The po-po

I have had more encounters with police in the four months I’ve been in Malawi than in my entire life in the United States.  Though vaguely aware of this trend, it didn’t really strike me until I spent the last two days driving around the country.  Within a three hour radius of Lilongwe, I went through no fewer than eight police barriers and was stopped at additional checkpoints no fewer than three times.  Now, Mom, before you get worried, none of these stops were because of or resulted in violations.

Perhaps because there are so few police cars in this country, a favorite police trick is the routine traffic stop.  The instruction manual must go something like this:  Gather five cops.  Outfit them in neon vests.  Dump them on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere without a car.  Have one cop stand in the middle of the road and wave ambiguously at oncoming traffic.  Question each car that interprets the wave as a signal to stop.  Check license, registration, lights, wipers, etc., at will.  Under no circumstance may more than one cop inhabit the roadway at one time.   Despite traffic buildup, the other four cops must remain on the side of the road.

There are semi-permanent police barriers at regular intervals along the M1, the main North-South highway in Malawi.  Made of weighted 55-gallon drums and hinged “arms” that go across the highway, these barriers are either open – in which case, one just slows down – or closed.  If closed, one must wait for the police to come out of their little tin shack to open the barrier (good luck if it’s raining), but these barriers rarely involve any sort of extended questioning, at least if one is in a sedan.  Minibuses and matolas piled high with people and belongings are prone to greater scrutiny.  In cases of random traffic stops, however, the tables are turned:  nicer cars are targeted far more frequently than the rickety hunks of metal, presumably because nicer cars are more able to pay for any violations incurred.  (Disclaimer:  this is based on anecdotal rather than statistical evidence.)  Speed traps often let minibuses roll on through, but heaven help you if you’re speeding in a shiny Toyota truck with an NGO logo on the side.

I am pleased to report that I’ve only been stopped once for actually doing something wrong, and it was because I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt.   Honestly, I do almost always wear it, but I had just pulled out of a parking lot in a hurry to get away from some very persistent fruit sellers.  Anyway, 100 meters later, bam – I was waved down.  Another of Malawi’s legal oddities is that while one may pay speeding tickets on the spot (another incentive for stopping the cars that can pay – these are police in the middle of nowhere, remember?), paying a seatbelt ticket  requires a trip to the police station.  Since I didn’t know where the police station was, and since Malawians are reluctant to give adequate instructions to ensure the completion of a task, the policewoman let me go after I asked about 15 questions about what I had to do next.  Maybe being an ignorant expat does have some advantages, after all.

I imagine that the ratio of police : citizens must be a requirement of some of the “good governance” money that Malawi gets, given the sheer number of them on the road.  And perhaps building a large police force – even if they are completely ineffective against things like actual crimes – is a sound method for job creation.  But the combination of not many paved roads and relatively low traffic volume + lots of bored police = frequent stops, even for (relatively) innocent drivers like me.

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2 Responses to “The po-po”

  1. Rachel Says:

    Just wanted you to know…I have finally caught up with the blog posts I have missed lately. Your stories continue to amaze me.

  2. Kaitlin Says:

    Amy! I miss your updates! I hope all is well there!

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