I awoke before the sun rose (4:45am) and hoped in a taxi to Ubungu bus station to catch my bus to Mbeya. I had a seat very close to the front and could watch the driver’s every move. We left the station on time- 6am, impresive- as the morning sun illuminated the sky. People were bustling around and I saw plenty of school children in their uniforms
(usually a white shirt, and either blue, red, green or purple skirts, shorts or pants, if it’s cold they have a complimentary color sweater).
I was exhausted from running around DAR the day before and I never sleep that well when I know I have to get up super early in the morning, nervous I could miss my bus. I closed my eyes and didn’t open them until 10am.4 hrs down. I didn’t feel like I slept but I must have.
It wasn’t before long until we hit a police checkpoint. They seem to be every 50km or so- too frequent in my opinion. They always chat with the driver, take down the license plate # and wave the bus on through. What the passengers don’t see is money being exchanged. Dala dala, public bus, or coaches all seem to get stopped as well as cars. This time around, two police officers got on board and asked to see the passports of a woman in front of me and one sitting beside me… this would begin my frustrations.
The woman in front of me, Fatma, was Somali, born and raised in Kenya and completed secondary school. Her English was excellent. Something I’m keen to notice as most Tanzanians don’t speak English well, especially in non touristy areas or in the villages, English is non-existent. Her passport was fine, she questioned why he was asking for it. “Because it’s my duty and my right, he said coldly. I looked at him harshly curious of the whole situation and wondering why the hell he wasn’t checking anyone else’s passport! The police tried creating a problem for the woman sitting beside me (cousin of the Somali woman). He also wanted to see her identity card. Hmmm. Last time I checked, your passport served as an identity card. Clearly, he was looking for conflict! He returned her passport and identity card and got off board but we weren’t set to leave. There was an issue with someone else’s passport, another Somali on board ( I think there 5-7 on board). The Somali woman, Fatma, sat for a moment and then said she was going to pay them, otherwise, we were going to be here for ever. I told her, we can wait, it’s not a problem. “No, they’ll keep us here for hours,” she said, speaking from too much experience.
She got off, disappeared and returned telling me she just paid $150 US to the police. I thought that was quite high as most Tanzanians don’t make that in 2 months time. Maybe it was shillings… but even so that would be $120. She showed me her wallet- only 20,000 tsh ($17) remaining and she said all of it would be gone by the time she reached her destination. The police would call the police at the next checkpoint and tell them Somali’s on board/some problem and they’d expect some bribe.
There wasn’t a problem with her or her cousin’s passport but there was an issue with another Somali’s. For the sake of community and helping each other out, she paid the bribe. So I ask, “What happens if you don’t pay (thinking that every time they get bribes it only encourages the problem)? “They would take him to jail,” she responds matter of fact. “Why?” She basically tells me that the police want to cause problems and make money at people’s expense and if you can’t pay, then you go to jail. I realize that to go to jail not only would be horrible but it would cost lots more to bribe your way out. She also tells me that if she argues too much, she risks them tearing up her passport and then saying she has no papers and then they could do as they please. There is documentation in Kenya she has a Kenyan passport but this is Africa and the amount of time to get a new one would be at least 3-4 weeks, if not more, not to mention the chaos and bureaucracy she would endure. NO papers for a month, what would she do and how would she get back into Kenya? It wouldn’t be fun. She’s a tough woman and one who would put u pa fight but she is also well aware of consequences and how far she can go! Corruption at it’s finest!
She explained that Somali’s always face this problem. Tanzania, is an unfriendly country towards Somali’s and always sees what they can get out of them. Currently, Somali’s have no country because of the ongoing conflict and all of them are refugees. They have no power and no government. She says her parents were also born in Kenya but regardless, she faces stigmatization and conflict all the time. However, she is thankful to the UN who provides papers to all Somali refugees- some she says have been relocated to places in Africa, Norway, Europe, and America- Hawaii, Minnesota, Ohio and probably more. I find it strange Somali’s would be relocated to a place so vastly different (climate, especially) than their used to but when you have no country, I imagine you’re simply happy to have a place to flee and create Somali communities elsewhere.
We continued on our way and it wasn’t less than an hour away that we were stopped again and this time an immigration officer stepped on board. I assume as he was wearing a light blue unform instead of the light brown one as police officer’s do. He asked to see their passports and I gave him a dirty look, in hopes that some sense and embarrassment would sink into him. But it’s Africa, and it’s corrupt as heck and why the hell does he care if a young, white woman knows what’s going on or what I think of it? Then, he asked for mine. I hesitated, looked at him and then took it out when he asked again. I didn’t like the feeling of having my passport looked at. I opened it up the page of my visa extension, not wanting him to think that I had overstayed and how much money he could make from me. He handed it back within 15 seconds. I can’t imagine how it must be for Fatma and the Somali community to always be in question.
After this checkpoint, she handed over the 20,000 tsh to the manager of the bus. I never saw any money exchanged or any more police getting onboard but when I asked, Fatma explained that at every checkpoint, an assistant on the bus would get off, chat for a moment with the police-hand over some money- and we’d be on our way. Why, of course. I did notice but I didn’t think what was happening. All the chatting is always in Kiswahilli.
Fatma has ambitions get a visa for a Western country, attend university and speak out for her people. Create awareness of the situation. She said she had emailed Tyra Banks but her email never went through. I gave her my email and # and told her to email me and I could do my best to forward the messages to Tyra and Oprah.
I barely missed my stop for Mbeya as I was the only to get off. Luckily I had put some money in my shirt and quickly handed Fatma 15,000tsh ($12). Maybe it sounds like a lot, maybe not enough… but I know she can use it more than I can. She later texted me saying how much she appreciated what I did for her. I know she didn’t expect it and that made the giving so much more powerful. (in Tanzania, everyone expects something from you if you have white skin, they think you owe them or somehow you should just give, I will never wrap my head around it. I don’t believe in dependency)
I wish I had a magic wand. I wish I had the power to set all the damn corrupt officers straight and yet I know this goes on everywhere in Africa and plenty of other places in the world. It even happens in good ole’ America! Corruption isn’t new it just evolves in different forms. In America, it’s often hidden or they at least try. However, there are also more resources, non-profits and support networks for people facing discrimination, stigmatization etc.
I count my blessings. I realize how free I am. I attended university, studied what I wanted without too much concern of job prospects, saved money and have the possibility to travel and witness other ways of living. Her dream seems relatively possible from a western stand point but living in Kenya will be more difficult. I believe in her and know one day she’ll be living her dream. She shines a light for me and I know my life is so much easier. Stress, work, and questions with what I want to do in life seem so petty in comparison. It will never cease to amaze me how such a small world it is but how vastly different our lives can be whether on the other side of the world or 30 miles from my house.