Monday, August 6, 2012

My Day in a Kenyan Jail



It was last Friday evening.  I had just finished a vespers service as part of the way our Church observes the Dormition of the Theotokos Fast (The Falling Asleep/Death of the Virgin Mary).  I was taking friends home.  Traffic was terrible.  I went to a road that I believed would not be as clogged as the one we tried first.  I turned right, wending my way through stalled traffic coming the other way (remember Kenyan traffic flows like British traffic and not like American or Ethiopian traffic), unfortunately straight by a policeman who promptly flagged me down.  Actually I wasn’t moving anywhere anyway.


A long conversation ensued with me inching along in traffic and the policeman walking beside my window, checking my license and telling me again and again that I had broken the law by turning right when a right turn was forbidden by a sign.  And I kept saying, ‘I’m sure you are right and if there was a sign back there saying don’t turn right and I turned right, then I did wrong.  I’m sorry.  I must have said that four times.  Evidently I was not giving him the correct answer so he ordered me to take him to the Kilimani police station.  Had I remembered my rights, I would have refused and told him that he could get himself there, as under Kenyan law no policeman may commandeer a car in a situation like this.  But I forgot and took him there.  I offered to drop my friends off at the bus stop, but they insisted on coming.  I think they were concerned at what might happen.  Anyway I was very glad they came.

At the police station, a very large hue and cry was made by my arresting officer about how I had broken the law and that now I would have to ‘go to court’.  I answered, You are absolutely correct, I have broken the law.  Go ahead and do what you must.  Write the ticket.  I will pay whatever penalty I must because I respect the laws of this land. Again, this went back and forth a couple of times.  Evidently I was giving the wrong answer.

One of his police colleagues who had been watching all this came up to me and said, So you are not arguing with him?  And I said, Why should I?  There was a long pause.  Finally the supervisor came in and took me and a friend outside and said, You know you could clear this up right now and be on your way.  To which I said, Look, I broke your law, I respect your law, I just want to do the right thing and the legal thing here.  Evidently I was giving wrong answers right and left.


Back in the police office, I stood before my arresting officer who had finished writing my ticket.  He ordered me to appear at the Kibera Law Courts on Monday at 8 AM.  Then he said I could either post 5000 KSH (about $60 US) cash bail or leave my car in their custody.  I had only 2000 KSH on my person, but couldn’t leave the car with them over the weekend because Stephanie was traveling upcountry on Sunday.  Fortunately one of my friends had 3000 KSH, so together we paid bail.  We were then free to go.  After stopping by an ATM to repay my debt, a grateful me took my friends home and made it back to our house in time for a quick bite and coffee with our dinner guest.   This was Friday night.

Kibera Law Courts
Today, Monday, I went with a Kenyan friend by taxi to the Kibera Law Courts.  Traffic was not horrific, only terrible, and we arrived at 7:45 AM with some time to spare.  So I took my friend and the taxi driver with me to a Kibera dive for chai and mandazi.  Things at the court did not start happening until 9 when they opened the doors and allowed us in.  There were 5 or 6 different court rooms, but through all this no one ever told me which court room my case was to be dealt with.  Eventually, a nice security woman directed me to Courtroom 1, and there we sat and waited for all of the players to assemble.  Finally the judge, a woman, entered and we proceeded to hear a rapid series of criminal cases that were apparently dealing with motions previously filed and which were adjudicated very quickly.  This went on for two hours.  Then they started calling for the traffic cases.  There were about 16 called, all of them dealt with summarily.  The six of them who were called but were not present were ordered by the judge to be arrested.  Then my name was called.  I went, I stood in the dock, I was charged with ‘obstruction,’ I admitted the charge.  The judged fined me 10,000 KSH or 3 months in prison (all this for turning right in a don’t turn right intersection!), and then I was led out of the courtroom and into a holding cell with all of the other criminals and traffic offenders, about thirty of us.


At this point, things had gone as I had anticipated.  I had brought plenty of money so that I could pay the fine.  But while I was standing in the holding cell (fortunately, as an Orthodox Christian, I have a lot of experience standing for long periods of time!), disturbing information began to come my way.  First I learned that I could not pay my fine, someone on the outside had to pay my fine.  Then I had to think about how to get my money to my friend Nicholas – not as easy a proposition when I am in jail and he is on the outside somewhere.  Then I learned that someone with a large fine like mine could not have it paid at the court.  So even if I gave Nicholas my money, they wouldn’t accept it at the Court.  Finally I learned that the only option was to pay the fine at a specific bank into a specific account at a particular shopping center (Prestige) which was several kilometers away.  And of course Nicholas, as a poor college student, does not have my money nor has he money of his own to afford this.  What to do?


During this time, I got to talking to a total stranger who turns out was stopped at the very same intersection for the very same offence.  Turns out he had been on the church staff of a well-known church, and we know many of the same people.  He was very interested in Orthodoxy and we had plenty of time to talk about it.  He and his wife serve as marriage counselor at their present church, so he was very interested in what  happens in a multi-denominational marriage.  We covered a lot of ground.  And he actually had a friend who was coming to help him by paying at the above mentioned bank.  And when he realized that my situation was challenging and I was about to be taken away to the remand prison because I didn’t have anyone to pay my fine, he asked his friend if he would take my money as well, and he agreed.  It turns out that his friend lives on the same university campus where I live, and that I was known to him.  Somehow, the friend got to the back door where all the policemen were guarding our cell and managed to persuade them to allow us to give him our money.  In faith I parted with  my 10,000 KSH. 

They then moved us to a larger concrete floor cinderblock wall cell with impressive bars on the windows.  Here we sat for several more hours.  There were no well-dressed businessmen.  Mostly young  men who looked like they had lived on the street.  Several had obviously lost their mind.  There was an Asian man, and then myself, as the only non-Black Kenyans.  An officer entered and started shouting out a list of names for people to line up.  More than twenty were called and then they were led out.  I later learned that these were the people who did not have the means to pay.  They were being taken to the remand prison.

Our friend finally came.  He gave the receipt to the policeperson in charge.  Our names were called.  After being processed, one officer accompanied me out and wanted me to know how much he had done to help me and would I give him ‘some lunch’.  You are now a free man, he said.  To which I said, If you want me to give you ‘lunch,’ then you must first listen to me preach.  So I told him that yes, I was grateful that I was being set free, but that I had good news for him that would set him free from the consequences of his broken relationship with God and with people.  And I asked him if he wanted to hear about what Jesus had done for sinners like me and like him.  He was very quickly not interested and left me to walk through the gate a free man alone.

So what have I learned from my experience of Kenyan law enforcement and Kenyan justice?  First, I’ve learned that God provides.  I needed help at every step of the way, and God provided.  Help with bail, a friend to share with in the cell, a man willing to do a good deed for someone he’d never met.  God provides.  But secondly, I have learned the wrong lesson as well.  I have learned that, when one is in this kind of situation, it pays to bribe.  There was a reason that there were no well-dressed businessmen or businesswomen there.  I also saw not a single matatu driver or bus driver there.  They did what I ‘should have done’ at the police station.  They paid the bribe to have the police officer tear up the ticket.  Most of these offences never make it to Kibera Law Courts, because the offenders were willing to pay the bribe.  And the sad thing is, everything about the Kenya Justice system, or at least my experience of it, makes paying bribes the most sensible thing.  Had I paid a bribe to Officer A--, it would have cost me perhaps 2000 KSH and some inconvenience.  Instead I refused to pay a bribe, and I end up getting fined 10,000 KSH and tossed into a crowded jail cell for a day.


So in the future, if I am ever in a similar situation, what will I do?  I will once again make the completely counter-intuitive choice and refuse to bribe and take instead whatever knocks the law demands.  And the reason is not because I don’t want to save money – God knows we don’t have 10,000 KSH lying around to play these sorts of games.  The reason is that bribery corrupts.  It corrupts the receiver.  It corrupts the giver.  And it corrupts the system.  Right now, the Kenya Justice System appears to be so compromised by bribery that one cannot trust that justice will be done in any given case.  And if the members of the public lose confidence that the government cannot guarantee justice, then people increasingly take justice into their own hands.  And when people start taking justice into their own hands, even worse things happen and there is no longer any recourse.  Instead might makes right, and justice flees.

So I didn’t see the sign.  I turned right.  I was charged.  I was convicted.  I was sentenced.  I paid the fine.  Has justice been served?  In the case of most people with whom I’ve had to deal with throughout my little experience, this, sadly, does not seem to have been their primary concern.