Power, Corruption, and Really Pretty Trees!

Here’s one to make a bizarre week even weirder: Yesterday a couple of us trekked out on a matatu with perhaps the least organized and least efficient driver/conductor pairing of all time 30 minutes west to Mabira Forest. We had learned previously that guides were required, but had also heard quite a few success stories from individuals who had just hit the trails unaccompanied for a couple hours and received no problems from anyone. For whatever reason, as we traipsed through the lush foliage and clamored up the behemoth root systems of one of the last remaining natural forests in Uganda, we failed to find the same luck that those individuals enjoyed.

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At the foot of one of the most beautiful trees I have ever seen, we were met by a trio of men, two wielding machetes and one donning a Ugandan police uniform and the standard issue assault rifle seen in the hands of every police officer in Uganda. They interrogated us on what we were doing in the forest without a guide, and we asked our fair share of questions to ensure the façade of American ignorance was diligently upheld. The exchange became more heated, with machetes being brandished in frustration with my incessant inquiries, and we agreed to take the matter to the National Forest Authority offices that we had no idea existed (the signage marking the NFA office is a bit difficult to notice when you’re passing through a trading center filled with a swarm of Uganda’s most aggressive hawkers shouting and shoving skewered chicken and beef in your face).

They marched us through the forest, machetes and guns in hand, stopping us in our tracks on occasion to suggest that instead of going to the NFA office where we would be charged a large fine for “stealing,” that we could just settle it there in the forest. We avoided offering bribes in the middle of a dark forest to three armed men who were clearly not our biggest fans and continuously asserted that we would rather just go to the office. In later discussion, while Sam and I were more afraid of the impending bribe, Heather was much more concerned with the weaponry, and later admitted her legs were reduced to jelly and her emotional state heightened to an anxiety attack during that 30 minute walk back to the NFA. She justifiably wanted to get somewhere with witnesses as soon as possible.

We eventually arrived at the office after a good deal of smartass questions on my part, doing what I could to keep the leader of the pack talking to me rather than discussing next steps and best bribe rates with his cronies in a language that none of the three of us understood. The manager was brought in, and the cronies disappeared. The subsequent 20 minutes was most closely akin to an angry mother chastising her misbehaving son, Sam, declaring that while we two Americans didn’t know any better, Sam should know the rules of his homeland and his failure to do so clearly meant he “does not love his country.” They demanded we pay the fees required to obtain a permit and a guide, to which we pleaded that we only have enough money to get home and not a shilling more. Feigning ignorance for just a few more minutes apparently did the trick, and we all walked away without paying a thing.

I was not worried about the gun and the machetes. These are just intimidation tactics. I was worried about the bribe I knew we likely would not be able to escape. Here in Uganda, as I’m sure is the case all over the world, giving someone any sort of authority basically gives them the guaranteed right to abuse that authority and exercise their power through inducing fear in those they interact with on the job. This is not true of everyone of course, many of the security guards that check your bags and pockets and give you a once over with a metal detector are perfectly polite, just doing their job. Many others, of course, abuse this power by angrily tearing everything out of your bag (because we all know all white people are actually spies and terrorists of Al-Shabaab…right). This flagrant over-assertion of power is ubiquitous, and the events in Mabira Forest practically felt like déjà vu…

About 6 weeks into my time here, I was out with some friends in Kampala when my friend and I shared a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) back home. Now, driving two to a boda is technically illegal, and we technically knew that, but we had all done it plenty of times, and out here in Jinja it feels like more of a rarity to see only 1 person on the back of a boda since many drivers will pick up passengers going to different places just to be able to make the most money on their drive. Long story short, we were pulled over by a police truck on a dark and desolate road stretching from Kampala to Entebbe. The boda driver was thrown onto the back of the colossal police wagon boasting 8 armed police officers, several of whom moved down to keep us next to the vehicle. They furiously demanded that we pay the fine for breaking the law, that it was 200,000USH per person (roughly $80 – a fortune to anyone here including us). We told them we didn’t have the money, could not pay the fine, and were very sorry and to please just let us go. They attempted to arrest us, telling us since we cannot pay the fine we have to go to jail. They proceeded to try to push us into their vehicle, demanding that we come with them. When we refused, we were accused of resisting arrest. The shouting increased, tensions rose, and I think for a few minutes there, we were genuinely afraid for our lives.

Just when things seemed to be bordering on out-of-control, my friend pulled out her wallet and gave the officers what she had, and I followed in suit. 100,000 from her, 50,000 from me. They barked that it was not enough and continued to try to take us into the vehicle. We pleaded with them reminding them, again, that it was all we had on us. They discussed amongst themselves, tossed us 10,000 for a ride home, threw the boda driver off the truck and sped off into the night, all in a matter of seconds. We soon laughed the experience off and learned to NEVER ride two to a boda, and in retrospect, realized the boda driver was most likely behind the whole thing as well.

Uganda does not fare well in international corruption indices. In fact it is deemed one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranked 140th out of 177 countries by Transparency International just last month, and 30th place out of 48 countries across Africa. According to the Fourth Annual Report on Tracking Corruption Trends in Uganda collected by the Inspectorate of Government, at least 8 out of every 10 Ugandans feel that corruption is a serious problem in Uganda, and Ugandans regard the Ugandan Police Force (UPF) as hands-down the most corrupt public institution in the country. We all feel corruption wherever we go in the world, and the United States certainly has more than its fair share. Orwell said that absolute power corrupts absolutely, so when powers in the hands of those charged to protect the people of a country go unchecked and unrestricted, the exploitation of those powers will continue to derail the progress being made in countries around the world towards a safe and prosperous reality for their citizens.

These experiences have given me a lot to think about in regards to these recurring themes of “othering” and of power dynamics between different races in different socio-cultural contexts. If you are white in Uganda, you tend to be treated like royalty in many places you go, always the guest of honor in village functions, always offered the high tables and the most comfortable seats, yet at the same time your skin color is an invitation to be overcharged for everything you buy, and makes you a glowing target for anyone with the power to make you pay a bribe to keep yourself out of a much more unpleasant situation. But at the end of the day, if you’re white in Uganda, you can be fairly certain that you will never be physically harmed by police (if they want to keep their jobs and want to keep Liam Neeson at bay). Bribes, yes. Death, no. Not here.

Yet if you’re black in the United States, you can be shot dead by a police officer and he’ll walk away as freely as we walked away from that NFA office.

Human beings are animals. And like most animals, dominance has its tendency to be asserted, thus perpetuating subservience and maintaining a universal status quo where those with power will exercise their will with impunity. Like most animals, we fear what we do not understand, we translate that fear into a flight or fight response, and we do whatever we need to do to survive and thrive in our environments. But unlike most animals, human beings have created a moral compass that allows us to think deeply and critically about our decisions, our actions, and the way we view others. This ongoing process of othering refuses to let up, and until it does, human beings will never fully embrace our ability to evolve beyond our basic animal instincts. Until that day, we will continue to fear the powerful, to exploit the weak, and, for many of us, work towards a future for humanity where power is shared among all peoples and the utopian fantasy of peaceful global coexistence becomes a reality.

So how do we check power? I think that might merit another blog post…