Weird Wednesday: Outdumbing Mozambique’s Police

Nampula, Mozambique – March 2016

Were they cops or robbers?

The Nampula police had checkpoints on the major roads where drivers would bring their registration and a small “tip” before continuing on their journey. They also wandered the city streets, asking white people for their passports. They would scan your visa for two or three minutes and then inform you that your visa isn’t valid. They would never ask for a bribe, but after a couple of minutes of fruitless explanations of your visa’s validity, they would ask you what we could do about it. You offer the bribe, pay a couple of bucks, and continue your day. Done. If $2.00 was worth avoiding the trouble of being arrested, you paid.

Or maybe you would refuse a bribe and call their bluff. I chose the latter today.

I left the hostel where I was staying to head to the central market for vegetables. I thought about bringing my passport, but the market was two blocks away and seemed like a great place to be pickpocketed. Naturally, I ran into two police officers. “Passport?,” the more assertive of the two asked. I said that I didn’t have it with me, but it was at my hostel a block away.

“Why don’t you have your passport? All foreigners must carry their passport here.”

“I know that I made a mistake, but I was so close to the market that I did not think to bring it. The hostel is just a block away.”

“It’s a crime here to not have your passport,” the officer told me.

“Yes, it was dumb of me not to bring it. Should we go to the hostel and I can show you?”

“No, that’s not my job,” he told me. “It’s your responsibility. You don’t have your passport. How can we fix this?” Ah, how can we fix this. This was where I was supposed to offer the bribe. I decided not to. Instead I slumped my shoulders and started mouthbreathing. I commited myself to outdumbing the officer.

“Maybe you can call the hostel. I am registered there and they can bring the passport.”

“No, this is not my job. You made the mistake. My job isn’t to fix this. That is your job. Now what should we do?”

I stuttered, avoided eye contact, and said I didn’t know what we could do to fix this.

This cycle of questioning continued for another five minutes: the officer asking what we should do, me replying that we should contact the hostel. I convinced them that I was too dense to realize what they were looking for. I was amused as I watched the officer tap his baton impatiently, faster and faster as the conversation went deeper and deeper into the dead end.

He finally snapped. “I told you many times! Calling them or walking there with you isn’t my job!”

“Ok,” I said, “Let’s go to the station.”

“You don’t want to go to the station.”

“If we can not go to the hostel then we must go to the station.”

He asked if I was sure that I wanted to go to the police station.

“I don’t want to but I think we have no other options,” I said.

“Do you want to sleep in jail?” He asked me.

“I will call the U.S. Consulate when we arrive at the station. Your immigration officers required two photos and a long application before issuing me a visa. They took my visa and fingerprints when I arrived in Mozambique. This will be fixed quickly. I won’t sleep in jail.”

I felt bad for saying that. I realized that I was now the teenage brat threatening to call his powerful dad when he got in trouble, but the sleep in jail bit was silly and I really wanted to get on with my day. The quieter officer sent a text message to somebody and then looked at me and giggled. The quieter of the two finally talked to me.“I will let you go, but know it is important to have your passport with you. You are a stranger here. You must always have it with you or you will find trouble. You can go to the market now.”

I told him that it was a better idea if I walked back to the hostel to get my passport before shopping, but he insisted that I go to the market. After I said a third time that I should get my passport first, he stopped asking me to go to the market. He stood in my way and told me to go to the market. I turned around and headed towards the vegetable market.

There was another pair of police officers standing at the entrance to the market. Of course. These two were bigger, older, and grumpier. They were the varsity team. They started into the same lecture as the other officers: you’re a stranger here, you’re required to have your passport with you at all times, we take the law very seriously here, et cetera. I apologized and explained that my passport was two blocks away and that the other officers told me to come to the market with out it. They scowled when I told them that I didn’t bring my phone or passport because robbers are all over the city and I didn’t feel comfortable carrying valuables in town. I guess it’s a bad idea to tell a police officer that his city, with lots of armed police on constant patrol, is covered in robbers. The officers now skipped the formalities and told me that it was a crime to travel without a passport and that I would be punished. The laws here are different and it’s the traveller’s responsibility to know them before entering, they explained.

I about lost my temper. If they wanted to ticket me, fine me, or arrest me, fine. This sanctimonious garbage from officers who ignore people selling stolen cell phones in plain sight, drivers not slowing down for red lights on busy streets, and people throwing trash everywhere, but instead spend their day stopping white people on the sidewalk to harass them was too much for me. I kept my composure and told him “I made a mistake. I don’t have my passport with me. You’re right that I should have thought about this before leaving. Let’s go to the station. I’ll call the U.S. consulate and get this cleared up quickly. Let’s stop wasting time here.”

The officers looked at each other and gave me a final tongue-lashing. Then they told me to leave. I bought some vegetables and took the side road back to the hostel.

I almost feel bad about my attitude. Almost. Maybe there is a community of Scottish students who have overstayed their student visas and are now trying to overthrow the government of Mozambique. Canada-born Sven Jacobson may be the most notorious bank robber in the country. Mozambican national security may depend on the police cracking down on the horrific crime wave coming from visitors of European descent. Or maybe the cops are racist pigs who look at all white people as suckers who can be easily harassed and coerced without complaining.

Walking without my passport was somewhere between irresponsible and a crime. I had no doubt about that. I was bratty and handled things like the son of a congressman who had been caught driving drunk. If I hadn’t been born with a U.S. Passport they may have arrested me. I understand all of this. If they would have issued me a ticket or a legal fine I would have paid it. If they would have arrested me I wouldn’t have fought it. But I won’t offer a bribe. I had enough to worry about with the constant stream of robbers and refused to be worried about paying off the police as well.

The police left me alone after that day.

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