By Diana Lee
As I'd worked in Africa as a volunteer for two years, I knew traveling through that continent would be rough, especially at borders. I vividly remember the day of arrival at the border of Tanzania that this dreadful event took place....
It wasn't the first and I knew it wouldn't be the last encounter with a corrupt officer who habitually extorted money from innocent victims like me. He, like many guards strutting in uniform, thought he could wield his power with a rifle in his hand and a threatening voice over civilians, especially women who appeared weak, scared, and helpless. The corrupt officials preyed on vulnerable individuals -- Africans and foreigners, rich and poor, men and women -- whenever an opportunity arose to enrich themselves with their victims' loot. Many times I'd watched natives cowered to their demands by surrendering their meager possessions of food and livestock, and foreigners quietly complied by pressing folds of cash into outstretched palms. Cash (U.S. dollars), highly valued and easily dispensable in black markets, has always been considered the prize of the loot.
So after a bumpy ride through the savanna of Kenya with the majestic Mt. Kilimanjaro in the backdrop, I recalled what any traveler feared the most -- a confrontation with an armed avaricious officer. Determined not to be a victim of this vicious extortion scheme, I carried the exact amount of cash in U.S. dollars to apply for a tourist visa to Tanzania and a few Kenyan shillings in my small purse. My friend, Laurel, who had already gotten her Tanzanian visa in Kenya, passed through the checkpoint smoothly as she waited on the other side of the border.
After examining the application and seeing my American passport, the heavyset official wearing a black beret questioned me:
"How long will you stay?"
"About ten days," I answered.
"Where are you staying?"
"My friend and I are here to visit a friend in Dar-es-Salaam."
"How much U.S. dollars are you carrying?"
"Just the amount for a visa."
"Really? You have no cash," he said, peering at me.
"None. I'm traveling with a friend who will cover for me and we'll be staying with our Tanzanian friend."
"Hmm...no money, traveler's checks, credit cards?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.
I shook my head.
"I don't believe you."
"Well, I don't need money when I'm traveling with a companion."
Then he stood up behind the counter and ordered a guard to search my backpack a second time. By now, I realized that he wasn't going to authorize a visa unless I did something.
"Why can't I get a visa? You got the visa money. What's holding it up?" I demanded in a high-pitched voice that carried to the end of the line. There was a stir among visitors waiting behind me. A few voices drifted above the commotion: "What's going on?" "Why is she held up?" "It doesn't look right...."
He quickly motioned me to enter the backroom. I glanced over to Laurel who looked petrified. I knew she was worried for me to enter that place alone without a witness. Headlines of beatings and rapes of women flashed across my mind, but I was set on being one step ahead of my opponent. Then I noticed two Africans, who stood next to Laurel, were raising their voices in protest.
"I'll be all right. Just wait for me," I shouted at Laurel, making sure everyone at the checkpoint heard me.
A soldier escorted me into the dark dinky quarters where a lonely chair awaited me in the center of the room. Sitting on the creaky wooden chair, I noticed an old Tanzania map hanging on the wall behind a large desk flanked by two metallic file cabinets. Against one side of the wall, a large table displayed a rich assortment of souvenirs (probably confiscated) -- elephant tusks, wooden carvings, masks, etc. The room has two small windows with half-closed shutters blocking out most of the bright sunlight. And a ceiling fan, slowly spinning and wheezing, gave little relief to the stifling air in the room.
When the portly officer entered, the guard closed the door behind him. The officer folded his hands and spoke in a suppressed voice: "You don't seem to understand what's going on here. You want to cross the border. And I want something from you."
"What do you want from me?"
"Where are you hiding your money?" he asked behind his desk, looking me in the eyes.
"I told you so many times, I have no cash, except what you'd find in my purse."
"Uhuh...I don't need to do a body search, do I?"
"Do you see anything on me? I'm wearing just a T-shirt and jeans," I said, feeling unbearably hot.
He waved me to stand up, walked toward him and turned around. As he came over with his baton, he tapped me on my back, waist and along my legs.
"Sit down!" he commanded, returning to his seat. "I know you have money. You're hiding it somewhere."
"Look, this is ridiculous. You found nothing in my backpack or on me. Why are you insisting that I'm hiding something?" I raised my voice while remained standing.
"You're not afraid that...something can happen to you?" he said with a menace look.
"Should I? My friend is waiting on the other side of the border and many people outside wondering what's going on in here. If anything happens to me, I'm sure your government will hear about it from my government."
He leaned back in his chair and said in a stern voice: "Sit down!"
I sat down and glared at him.
He pondered for a moment with his hand propped up against his chin. Then he leaned over his desk with a scowl. "Give me your purse," he ordered.
I tossed my purse onto the desk. He emptied it, gathered the loose Kenyan shillings and shoved them into his pocket.
"You're not taking every shilling, are you?" I protested, "That's all I have! What about my bush taxi fare to Arusha?"
He looked up, hesitated, and pushed a few coins toward me. "Here, you'll have enough to buy a cup of coffee," he sneered.
I picked up the loose change, my purse and left the room.
Laurel with her new found friends gasped in relief as they saw me emerged from the border post. "Are you all right?" she asked, "He didn't hurt....?"
"No, but he robbed me," I answered.
"He took all your money?" the tall African asked.
"No, just my Kenyan shillings," I said.
"He was a crooked officer," the other African added and then froze as he caught a glimpse of the corrupt officer watching us.
Then the man in the black beret stepped forward and waved to our new friends to enter the backroom. Pointing fingers to themselves, our friends inquisitively looked at the officer. He answered with a nod.
Then we exchanged worried looks with one another.
"I'm so sorry if we got you in trouble," Laurel apologized.
"Don't go," I urged.
"We have to because we're Tanzanians. He can track us down anytime," the tall one spoke from the side of his mouth.
"We'll wait here for you," Laurel assured them.
After thirty minutes, our friends emerged with their foreheads creased in deep furrows. A bush taxi arrived just then as we quickly got on board. We asked them what had happened in the backroom. We had to know since they risked their necks for us. The tall Tanzanian sighed as he explained how the corrupt officer threatened to go after them and their families if they ever breathed a word about this incident to anyone. We got into a long discussion about whether to report the incident but finally decided to drop it since my loss was minimal and reporting it would only jeopardize our Tanzanian friends' lives.
As we traveled a good distance away from the border, Laurel finally asked, "By the way, where did you hide all your money?"
"Right here in my money belt," I answered, pointing to the thick leather belt that I was wearing on my waist. We all broke down in a roar of laughter. And it grew louder as we jounced in the bush taxi towards Arusha.
Upon reflection, if it hadn't been for this incident, we wouldn't have met two wonderful and principled Tanzanians, Siade and Alex, who not only became our hospitable hosts but also our true and devoted friends. Without a doubt, my visit to Tanzania was one of the best memories I have of Africa.
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