looks and a few familiar Italian words in the front seat indicated to me that we may not be within the expected roadworthy condition. After all, the car was quite old and I have never come across anyone who checks their fire extinguisher at regular intervals. It is just there, normally at the feet of the passenger. Well, in our case it was not even there!

Calmly we all argued with the policeman that this was not a very useful check-up, that we were vets in a great hurry to deliver a calf and other plausible excuses that we could think of at the time. No results. The police stood his ground and continued to demand to see our fire extinguisher. Calmly, Beppe got out of the car and walked slowly to the back. Lieve and I waited; we could only talk to each other in English so we remained silent. Noise of objects being shifted around came from the back and, after a while we could here Beppe’s “ecco!” (Italian for “I found it”) and we relaxed a bit. Beppe closed the back doors and walked with the extinguisher towards the police, smiling. “Here it is, bwana” and then added “it is a bit old but still good”. What an optimistic remark! It was a rusty cylinder, once red, with arather defaced label, consequence of many years of dust rubbing against the car tools and the jack. We all nodded our approval and waited for the outcome.

The policeman, unmoved, had a look at the piece of rust and declared that it was totally unsuitable and, worse still, that we could not drive the car until we acquired a new one that followed the Tanzania road specifications that we clearly ignored. There was apparently no “fine and go” involved but a prohibition of movement on the spot! We pleaded in various ways to no avail and then got rather frustrated with the situation and asked what the solution was, fearing the possible bribe. “You can buy a new one” he announced. “But where?” we said in a pathetic choir and added, “there is no shop/petrol station here”. “You can buy one from me now” he said. We looked at each other and could not help a chuckle but kept our straight faces as much as we could. We asked the cost and tried to bargain but it was not possible so we asked him to bring it while we collected the money.

Beppe was still outside, holding our rusted tool while the policeman walked towards the sentry box, and opened the door. We could not believe our eyes: the box was full to the brim with extinguishers!. He picked one and came back to offer it to Beppe. The latter, in a last ditch attempt of avoiding buying the item at an inflated price proceeded to compare the kind of fires that each could put out in what I thought was a probably unfruitful but clever and brave attempt, nonetheless. It was clear that he had hatched the plan while we waited for the policeman and had spent a great deal of time reading the damaged label. He held both in his hands and explained that both could put off petrol, plastic and electric fires but that ours could also stamp out fabric fires! Beppe grasped the opportunity and declared “Mine is better than yours as it can control more kinds of fires”

For the first time the policeman showed hesitance and Beppe seized his chance: “no need to buy an inferior product” he declared with aplomb and conviction. The policeman recovered fast and suggested that we checked the functioning of our rotten tool. Beppe removed the safety pin and pressed the trigger. Nothing happened. He tried again and, again, he got nothing. A third attempt that involved violent shaking of the extinguisher and hard pressing produced about 3 cm of a substance resembling yellow toothpaste! Without saying another word, Beppe threw the rusted cylinder into the nearest ditch, collected our money, counted it, paid, got the new cylinder, gave the policeman a handshake and quietly got in the car. “Let’s go” was the only thing he said. We went and, for a long while none of us had anything to say and then we all burst out laughing.

We moved on with a new extinguisher towards an enjoyable day together.

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