by Stephen White
Ever since I arrived in Uganda, I had been searching for a decent concept or story to draw upon and write my first blog about. I really wanted it to be some transcendental or life-altering moment where my readers could vicariously experience what I experienced and come out saying, “Wow, Stephen really helped change _____ about Uganda.” I wanted that vain, superficial glory.
But, as life time and time again teaches us all, things don’t ever really turn out the way we expect them to, do they?
I was humbled in early June in an unexpected way. Johnny Kristofferson, Nora Lopopolo, and I decided to leave our apartment building, Prestige Apartment Complex, and go to Nakumatt Oasis, which is essentially an African version of Wal-Mart. It was nice and cool outside, so we all decided to walk the mile or so to the shopping center instead of hiring a taxi or the like. We arrived at the road immediately outside the store, at the center of which is a large roundabout. At the center of the roundabout is a giant fountain with paths leading to and away from it. Instead of taking the longer route, we decided to cut through the paths on the roundabout to reach the other side of the road. Once traffic had cleared, the three of us darted quickly across and onto the roundabout. Immediately, someone called out to us.
“Hey! Come here now!”
Johnny, Nora, and I struggled to make out the source of the voice in the darkness, but we eventually saw a Napoleon-sized police officer walking on the path that circled the fountain and beckoning us toward him. Two other officers who were less vertically-challenged surrounded the man. After sharing confused looks, we approached the men.
“What are you doing? You are trespassing,” the first officer scolded.
More confused stares.
“You cannot walk here. This is trespassing. This is a criminal offense.”
Now, the only exposure I have had to Trespass to Land so far was from my Torts class, and we only covered it for a brief amount of time. That being said, I’m fairly sure that you cannot trespass on public property unless it is specifically restricted. I tried to pipe up.
“Sir, we were walking on the paved pathways around the fountain. The signs only say that you cannot walk on the grass. We were not on the grass. We were not trespassing in any way.”
“No. You were trespassing.”
Still utterly confused, one of the taller officers pulled me to the side while the other two remained with Johnny and Nora. “I am going to take you to criminal court for trespassing,” he calmly told me while we were standing away from the others. “You are now a criminal.”
At this point I was starting to get a tad bit suspicious. I knew for a fact that we hadn’t broken a law in any way whatsoever, so what were these men trying to do? Then he came out with it about as clearly as possible.
“The only way I won’t take you to court is if you do something about it. You know, if you gave me something so that you don’t have to go.”
Ahhhhh, now I saw it. These guys wanted some money. They had seen some ex-pats and, in the hope that these white-folk were not familiar with Ugandan law, were trying to get an easy buck or two. Upon this realization, I was now not only suspicious; I was pissed. I gave him the simplest answer I could think of: “No.” After cherishing his defeated glance, I walked away from him back to where Johnny and Nora were standing with Napoleon and the other officer. I could see that the officers were still giving them a hard time, but I walked up at the perfect time to witness some sheer brilliance by Nora.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but we only arrived in Uganda recently and have not had time to become familiar with your trespassing laws. You see, we have been working for the courts and are guests of the Chief Justice—”
“Chief Justice of what?” Napoleon exclaimed, suddenly looking a bit frightened.
“Of Uganda, of course!” Nora said matter-of-factly. She continued, saying “I work for the Court of Appeal,” pointed at me and said, “he works for the Commercial Court,” and finally, with special emphasis, referred to Johnny and said, “and he works for the Criminal Court.”
Johnny gave his award-winning Clark Kent smile and a little wave to the officers. The look on their faces was priceless. Suddenly, these three men were Johnny’s best friends. “Oh, you are all from America! What part?! Do you like Uganda? How long will you be here?” Johnny gladly indulged all of their questions with politician-like grace and composure. Soon enough, we had discovered that Napoleon’s real name was Arnold (I still feel like he was more suited to a name reminiscent of the French Emperor than to the Governator), and that the other officer who had questioned Nora and Johnny was named Johnson. Arnold was now quite eager to make sure that all three of us were gratified.
“Yes please, it is okay if you walk here! You may cross. Have a nice night.”
Johnny shook the hands of all three and we then proceeded on our way to Nakumatt. We sat down for dinner at a pizzeria, where we all began to talk about the incident. I was still fuming. I felt like a huge injustice had been dealt to us even though nothing bad had actually come from this encounter. These guys had just tried to swindle us out of our money because they assumed we would not know how to react.
But, after talking with Johnny and Nora for a while about it, we all started a realize that this was just the nature of the beast of Uganda. This wasn’t the United States—we truly were in a country that was still working to establish its legal system. Obviously, corruption is a by-product of this effort to live by the rule of law. It’s just how it is.
Needless to say, this was a fairly minor incident in the grand scheme of things. That being said, our experience with these police officers had a pretty significant impact on me. It was for reasons like this that we came to Uganda—to work to lessen corruption and to change the public’s perception of the Ugandan legal system. We now knew firsthand just one of the minor problems that Ugandans encounter on a daily basis, and we knew that we needed to work to change it in any way that we could.