Freetown Street Guy

Our car stopped, and an officer approached.  He was dressed in gaudy military fatigues, splashed grey, baby blue, and white, and carried a rusty Kalashnikov.  He peered his head through the window, and with a wry smile and candid determination, stared directly into my tired eyes.  “Please step out of the car–we’d like to have a word with you.  There are no problems here.”

It was late afternoon on a broiling Monday, and Cara and I–a friend I met backpacking in Rwanda–were in a bush taxi en route to Koidu, Sierra Leone.  There’s diamonds in Koidu, and we wanted to learn about the process of mining them.  Our plans were loose.  We were in Sierra Leone neither to mine these diamonds ourselves, nor to recruit Christians.  As such, our motivations for being in country in the first place, to locals and military officials alike, were rarely understood.  In fact, they were often construed as nefarious.

The officers walked Cara and I to a straw hut on the side of the road.  There were no walls, so air could pass through freely.  There, two other officers sat at a small wooden table, drinking tea.  They were big guys, as most Sierra Leoneans are.  Their job did not seem particularly eventful, and as we approached, they appeared to find a bit of energy, in the way that an actor can’t help but feel alive as he’s about to step on stage.  The officers probably derived this energy from the novelty of white skin in their midst, as well as the two hour theatrical standoff that was about to ensue.

“Please produce your documentation–a passport is fine,” said the first officer.  This was the man who had pulled us over initially.  He was roughly 40, and discernibly grumpy, with out-of-place wrinkles between his eyes from scrunching his brow a bit too often.  His tone was stern, and conveyed leadership and resolve.  He was the head man.

Sure.  I had my passport in my pack, and inside, a valid visa.  I had done nothing wrong.  I showed the officer, and who nodded in silent approval.

Cara, on the other hand, was not so prepared.  Cara came to Sierra Leone to visit an old friend and current Peace Corps volunteer, whose middle-of-the-woods house we stayed at the previous night, near a city called Makeni.  Since we only planned to spend a day or two in Koidu, and she would head right back to her friend’s house afterwards, she decided to leave her passport behind, feeling it safer in a locked bedroom.  Her logic was reasonable; as a traveler, your passport is your most prized possession.  She would learn her lesson.

“You’re traveling with no papers?” he said.  She was.  “You do realize this is a crime?  You do realize you’ve committed a crime?”

Two other officers echoed this sentiment.  One was a bit younger, and his voice commanded little respect.  He seemed pliable and uncertain.  The other was much older, the oldest of the three, and had a voice comparable to that of Morgan Freeman.  It was deep, crisp, heavy and light, all at the same time.  It was one that you wanted to listen to.  It really belonged in the movies.

Cara, stunned by the accusation, tried to reply.  She calmly explained where her passport was, and why she’d left it with her friend.  She told the officer we were just tourists, and that we were only heading to Koidu–a city sitting on tens of millions of dollars worth of minerals–to take some pictures, and see what we could learn.  She said we came to Sierra Leone because it was a beautiful country.

The officers discussed among themselves.  I began to see what was happening.  Sierra Leone, like many West African nations, is a very poor country.  Jobs are limited.  The police are not paid very well, and unfortunately, in order to survive, they are essentially mandated into more surreptitious tactics.  I had my passport and I had my visa; I had done nothing wrong.  Cara, however, was innocently, yet unequivocally, at fault.  We would try to diffuse the situation quickly and get back in the car.

After a few minutes, Mr. Freeman spoke.  “You’ve committed a crime,” he said, “and we’ll need to engage the legal process.  We’ll take you to the station, where you’ll be interviewed.  We’ll give you a lawyer.  Eventually, you’ll go to court.  This is how this works in Sierra Leone.”

The other two officers nodded in support–the grumpy one with assertiveness, and the young one with pointless followship and indecision.

We weren’t going to court.  It just wasn’t a scenario we saw happening.  Cara and I took turns explaining the situation.  We had no ill-intentions.  If the officers really wanted the passport, we could have hitched back to her friend’s house–roughly 4 hours in the opposite direction–and collected it for the officers.  This was a solution we were willing to explore.  The officers were unimpressed, and reconvened their huddle.  Cara and I sat there nervously.  We were in the middle of the bush, with a car packed full of now-angry villagers waiting for us on the side of the road, sitting under a rickety straw hut, with several loaded rifles within spitting distance, in the Republic of Sierra Leone.  Cara was guilty of a crime.  It was not the best spot to be in.

To the date, I had been in West Africa for roughly 3 months.  I’d traveled a few thousand kilometers, and I’d passed, seemingly, as many police checkpoints.  I’d seen how freely money flowed to the officers, in order to let the cars pass.  I had a strong idea of the value of a dollar in this area of the world.  I looked at Cara, who looked back approvingly at me; while paying bribes is never fun, I decided to give it a shot.  We wanted to leave.  The situation was beginning  to develop a bit too deeply.  It was hot, and our car was about to leave us behind.  Before the officers could say much more, I spoke.

“Look.  The issue here is a passport.  Cara entered the country legally, with her passport in hand.  She paid her visa–she hasn’t done all that much wrong.  Her passport is in Makeni, where it’s safe.  But yes, she should have brought it.  Like myself, see?  I keep my passport right here in this pocket of my backpack.  It’s where I keep my valuables.  I also keep my wallet here as well.  Here, look.  My wallet.  I keep a credit card here, I keep my driver’s license here, and I keep my cash here.  Here is where I keep my Leones.  Here’s a 10,000 Leone bill; that’s one of the bigger ones, yea?  (10,000 Leones is worth roughly $2.50).

I extended my hand with confidence, with the bill slightly disguised, and looked the lead officer in the eyes.  I was rather certain this would do the trick.  I was wrong.

“You think this is about money?” he barked incredulously.  “You think that’s why we’re going through this whole process?  This girl has committed a crime.  We are police officers.  You think you can just pay us, and erase what she’s done?”

Cara and I say nothing.  We maintain our confidence.  We’re not worried, but not optimistic either.  Our car has just left–they couldn’t wait for us anymore.  We look at the officers, and ask them how they’d like to proceed.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” they said.  “You don’t have your passport, and we need to see your passport.  You can either travel back to Makeni to gather your passport, come with us to the station, or pay the fine.  There is a spot fine for this type of crime, you know.  The amount is equal to that which you paid for your visa.  You’re an Australian citizen, Cara?  The fine is roughly $100.”

“We’ll take the first one,” we quickly reply in unison.  “We’ll get you the passport–it’s not a huge issue.”

The officers aren’t impressed.  They deflect, and explain how the fine is a better solution for everyone.  The amount is trivial for us, they say, and will allow us to leave immediately.  It’s what they prefer to do.  The three officers look at us, all at once, and await a response with slightly more anxiety and excitement than an officer just doing his job.  I understand what’s going on.

I’m still calm.  However, my general disposition becomes one of mocking.  I can’t help it.  I’ve been through this before–I’ve been asked for many bribes in West Africa.  The officers are always pliant, and never ask for them directly.  I find the corruption pitiful as well.  My smile turns a bit wry–just like the grumpy officer’s was initially, when he first approached our car–and I prepare myself to almost enjoy what was to come next.  My initial offer of 10,000 Leones was rejected, rather theatrically in fact, so as to try and extract a larger sum later.  I’m polite to officers in my home country.  But in Africa, not so much.  All of the attention and corruption inspires a bit of an ironic, brash confidence in the average foreigner.  Ironic because we’re in one of the poorest countries in the world, and it would make perfect sense to not offend, and to stay out of trouble.  $100 is trivial, when it really comes down to it.  It would make perfect sense to not be defiant, but overly deferential.  But this is Africa, and believe me when I say, there’s plenty in Africa that doesn’t make sense.

Cara sits back, and I take the driver’s seat.

“You ask for a fine, for a crime that was committed.  This is logical.  We can agree that this is logical.  However, we’d like to see a document stating that if a foreigner is caught without their passport, they are required to pay a fine equal to the amount of their visa.  We’d like to see a note specific to Australians.  We simply can’t pay you if you can’t show us something similar.  Without this, you could have requested $100, or you could have requested $500 just the same.  I hope we can agree this is logical as well.”

The officers have no answer.  Instead, they tell us that if she chooses not to pay the fine, she’ll go to court.  The situation is becoming a bit sensational.

Following suit, I try another method.  I grab Cara’s phone, and tell the officers I’ll be calling her friend, who will put us in touch with the Security Officer for the United States Peace Corps, who will contact our embassy, who will speak with the officers in our midst directly.  I make sure to stress the words “United States;” I feel this may baselessly inspire some fear.  I know very well that I won’t be speaking to the embassy, and that this call won’t serve much purpose.  I’m just trying to be theatrical as well.

As the phone is ringing, Mr. Freeman stops me.  His tone softens a bit.

“Let’s not get into all of this.  This girl committed a crime.  Let’s not involve the embassies, and the police, and the government.  This girl committed a crime.”

An hour and a half had now passed.

I hang the phone up, and tell the officer that he can either let us go forward to Koidu–only another 30km up the road–or let us go to back to Makeni, to retrieve Cara’s passport.

As usual, he doesn’t give a direct response.

“This is a discretionary job,” he says.  “It’s a discretionary job.”  In other words, we will let you go if you pay us.  But we’ll never ask you for money.

Now, with all parties knowing that no one is going to pay a $100+ fine, nor go to court, Cara and I see the situation ending shortly.  The officers are reeling.  Unrelenting stubbornness from both sides is what stands in our way.  Cara wants to pay something small, and leave immediately, while I am a bit more resolute.  I don’t say this is a positive way, necessarily.  $10 would have probably done the trick.  But my stubbornness wouldn’t let me relent.  She was the reasonable one at this juncture.

Now, I was visibly heated, and showing little respect to anyone.  I wish I could have helped it.  I couldn’t.  Mr. Freeman walked me outside of the hut to speak with me privately–he had a few more words to impart.  The following should be read in the voice of Morgan Freeman.  Because that’s what he sounded like.

“Look.  This is getting out of hand.  This girl has committed a crime.  And this is a discretionary job.  You must understand as well–this is Sierra Leone.  You are two foreigners from wealthy countries, and one is traveling without papers.  You say you are tourists–you say you are here because the country is beautiful.  Do I believe you?  I’m not sure.  Because you know what we have here, right?  We may be poor, but our country is very rich.  We have bauxite, we have iron, we have gold, and we have diamonds.  We’ve got a lot of F*CKING minerals.”

I couldn’t help but laugh.  The officers won’t hurt you–that is never what they are there to do.  They just want money.  It’s sad, but in my experiences, this was the plain truth.  This entire production was becoming rather humorous, and when Mr. Freeman dropped that big, greasy “f-bomb,” I couldn’t help but chuckle.  I developed a very reckless confidence in West Africa, and this was no exception.

“Has anyone ever told you sound like Morgan Freeman?” I asked.

It was the wrong thing to say.  It was rude.  If I could do it all over again, I would not have said the same.

Mr. Freeman was angry.  But he had nothing.  I apologized sincerely, trying to quiet my smile.  He repeated that this was a “discretionary job” several more times, and walked me back into the hut.

The stalemate resumed.  It was pay something small, or drag this on for another hour.  We probably would have left unscathed.  But we were tired, and Cara, a bit more reasonable than I, and the one who had actually left her passport in the first place, decided to she wanted to end it right there.

“15,000 OK?” she asked plainly.

“Make it 20,” replied the officer, “and we’ll let you go.”

“Works for me,” she concluded.

Once the money was exchanged, our three favorite policemen became instantly friendly.  They told us Koidu wasn’t far, and they’d help us flag down a car to take us the rest of the way.  Mr. Freeman walked us to the road, found us a small patch of shade, and began to signal drivers.

“You have anything to eat?” I posited sarcastically, still annoyed.

“There’s a woman selling sardines over there.  You can go buy some if you like,” he offered honestly.

“With what, the money we just paid you?” I exclaimed, still lacking judgement.

To this, Mr. Freeman locked his stare in my eyes, with me looking back, and we shared a warm, genuine, and understanding smile.  He was never offended by my words, and I was never insulted by his charades.  Instead, we were able to communicate the real issue at hand–the real point of the two hour standoff with the Sierra Leonean bush police.

It’s a poor country, Sierra Leone.  It was hit by a brutal civil war a short decade ago.  The ground is filthy rich with minerals, and yet, the citizens still struggle.  The average family can afford but one meal a day.  Jobs are very limited.  And if one does their work completely honestly, they will often struggle to survive.  The world tells us to be nice, but as we know, the nice people often do finish last.  The officers weren’t malicious, and to those who have the privilege of growing up in countries like the USA or Australia, $5 or $100 was effectively trivial.  Neither side wanted to budge though, because we could both see right through one another.

But in that smile, Mr. Freeman and I both understood the heart of the manner.  Cara and I were just doing our jobs as self-respecting humans.  And the officers were just doing their jobs as citizens of reality.  Neither of us was to blame.  Instead, we both simply need to ask how we can work towards solving the bigger problem–the real reason and heart of Sierra Leone’s poverty and resulting corruption.  Unfortunately, this issue goes a long way back.  Far longer than the two hours we spent in a hut in the middle of nowhere, arguing about a passport no one cared about in the first place.

Here’s to the world,



Have you ever dealt with police corruption while traveling?  Have a story to share?  Leave it in the comments!