Ghana is not a police state, but that said, we get stopped (or worried) by the police often, and almost all of interactions are friendly, or at the very least, interesting.
I was about two minutes away when I called Suzanne to let her know when I could pick her up. Two minutes: plenty of time for Suzanne to move to the side of the road, and just enough time for Steve to get in trouble. As I hung up a Ghana Police Officer flagged me over. Busted, but why?
The officer hops in the passenger seat and explains how using a cell phone while driving in Ghana is illegal and dangerous and now he will take me to the police station to be arrested, but then asks “What should I do?”.
I think he is asking for a bribe, wanting me to say something like “can’t we take care of this here?” Instead, I ask his name and apologize profusely. I happen to already know the police officers at the station nearby from a previous excursion to this side of town, so going there will not lead to my arrest I figure, so lets have some fun.
“Oh Sir!” he says indignantly, “I am not asking for a bribe!”
“Good because I can not give you one,” I say. He recounts (for the first of several times) the chain of events that has led to this situation and concludes “What should I do?”
“You should give me a warning and let me go” I say which apparently is not what he wanted to hear, so he tells the story again. Suzanne has started calling from the side of the road I guess, wondering where I am. I beg to answer and quickly explain the situation. She gets it without much explanation and seems not annoyed by my delay.
When I hang up I notice the officer has changed his tact. “You decide what I should do,” he says. “I take you to police station and arrest you, or forgive you and let you go?
“Let me get this straight,” I say, “I can either go with you to the police station and be arrested, or you forgive me and let me go?” Let me think about it, I’m tempted to say, knowing I could really use a good police arresting.
“All things being equal, I think I will go with you forgive me and let me go.”
We go through the story again–this is like what the eighth time?–and each additional telling has me sounding more and more like a Jedi trying a mind trick “forgive him you will, so on his way, he can go.”
Duh – it finally it occurs to me that I am the elder in the situation and he cannot leave unless I give him permission to go. So I thank the officer, we shake hands, snap middle fingers, and I express my gratitude again. He plays right along, now begging to take his leave. After he gets out, I roll down the passenger side window and ask “What can I do for you?” Water. It is a hot afternoon, and they are on an all-night shift. As I’m driving away I think “for I was thirsty and you gave me water.”
Suzanne is there waiting by the side of the road, and happy to see me. We fill the car with fuel, and pick up some water on the way to pass by and drop off some water to the thirsty officers as a “gift from our hearts.”
When Stopped by Ghana’s Police, here are four things to try:
1) See the humanity of the situation. Nothing is personal, we are all players in the same story, so try to make it an interesting one, but not too interesting.
2) Explore the tension between respecting their uniform; and interacting with them human beings.
3) Do not fear, get angry or ugly with an officer, but be playful as appropriate,. This step comes after #2. Once, I was playful before I had respected the uniform/AK-47, and not being serious nearly got me into big trouble.
4) Do not try to hurry the situation. Compared to all the other options, you do have all the time in the world. Show you are not in a hurry and are willing to reason and appeal to his humanity while waiting him out.
Getting worried by the police is a fact of life in Ghana, but it can also lead to interesting stories that are fun to tell. Thanks for reading mine.
Reporting from Ghana, West Africa this is Steve Buchele.