Saturday, August 13, 2011


On Friday, we met with Alex, a volunteer consultant from South Africa who has been working closely with the maize mills project for the past six months. An engineer by training, Alex was responsible for studying the technical aspects of the mills and deciding on the specifications for the machine being tested at the first pilot site in Nampula province. During our interview–we're trying to collect extensive footage for our thesis paper and presentation in the fall–Alex talked about the poor quality of existing mills in the region and the need for higher technical standards as well as regular upkeep and maintenance, which will be provided by TechnoServe.

For lunch, we headed to A Nossa Casa, a waterfront seafood restaurant on Avenida da Marginal, and enjoyed grilled prawns and calamari. Among other topics, Alex questioned us about the overuse of the word "awesome" in American English. "Awesome like a celestial event or awesome like a hot dog?" he asked.

Maputo coastline

Then began our run-ins with the infamous corrupção of the Mozambican police force.

Our first incident occurred on the way back from lunch, after we accidentally made an illegal U-turn on Avenida Julius Nyerere. (It probably did not help that we were four conspicuous foreigners in Alex's bright yellow Land Rover, complete with a South African license plate.) A uniformed policeman chased after the car, motioned for Alex to roll down the windows, chastised him for committing a "very grave" crime, and threatened to take us all to the station, where we would face criminal charges. Then, in a sudden about-face, he lowered his voice and offered to settle the matter privately in exchange for money to buy himself a refresco (refreshment/soft drink), a word that doubles as Mozambican slang for a bribe. At first, we attempted to be oblivious to his illegal solicitation, but it became clear that this policeman was not going to let us off easily. He continued to repeat that our only alternative was to let him into the vehicle and drive together to the station, probably an empty threat, albeit one that we did not want to test. We ended up handing him 100 meticais (about $4) and drove away.

We were stopped again just a few hours later, this time while walking down the street with Alex and Sudaif about two blocks from our hotel. We were spotted by four policemen—not a difficult feat when a Korean, a white South African, a Pakistani, a Colombian, and a Dominican are hanging out together in Maputo—who called out for us to stop. They asked us where we were from ("mostly America" was not a satisfactory response, incidentally) and what we were doing in their country. Unmoved by the fact that all five of us were in Mozambique to study and promote domestic economic development, the policemen then asked us for our identification documents, a standard bribe-seeking procedure. We had been advised to expect this and were thus prepared with copies of our passports but were nervous nonetheless after hearing about the arbitrariness of local policemen, who are sometimes known to reject photocopies if they are folded or otherwise "imperfect". Sure enough, one officer pointed out that I was missing a copy of my visa authorized by a local notary and, after the usual blustery speech about the authority of the law, asked me to buy him a refresco. Unfortunately for him, the fact that we were so close to the hotel undermined the credibility of his threats; when he refused to walk back to the hotel with me to pick up my passport, we even offered to start heading toward the station with him while one of us could run and fetch the passport. Finally, realizing that they had a losing case and that we were not a typical, non-Portuguese-speaking group of clueless tourists, and also apparently distracted by Diandra's Rio de Janeiro accent (considered highly attractive by Mozambicans, possibly due to the influence of Brazilian telenovelas), the policemen decided to let us go.

Our third bribe solicitation was the most organized and serious one of the day. We were driving back from dinner to Sudaif's apartment when we were stopped at a roadblock manned by six police officers. More than a little annoyed by the fact that this ordeal was about to happen again, we were initially determined not to give in, but it quickly became clear that the little police gang was not going five foreigners through without transferring some meticais: unlike the officers we had encountered previously that day, these directly asked us for money, perhaps assuming that we would not understand the refresco reference. When Alex handed over the 50 meticais he had in his pocket, though, they immediately beginning yelling "Crime! Crime!" and explained to us (with a straight face, no less) that attempting to bribe an officer of the law is a serious criminal offense. At this point, we realized that this had been their strategy all along, so that they could extract a much larger sum from us now. After some quick thinking, we pulled out our phone and, when asked what we were doing, replied that we were calling the American embassy. It was a calculated gamble—we did not have the number, nor would we have known what to expect if we actually called. But the officers, now flustered, began to yell and ordered us to turn off the phone. We continued with our bluff, and it worked. Deciding that it was easier to let us pass than to deal with diplomatic complications, they grumblingly removed the roadblock, and we took off.

Incidentally, all but one of the cops we ran into today were carrying AK-47s. The conclusion, eloquently articulated by Sudaif later last night: "I would rather deal with wild hyenas than Maputo policemen."

I was constantly reminded of my work last summer with Transparency International, an organization whose mission seems more starkly relevant and urgent to me than ever before.

Thankfully, we won't have to deal with Maputo policemen for a while, since we'll be spending most of the rest of our time here in the northern part of the country. Nampula, já vamos!