I was enjoying the drive tremendously. Zipping and weaving through light traffic away from the city, enjoying the advantages of double lanes with scanty traffic can be heady indeed, and I stepped heavily on the accelerator pedal, humming, nodding and tapping the steering wheel to the tune of popular Ugandan singer Jose Chameleone’s Befuula (people easily forget your favours, and will stab you in the back).
Yeah, isn’t driving supposed to be an enjoyable activity after all? Felt I was on top of the world, in the cleanest, freshest city on the not-so-clean planet Earth.
Then suddenly, from the pavement and out of nowhere, a light-green jacketed figure steps right out in the middle of the road and flags me down! Jeez, it is a traffic cop; don’t these people fear to be run down? What if my brakes fail; or I fail to negotiate the halt because I have taken many Mitzigs?
Somehow I manage a decent stop, two hundred meters away and smack in the middle of the road too, to show him my displeasure, and the cop follows leisurely.
Meanwhile, some many vehicles have also stopped and are hooting at me to clear the way – as if horns ever physically cleared a road.
The MAN comes and gestures to me to park at the side, ignoring my protests at his indecorous way of stopping me; and when I roll over to the side of the road, he greets me by shaking my hand.
I shake back hard, and he very politely asks for my driving permit. After I have handed it to him, he proceeds to tell me that I was driving at 120 kilometers per hour, when there was a speed limit of 40.
I protest, saying I might have been going at 60 perhaps, no more, to which he good-naturedly laughs, and calls me a liar.
Now, all this goes on in a courteous, if not friendly banter, and I am nonplussed to see the guy whip out a ticket book to book me! Now this is a bad joke, I tell him. No, he replies as he hands me my Frw25,000 ticket fine, and he steps back with my driving permit, and waves me away.
“We have to have disciplined drivers in this city and country,” he gives me a parting shot. And I subsequently baptize all traffic cops mirongo ine, in reference to the 40km speed limit.
I drive away grumbling. Why should the more twisted Gitarama-Kibuye road have a speed limit of 60km, and here in the city am required to “crawl” at mirongo ine?
Four days later, after paying off the ticket by Frw10,000 more because I had inadvertently paid later than the stipulated two days in which to pay such fines, I get into another scrape with a brother officer to the one I fell foul of.
This time I am driving sedately, in no hurry and at peace with all mankind, when I am flagged down again. I am now wary of these smiling but uncompromising fellows, and I get determined not to be taken in at all by any handshake of his.
But all the same, because I am sure I have done none wrong, seen no evil etc etc, I take long to roll down my window even when I have pulled over.
I sit there in my car enjoying the music whose volume I have even turned up, bobbing my head to the rhythm.
After about three minutes of waiting for me to open up and talk to him, and without even reducing the volume, I roll down the window just a tiny wee bit, and ask him what the problem was. I shout at him, and he shouts back that he wants to look at my driving permit and my insurance. I pass my permit through the small space left on top of the window, and gesture to him where the insurance card is pasted on the windscreen.
He moves and examines the card, moves for a closer scrutiny, and begins laughing hard! I wonder whether I am not dealing with an idiot.
“Sir,” he shouts at me over the loud music that I have still not reduced, “Your insurance cover expired yesterday!”
“What?” I get out of the car and go to check it out myself. And there it was!
“Am, am really sorry,” I stammer. “I didn’t… I thought I had… I was ok.”
“That’s no problem sir,” he assures me, in normal tones now, since my braggadocio has been completely deflated and I have turned down the volume of the car music. I know I am black, but I am also very sure that I blushed deeply. I leave it to you to determine what colour I became when I blushed.
But his politeness puts me on guard immediately; I know with these fellows it’s never okay. And indeed he proves it the next minute by writing me a ticket!
“I thought you said it was ok. C’mon man, I am going to pay this insurance thing right this minute! Take back the ticket.”
“You will see, sir, that the ticket is not for driving a car with an expired insurance cover. I have excused you for that and I believe that you are indeed going to pay. It’s for something else. Mu gire umunsi mwiza (Good day sir),” the traffic policeman says, and steps away from me with my freshly redeemed driving permit. Damn umunsi mwiza with a ticket!
I am furious for many reasons now; I have behaved very foolishly and got the mother of embarrassments of all time in front of a cop I previously thought dumb; and I have been booked for a traffic offence I don’t know, and got excused for one I should have been booked for.
I drive directly to the revenue offices and present my ticket, asking why I had been booked.
The revenue officer looks at it and laughs out aloud.
“In Rwanda it is called akasuzuguro. It means contempt,” he replies.
“Man, contempt can never be a traffic offence!”
“Tell that to the traffic police,” he retorts. I pay and move away.
Man, that is the story of traffic policemen in Rwanda. Polite, smiling, shake hands indeed, even wishing you a good day after booking you; but tough as the mountain gorilla.
You still need to dare them and break traffic regulations? Go right ahead and see what happens to you.
The writer is the Managing Editor of The New Times