Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Except the police.
“I have a joint,” Simba spoke in a hush, just enough to be audible over the sounds the DJ pumped through the speakers at the vast beach-side bar known as Candy Rubbles. Simba was a crew mate and I had known the guy for about two weeks. It was his birthday and we were celebrating it in style at the beach party. “You know where we can smoke it?” he asked me.
I looked around and remembered the corner where the beach shower was, next to the volleyball court. It was in dark shadows, a perfect spot to hide our joint-smoking expedition. And also a perfect spot to hide in the shadows if you’re a bribe-grubbin’ police officer, about 50 meters from the dance floor.
“Over there,” I motioned and lead the way.
Simba lit up just after we sat down on the beach-bed, our beers between our feet on the sand. He toked a few times in silence before passing the happy stick to me. It smelled strong, unlike the usual over-stuffing of tobacco that he usually rolled.
Suddenly a dark form moved in the shadows and a large hand reached out and wrapped itself around my wrist, pressing lightly enough to not hurt but strong enough to let me know that this wasn’t a friendly grab.
“Tanzanian police,” the deep voice that belonged to the hand spoke through the darkness. A large African man stepped into the lighter shadow, revealing himself to be about 6”4 with large eyes, a bald head and dark clothing. “You are under arrest for smoking marijuana.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Mate, I’m only holding it,” I chuckled. “You haven’t even given me a chance to toke.”
“You will come with us,” he said, his voice hinting that he lacked any patience for my jovial ways. He then turned towards the darker shadows and spoke in Ki-Swahili. Before I knew it, the cold metal of heavy handcuffs were slapped around my wrists.
“Jesus, mate,” I stared at the silver metal. “It’s only a joint. I haven’t killed anyone.”
“Come with us,” the policeman’s hand started to pull on the handcuffs to try and get me to stand.
“I’m not going anywhere until I see some ID,” I said with a smile. The cop stopped and stared at me.
“I am the police,” he said. “You will come with us over there to discuss this issue.”
“I’ll come once you’ve proven yourselves to be Tanzanian police.” Cause slapping handcuffs on my wrists didn’t quite cut it.
Exasperated, the officer called out to his fellow copper who provided the ID, a flimsy blue mini-booklet that held a black-and-white photo of one Constable Rashid.
“Cool,” I said. “Thanks. Now we can go.”
I was lead ten steps before ordered to sit in a beach lounge chair under the fluorescent light of the outside area of the dive centre. My less than half empty beer bottle was placed at my feet.
“You are in big trouble,” Rashid began.
“Uh-huh,” I couldn’t help but grin.
He blinked, surprised that his words unphased me.
“Nice to meet you,” I held out my right hand – now locked to my left – to shake his. He took my hand, a look of surprise on his face.
“You know it’s illegal to smoke marijuana in Tanzania?” he leaned in, failing to put the grip of fear in me.
I grinned, looking at the other officers sitting around me, slouched back. I could pick up the vibe of what they were after and that this wasn’t a well-thought out attempt of getting money from a white tourist. Especially one that survives on barter.
“Lucky I wasn’t smoking then,” I said.
“What?” Rashid sat up. “Bullshit. I saw you smoke it.”
“No, you saw me hold it,” I threw back at him. “I call bullshit on your bullshit.”
His eyebrows orbited. “No! I saw you smoke it.”
“Mate, you can smell my breath. There’s only alcohol on it. I don’t have any marijuana in my system.” Speaking of alcohol, “Is it alright if I finish my beer?” I asked, eying my bottle of Kilimanjaro ale.
“No,” he responded automatically.
“Come on, mate. I’m Australian. I can’t leave a beer unfinished.”
“It’ll get warm. I can’t drink warm beer.” I was lying. I could drink alcohol at any temperature.
“Come on, rafiki,” I said. “It’s an offence to drink warm beer in Australia. There’s not much left. Just let me finish it.”
Rashid stared at me, unable to establish how I wasn’t squirming in my seat or shitting myself unlike Simba who had pulled a Michael Jackson, going from black to white. “If it keeps you quiet, drink.”
Damn straight it’ll keep me quiet – between the sips.
“Tonight you come with us to the police station,” he explained. “Tomorrow is Sunday so no court. You sleep in the cell and Monday go to court where the judge will sentence you.”
I didn’t even attempt to suppress my laughter. “You know the judge will be pretty pissed off that you brought me in on a charge of holding a joint.”
“You were smoking ganja,” he said.
“No,” I repeated. “I was holding it. I’m drunk but I’m not high.” Yet.
Rashid sat back in his chair, scratching his head. “You can help us help you.”
And there it was. “I understand what you’re saying,” I began. “But here’s the thing.” After I explained my bartering ways I offered to get, “My guitar from behind the bar and play for you.” Only two hours passed since my set that earned me a plate of food and a couple of beers.
“No money?” Rashid blinked then exploded into laughter as he translated to the other officers who also erupted, lightening the mood. I grinned. I looked over at Simba who had been sitting quietly, with a look on his face suggesting he was witnessing lions going in for the kill. I winked at him.
“Sing us a song,” Rashid demanded.
“I need my guitar,” I said. “It covers how bad I actually sound.”
“You cannot survive without money,” he leaned in. “Help us and you can go home tonight.”
“I am going home tonight,” I smiled, leaning towards him. “And I can survive without money. Look, you can search me,” I offered. “I only have condoms.”
“Get up,” he ordered and proceeded to empty my pockets of the lint and sand that I had collected. He pulled out three condoms and threw them on the floor.
“You’re attempting to have sex in Tanzania,” he said without a smile. “That is your second offence.”
I laughed. He didn’t. I still couldn’t stop laughing until he eventually broke his deadpan face and smiled broadly. He chuckled as he returned the condoms to my pocket and directed me to sit back down as did he.
“OK, we go to the station now,” he said without making a move to get up.
“Cool,” I grinned. “I just have to go to the bar and let my friend know that you’re taking me.” I, too, didn’t make any moves to get up.
“No,” he said. “They will figure it out.”
Now it was my turn to blink. “OK, no one figures out that there friend has been arrested after disappearing at the bar. So to save them worrying –” and having someone I trust know that I’m under arrest – “I’m going to the bar to tell them.”
“But you are wearing handcuffs.”
I raised my hands. “You’re welcome to remove them.” They were quite heavy and starting to annoy me, like Rashid’s mindset. “Or you can come with me to the bar. I’ll cover them.”
I sighed. “OK, Rashid, here are your two options: one – you can call the Australian consulate right now and inform them that you have arrested an Australian citizen or we can go to the bar and tell my friend that I’m going with you.”
He blinked. He looked to his friends, unbelieving his inability to intimidate me. He conversed with his peers in Ki-Swahili and they decided to let Simba go to the bar. When he was out of earshot I turned back to Rashid.
“Listen, he’s a kid. You can see he’s scared. Put the blame on me and just let him go. Do you think that’s possible?”
Rashid looked me up and down. “Put the blame on you?” he repeated.
“Yes. I’ll say that I smoked even though I didn’t if you let him go.” Simba was a young twenty-something, whole-life-ahead-of-him smiling kid who was now shit scared. He came back with the bar manager.
“What’s going on?” she looked at me.
I showed her my handcuffs, proudly grinning. “I’m under arrest for holding a joint.”
She turned to the officers. “What are you doing here? Where are your uniforms?”
“We are intelligence officers in civil clothes.”
I bit my tongue at the claim of intelligence.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
She returned a few minutes later with Sam, a local friend I had met that night who seemed to be connected in the right places. He sat beside me and in slow Ki-Swahili asked the officers to let us go. From the little I knew of the language, I figured out he was basically saying, ‘This guy really has no money. You won’t get anything from him and the judge will just give you shit for wasting his time.’
I think. Either that or, ‘He’ll chew your ear off all night.’
After ten minutes of talking Rashid got up and stared down at me, fumbling for the handcuff keys, motioning me to raise my hands.
I couldn’t help but grin. I had fought the law and I won. “What about Simba?” I asked Sam.
“They’ll let him go in a bit,” he assured me. I shook hands with the officers.
Rashid held up the joint he had confiscated. “You want this?”
“Well, if you don’t want it,” I grinned as he waved me away with a smile he failed to hide.
“This was fun,” I grinned at blank faces, shaking the officers hands. “Thanks for the experience.” Turning to Simba I said, “Don’t worry, bro. They’ll let you go.”
“Hakuna matata,” he said, less scared seeing that I was free.
As I walked with Sam back to the bar he said, “Next time just smoke it over there,” he indicated to the area where a strong aroma of Bob Marley smoke was conquering the dance floor.
“Sure,” I said as a local friend approached me with a hash joint. A few puffs later and Simba appeared, relieved and happy.
“In Kenya the police would have beaten you until you paid at least 500 Euro,” he said.
“Serious?” I blinked. Sometimes I forget that not every country will have a police force that can be laughed with.