The Ugandan Express Pardon

July 17, 2017

Yesterday we departed Nairobi at 1209 and rolled out to Eldoret. We had spent the morning touring Kibera, the slum famous for being the largest in Africa and for being, well a slum. For many it is a place of convenience as they come into town to work, Kibera offering a place of cheap accommodation. It’s a complex matrix of people living on top of people and is as sophisticated a community as anywhere on the planet.

We depart Eldoret oddly enough at 0910. We have an uncommon series of ‘10’ minutes starts and finishes, without any planning. The road out of Eldoret is busy but eventually clears and the road, compared with the road out of Nairobi, is quite reasonable. We track our way via the map to Malaba which comes up on us more quickly than we expect. I ring the person David has put us in touch with (Keith) and not a moment too soon as we are swarmed by fixers offering to take us across the border. In the normal course of events that would be handy. We have just driven past a couple of kilometres of trucks pulled over on the side of the road. Through the dust the occasional semi-trailer hauls towards us and we are squeezed against the parked vehicles and the passing truck. Bulldust swirls everywhere but I follow the red car in front of us until it pulls over into a carpark on the right. I pull up behind a cluster of ten or so cars parked behind some sort of checkpoint. There is no signage, or anything to indicate what we do next. People mill about. Drivers look lost and around us all massive trucks manoeuvre and jostle into lines the meaning of which is lost on us completely. I call Kevin and he answers the phone and says he is on his way. It takes fifteen minutes during which we are assailed by all sorts, offering their services. Keith has told me he is on his way from the Uganda side. Before he arrives one of those offering his services assures me he knows Keith who is on his way from the Kenya side! But we are on the Kenya side! All I have to do is give him 100 shillings and he will get the crossing process under way. Just as I get that advice Kevin strides up through the parked cars and identifies himself with an ID card. The other pretenders melt away. Kevin promptly gets us through the cars and near the front of the line. He takes our ‘log book’ which is in fact a registration paper for the car we have ‘hired’, our license and moves back and forwards between us and the guard post as he haggles his way through the bureaucracy.  Semi trailers move through the dust around us and rumble past from the Uganda side as we wait, car idling and aircon turned up. Kevin returns on one of his little trips and says

“You need a letter of authority from the owner to take this car into Uganda.”

We know that’s not the case but anything can be conjured up to either make money or obstruct your passage, which amounts to the same thing.

“So we can’t go to Uganda?”

“Oh yes, you can go to Uganda but it will cost 2000 shillings.”

Aha, there it is. I fork over 2000 shillings and shortly later Kevin advises we can go. I suggest he jump in the car. He does just that, along with someone else we have hitherto not met. Kevin directs us past the eternal line of trucks, down a dusty path to a small bridge over a creek, up through the bulldust on the other side and through a gap in the trucks that fortuitously appears on our left. Down a short driveway to the shade of a rather modern building which proves to be the joint Kenya/Uganda border post. The visit paperwork is filled in and we get our visa stamped – both of them. Then to the car registration authority, the people of which also suggest we need a letter of authority. But thanks to Keith we are through there without any money changing hands. Then to a third story of a building guarded by a nervous boy with an SKS semiautomatic rifle in his lap – this to buy insurance for the trip through Uganda. I slip Kevin USD20 for his trouble – he had certianly earned it and we farewell him and drive to the boom gate, our final obstacle. No one is around and we wait a few minutes before a good natured but very feisty female border guard complete with AK47 and four full mags taped together, strolled up. She is not too impressed with our paperwork for some reason but I suspect she is doing her official bit since all she has to do is enter our details in a log book and lift the boom. Our small talk thaws her out (she delights in telling us Kavitha is not a Mazungu but that I am. So be it). She was doubly pleased that we’re heading to her home town. After asking if we had any lunch  for her (we had no food for ourselves) we are finally let into Uganda. The welcome we are about to receive took the shine off our initial impression of the place.


We barely clear the border and we are drafted to the side of the road at a police check point. The sergeant is completely distracted by our map and our request for advice, a ploy given we know very well where we are and the route we have to take. But he wants to help. In addition he is also from Pallisa so gets very animated about his advice which is repeated often and with enthusiasm. We try the same ploy at the next check point where we have clearly created a massive traffic backlog as the NCO goes to extraordinary lengths to point us in the right direction, forgetting as he does so, that he initially wanted to look in the back of the car. We turn right into Tororo, on our way to Mbale. Already the countryside and traffic is very different to Kenya, and the communities look more austere and less charming. We pull into a Stanbic Bank at Tororo and withdraw 100,000 shillings. I ask three Boda Boda riders to ‘smile for the camera’ but get an impassive response. We carefully roll through town and we exit we cross a railway line which, when I glance left reveals a train inbound. I circle back via a roundabout and park near the railway line so I can jump out and get some photos. Which I do, from up close. The images are pretty good and I jump back in the car only to then realise a policeman is striding across the road towards us. Behind him is a Hilux loaded with armed police. He asks me to pull further over off the road. Twice. He is agitated. He then walks up behind us and the fun starts.

“Give me your camera” Reluctantly I hand it over and he slings it around his neck.

“Are you a journalist?” he scowls. This is not a friendly enquiry. Far from it.

I can’t decipher his thick accent and ask him to repeat himself.

Are you a journalist?

No, I’m not a journalist.

Why are you taking photos of our trains?

I’m interested in trains.

But why are you taking photos of trains? (It’s clearly beyond his comprehension that anyone could have a ‘sporting interest’ in trains).

I like trains.

Yes, but why do you feel a need to take photos of our trains.

Ah, I just like trains. I take heaps of photos in Australia and other part of the world.

Yes, but who gave you permission to take photos of trains?

Permission? I’m sorry I didn’t know I needed permission. (I know I don’t but I need to keep this hostile cop as placated as possible).

Of course you need permission. Don’t you know in Uganda you can’t take photos of trains. (I refrain from laughing out loud).

I’m sorry, no, I was not aware.

(Repeat the last few rounds of conversation another four or five times, and resist a growing sense of exasperation).

A sergeant, burly and sour pushes into the window. He barks “Why are you taking photos of trains. Are you a journalist? The Corporal replies for me “No, he’s not a journalist. But he is taking photos of trains”. The sergeant turns to me.

“Don’t you know you can’t take photos of trains?”

(This is getting tedious).

“Look, I’m sorry. No, I didn’t”. I then explain at length  other places are okay with train photos. I resist the urge to correct them. In these backblocks that would be a mistake.

“But in Uganda you are not allowed.”

I have not seen any signs to say that.

But you can’t. No photos of trains.

Okay, would you like me to delete the pictures?

His blank response confirms he is not interested in the photos but wants some money. But he agrees that photos should be deleted. He hands the camera over so I can show him the deletions as they happen then he takes the camera back. The conversation finally turns from the tedious down a path to resolution. The sergeant has walked off and what appears to be a skinny officer turns up at the window. The corporal still has my camera around his neck.

Me: “So if the photos are not deleted what happens next?”

Now we go to court. But because its Sunday you will have to wait to see the Judge.

I call his bluff.

Okay. Do we follow you to the court?

Follow me?

Yes. Shall we follow your police vehicle to the court.

He hesitates, caught. His sidestep is deft.

“You asked what will happen next. What did you mean by that?”

For my part I am being extra careful not to offer him any money least he accuse me of bribery. Which is of course what this is all about. Extortion and bribery. I remain a little obtuse.

“I meant, do you want us to follow you to the police station. Or is there somewhere we can stay in Tororo while we wait for the court to open?”

He is clearly agitated.

“No, I meant, ‘What did you mean?’”

(This is clearly not a battle of wits).

Are we allowed to go?

Have you heard about the Ugandan Express Pardon? (I kid you not).

Ah, no. Can’t say I have. How does that work?

“The Express Pardon is a fee that means you do not have to go to court. (Oh really)

Okay, how much does it cost? And do I pay it at the court? (Don’t sound too eager).

No, you pay it to law enforcement officers.

How much?

How much do you have? (At last, we are finally there).

100,000 shillings (About AUD30). He snorts his derision.

Fortunately I have broken my USD into small packets of rolled up notes totalling $50 each. I offer him the US dollars he can see come out of one of my pockets.

“I’ll take both.” (Referring to the USD and the shillings).

Can I have my camera back?

Pay the Express Pardon first.

I hand over the cash starting with the shillings only. No such luck. He leans in, over Kavitha, hand open.

“Both” he barks.

I give him both and he unslings the camera, passing it over to us, glaring at us as if to validate the extortion by expressing the heinous nature of our crime.

He departs with a final warning about not taking photos of trains. We wind up the window and as, pulling onto the road I take care to indicate. I watch him in the side mirrors stalk up the bitumen to the truck filled with police, all the while watching us over his shoulder.

This encounter was not about a battle of wits. It was all about negotiating our way out of his clutches for the least amount possible. To engage wits would have only embarrassed this fool and have likely cost us more – or worse, an overnight stay in the desolate and dismal outpost which is Tororo.

We drive up the road reflecting on this very poor initial impression we have of Uganda. Kavitha then offers “Don’t worry about the deleted photos. I kept my mouth shut and he didn’t ask about my camera. There are some train photos on it, including some of you taking photos of the train.”



Sunday 12th February 2017


One Response to “The Ugandan Express Pardon”

  1. Trish on July 17th, 2017 8:14 pm

    Reading this, I was chuckling all the way. So typical of Ugandan police. Since seeing you last, I have had quite a bit to do with them, and have found also an ethical behavior group, which is part of the police, who are earnestly trying to train the police into accepting a different moral approach, that is using smiles, having good manners, not demanding or accepting bribes and being courteous to the point of bending over backwards, for ‘muzungus’. Will tell you about it one day when I see you both again…and when I take you to the C.I. D. to meet everyone (on the day you arrive and didn’t know about before), to register your presence in the town. Hope I read more hilarious hspoeni he from you two.

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