About two weeks after we moved to Zambia, my youngest daughter and I drove to the airport to meet middle daughter. We had pitched the trip to her as an opportunity to spend ten days working on her final university assignments, far from the social distractions of London and with someone else to take care of her laundry and catering requirements. She, I suspect, was more drawn by the prospect of going back with a suntan but, whatever the divergence of our motives, as I barrelled along Lusaka’s Great East Road towards the airport I was in that heightened state of anticipation so familiar to expatriate mothers about to be reunited with far-flung children. So when a policeman stepped into the road ahead and signalled for me to stop, it was a deeply unwelcome interruption to our journey.
I was speeding, he said. Youngest slid down in her seat. After the customary Are-you-sures and Yes-madams I was invited to drag my guilty butt in the direction of an unmarked police car parked a short distance away. In the rear seat was a female officer of formidable proportions, wearing dark knee socks and a heavy woollen sweater in the lunchtime heat.
She greeted me cheerfully and agreed with my feeble protestations that the speed limit signs on that stretch of road were both confusing and hard to see, but regretted that nonetheless it was her sad duty to fine me.
At this point I should probably say that I have spent some 15 years of my adult life in Kenya, a country of exquisite and varied beauty and of kind and resilient people, but one not known for the integrity of its police force. Stopped once for using my mobile phone while stationary in one of Nairobi’s legendary traffic jams I was asked first directly for a bribe to have the offence overlooked and, when I demurred, was instead invited to give the policeman’s son a job. Another time I was a passenger in a car, again in diesel-choked gridlock, when one of Nairobi’s Finest thumped on the windscreen and informed us that by failing to use our left indicator while sitting in a left-hand-turn-only filter lane, we were committing an offence. We must allow him into our vehicle and drive to the local police station where we would be charged. Or – and here he paused – there might be another way to deal with the matter…
Being stopped by the Kenyan police could have its lighter side too. Several years ago, husband at the wheel, we were driving towards Nairobi on the Mombasa highway when a policeman signalled for us to stop. We had, he said, waving his mobile speed-gun in the air triumphantly, been travelling at 130km per hour. This was absolutely untrue. Even had our ancient jalopy been capable of it, we would never have driven at such speed on Kenya’s lethal and potholed roads and with two tiny children in the back. Husband asked if we could see a printout of some sort to prove this allegation. Aah, responded the police officer, unfortunately there was no printout or, indeed, any record of the speed recorded. Husband then suggested – probably unwisely and perhaps a little rudely – that the policeman was not being entirely truthful. At this he tilted his chin, squared his shoulders and uttered the immortal line, ‘A police officer takes an oath not to lie on the road’.
So back at the roadside on the outskirts of Lusaka my heart was heavy and my expectations low. I had, quite deliberately, left my handbag in my car to avoid any suggestion of willingness to ‘sort this out another way’ but in fact I needn’t have worried. The policewoman reached with some difficulty over her substantial bosom into the depths of the vehicle to withdraw an A4 pad of unmistakably official appearance, crowned by the Zambian crest and embellished with an elaborate, curlicued watermark in green.
At the top was the heading ADMISSION OF GUILT.
At her polite request I handed over my driving licence and she set about completing the form, eventually asking for my signature, and concluding the transaction with the official stamp of the Zambia Police Service, Lusaka Province HQ, Traffic Section Administration. That would be 180 Kwacha (about £18), please, an amount accurately recorded on the Admission of Guilt form, which served as my receipt.
She tore the top copy of the form from her pad, handed it to me with a smile and wished me a pleasant afternoon.
When I had wiped from my jaw the African dust it had picked up as it dropped, I thanked her, returned to my car and proceeded with assiduous attention to the speed limit to the airport, where the happy reunion with daughter duly took place.
Back at home that afternoon, and recalling with amazement the integrity of my first encounter with Zambia’s police, I decided to join the girls and go and lie for a while by the pool. Because of course I, too, would never lie on the road.