Officers, a smile wouldn’t hurt anybody

Friday night, or should I say Saturday morning, I was tiredly driving home after a night out drinking and dancing with friends when I came upon a traffic police roadblock slightly beyond KBC. If you’ve been drinking too much a traffic police checkpoint is the scariest sight in the world and with good reason. Rwanda has some of the toughest drink-driving laws I’ve ever encountered; spending a day or two in prison and then paying a huge fine is a punishment you’ll expect to receive. I knew that, and I’d been drinking quite moderately. So, when I saw the roadblock, I didn’t have the jitters.
When I was stopped I cheerfully greeted the police officer and waited instruction. “Give me your papers”, he demanded. “Which ones, I asked insurance, vehicle registration or permit”? “Your permit”. I gave it to him smiling but obviously I had done something to rub him the wrong way. Maybe it was the car radio that I refused to totally switch off. “Are you drunk”, he asked. “No”. “Yes you are”. “Prove it”. He ordered me to get out of my car and follow him towards a group of his colleagues. One of them, who looked like he’d had a bit too much to drink in my unprofessional opinion, didn’t like my entire demeanor, especially when I insisted in speaking to them in English. Of course you can say I was provoking them by not speaking in Kinyarwanda but anyone who has heard me speak it can attest to the fact that I’m better off not attempting it. Funny enough, the rude officer, who kept insisting that “this is not London”, was the one not wearing a uniform.
The group of officers, maybe four or five, kept attempting to get me to admit that I was drunk while I kept insisting that they employ a breathalyzer. Seeing that I was sticking to my guns (and citing our law on official languages) Mr. Un-uniformed Officer asked, “are you a lawyer”? I certainly wasn’t going to tell him I was a mere writer, so I said yes. They pulled me aside and unleashed the dreaded breathalyzer. I cheerfully took a deep breath and blew hard into the contraction. It beeped and then a few seconds later showed its reading. The officer who was administering the test asked me to blow into it once more. I did so. But something was wrong; they didn’t look too happy. My blood alcohol level was still very low. They gave me back my driving permit and bade me adieu. But they didn’t look too happy. Actually, to be honest, they looked like I had robbed them of good fun.
I can’t assume to know what they teach in traffic police training school about service, but I’m pretty sure that officers aren’t taught to think that a law abiding citizen is the bad guy. In fact, I’m of the opinion that I should have had a lot better treatment because I wasn’t a menace to fellow drivers. But in all honesty, all I felt was open hostility.
Rwanda is touting itself as the service and ICT hub of Central Africa but I must ask, how will this be possible when something as simple as common courtesy is lacking? When good, law-abiding behavior is not rewarded by a smile and a wave goodbye? Are we supposed to stay in our homes on weekends because we might be the victims of bullies? We are celebrating ‘Traffic Week” and all the talk is about road safety and what not. While it’s is pertinent that the National Police asks us to be responsible, I feel that they must also treat us, with respect and courtesy. A smile wouldn’t kill you dear officers.


3 thoughts on “Officers, a smile wouldn’t hurt anybody

  1. Alex says:

    I had a similar experience when leaving Kigali through Kanombe Airport earlier this year. I went through security checks twice, once before checking in and a second time before boarding. So I took off my shoes and watch each time and my belt, metal objects and bags went through scanners.
    As with your experience with the police, no one smiled and although I was dealt with in total by more than 10 people there was only one “thank you”. I realise that there is no word in Kinyarwanda for “please”, the nearest being “mushoboye”. Either way it is never used in my experience. An instruction to remove my watch was one word “Watch!”. That was it.
    Security checks are important, like traffic checks, but in time I hope that smiles and the use of “please” and “thank you” will be introduced.
    Let me say straight away that the equivalent officials in other countries, despite being public servants, can be unfriendly, rude and even discriminatory. This applies in so-called developed countries as well although there people have learned that a bit of politeness can help the queue to move more quickly.
    In my two weeks in Rwanda I found that a smile and a bit of Kinyarwanda and kwihangana (“patience”) was reciprocated. My dealings with bank clerks, waiters, vendors, security guards, civil servants (senior and junior), citizens – everyone in fact – proceeded in a spirit of friendly co-operation.
    So once in the airport I felt a sort of culture shock. It felt like I had already left my second home.
    The best use of easy charm I encountered in Rwanda was from a parking attendant near Kismenti. As I got out of the car her request for the payment for parking was accompanied by a broad smile. She also asked what I was doing in Rwanda and a man interpreted for us. When I next passed we greeted each other with a wave.
    If Kigali parking attendants go to “charm school” or maybe it just comes naturally, then they (or their teachers) could usefully give some tips to the airport security personnnel and, from what you say, the traffic police too.
    Everyone would be the better for it.

  2. Margaret S. Maringa says:

    I am swinging towards that common adage that observes HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY. The current Rwandan government does not have a reputation for being Uncle Peremende. Rather this government has chosen the path of “extreme technocracy” meaning the practise of swift and efficient public service — kindly leave your emotions at home.

    Secondly — the majority of the Rwandan police force are ex-army types highly admirable in their professional skills — but absolutely lacking in basic “Emotional Intelligence” which unfortunately is a very crucial factor in handling civilians. Even the great GENERAL PETRAUS (US Chief of Defence Staff) needed this usually overlooked skill in order to gain the trust and support of the Iraqi civilians.

    So you see — we need a lot more than faked smiles from your policemen!!!

  3. OK says:

    I encountered the Rwandan police on three occasions and 2 were at best dealt with mediocrity that can best be described appalling.
    I do therefore understand your predicament. Our police can do with a lot of soft skills that comes with communicating with ordinary citizen. After all they work for us not the other way around.
    The first occasion was when I parked at Kacyiru KBC when I was picking up someone. There were lots of cars parked there and this fellow who appeared to be a senior constable instructed one of his subordinate to clamp my car.
    I was at best shocked as I was still in the car and asked why my car was the only one being clamped. I swear the look of total disgust in this guy face made me cringe but annoyed me. Because he would not answer.
    I said to him, OK it is Friday afternoon I can see that obviously you think this is a problem, instead of clamping my car let me pay the fine so I can go about my business. This guy told to wait for him to come back, I asked him what for a why…Gosh this was like talking to a brick wall.
    I waited for this guy till 10:00 pm…By that time my friend I had an appointment with has been told and he tried to talk to the Assistant Police Commissioner. And there is the problem. it should not have gone that far.
    To cut the story short, my Friday evening was ruined, I took a taxi home and waited Sat at 10 am for another officer to declamp my car.

    Again in 2009, I saw this officer who was mistreating this lady accusing her of being a thief. Being a public place I decided to video this. This officer saw this and my God he changed his target and came running towards me. Upon realizing that I was not going to give him my phone he called his superior.
    All along he was complaining how I was a crook who made him loose his concentration, that he was doing his job.
    When his superior came, he was courteous and asked me politely if I can delete the picture. I really was amazed at this guy gusto to keep insisting even when his superior was trying to solve the mess he has obviously created.
    The police is one of those institution that cannot be fixed with cosmetics sadly there is a need to change the attitude in Rwanda.

    Well done on writing this piece.

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