Sunday, February 10, 2008

Zimbabwe - A run-in with the "cops"

Ah! I almost forgot the best story of them all!! The day after we visited The Rock, we ran some errands before heading out of Bulawayo for the week - and I got into a bit of trouble.

Adam and I went into town to buy a rain coat for the Bishop's daughter, who's in secondary school near where we were heading. Seems like a simple thing, right? Not in Zimbabwe...

Adam & I found the store, and when we got there, there was a huge crowd queued up out front. This is the whole problem with Zimbabwe right now - there's never anything on the shelves and when they get something in stock everyone lines up to wait for it. Luckily, we got there just as the doors were opening and so we pressed into the store with the rest of the crowd. As a good documentary photographer, I was taking pictures. Granted, I know that's illegal there, but I thought if I held my camera on top of my bag, and shot without looking, maybe I could get some shots without drawing attention to myself. Sounds like a great plan, right? Well, I was wrong.

We were in line waiting to buy the coat, and a guy came over telling me he was a policeman. (He wasn't wearing a uniform or anything, but he could have been part of the CIO). He told me that I can't take pictures in the shop. I apologized and said I would put it away, no problem. Acted as innocent as I could, smiled real big, and kept saying that I just had it out and didn't realize that'd be a problem. So, I shoved it back in my shootsac and acted like it was no big deal and he walked away. But as we're buying the coat, I see this guy telling everyone he passes that I have a camera. So, I'm trying not to freak out, and praying that this will be the end of it.

We go outside and start walking towards the car when this guy comes up with another "cop" in plain clothes. They tell me that I'm not allowed to take pictures. I say, I didn't realize and I've put my camera away and that I don't have any pictures (not entirely true, but I was freaking out and afraid that I could be taken to jail and start an international incident or something - not exaggerating). I showed the guy photos from the sunset the night before trying to show him that there's nothing bad on the card. I even tried showing them a photo of the store I took outside and deleting it in front of them, in hopes that that would pacify the situation. The guy just yelled at me and said that just because I delete the evidence doesn't mean I didn't commit the crime! They said that maybe we should just go down to the police station (eeek!) and I asked (as respectfully as possible) if they had some sort of badge and could identify themselves as officers. They acted offended and said "let's just go to the central station." So, I tried desperately to call Ryan at TCZ while Adam tried to rationalize with these guys.

I couldn't get through to the seminary, and they just kept harassing us. My friend Adam was trying to be very diplomatic and helpful, but basically made me freak out worse. As I'm trying to text Ryan, I hear Adam ask the guys to call over the police officer in uniform on the other side of the road. What the crap?!?! I think he thought that if these guys weren't cops, that that would scare them off. Well, it didn't! So, in a swift move, I formatted my memory card and got rid of all the pictures (in the end that wasn't necessary, but better safe than arrested in Zimbabwe!). The real cop comes over and talks to the guys in Ndbele and then the guys decide that we should drive them to the police station. They actually want to get in our car! I'm freaking out! Adam is trying to talk to them about "compensating them for their time" dealing with us. Meanwhile, we've been there for 30 minutes and are drawing a crowd. So, the guys get in the car, we drive around the corner and Adam starts trying to bribe them. That takes so long that 2 real cops come stand by the car - which freaks out the fake cops and we drive around another corner. Adam tries to bribe them with the equivalent of $3 US - they're offended and let us know that the bribe will be split with the real cop too so it needs to be more. So, then Adam tries the 3,000,000 Zim plus American cash. Instead of using a larger bill, he tries a ONE DOLLAR BILL! By that point I was almost more angry with my friend than these guys. ONE DOLLAR?????? Either bribe them or flatly refuse and drive away, but geez! They were, of course, offended again.

In the end, we got away with giving them 7,000,000 Zim dollars ($7 US) and a couple bags of chips.

It was the strangest experience of my life. And I thank God that they weren't actually police or CIO, and that we made it out with our freedom in tact, if not our dignity and definitely not the photos...

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