I was dropping a friend at the airport last week. Here's the thing - I was panicking that we were late, even though he had checked in online. Mombasa Road can be a miasma of confusion and unfairness, and it always feels as if one is an accident or incident away from missing your trip altogether. But when we finally pulled up to the entrance check, I breathed a sigh of relief.
I breathed it too soon. When I pulled up to the scanner, the cop who was searching me - with a wad of miraa stuck in his cheek - proceeded to ask me for my number, after asking if I was dropping a mzungu boyfriend off. Of course I gave him my number. How could I not? This guy clearly didn't have a problem navigating the illegalities of hitting on a citizen while in the clock. How could I be sure that he wouldn't then proceed to manifest another illegality by claiming my car had something in it, pulling me off to the side and making my friend late for his flight? Men acting out when they're rejected has happened before. I daresay it happens every day. And in a position like this where the cop clearly has the power, there aren't many options for a girl in a car with no dashboard camera. It goes without saying that hitting on a police officer puts you in contempt of something or another - but the rule often is not enforced in reverse.
The irony is that the police are here to serve and protect, and all that jazz, and yet the police are the ones who strike the most fear into the hearts of those they are supposed to protect. And sure, it isn't all their fault. But all factors considered - terrible pay, a disorganised mercenary bureaucracy, unfair living conditions, etc. - still doesn't erase the fact that the reaction when most Kenyans see a cop is deep and abiding apprehension. Simply because it always means that your day can be derailed and ruined beyond belief - maybe because you're being caught for something on the weekend, and you'll have no respite till Sunday, or because you don't feel like or generally don't bribe, which will inevitably lead to an unnecessarily drawn-out visit to the cop's station, or even because you don't have something on your vehicle that you had no idea you're even supposed to have.
We feed into each other in this cycle. To avoid the drama, we pay our way out. To avoid poverty, and meet quotas, they ramp up minor spot fine offences into dramatic monsters that we would give anything to avoid - especially when they sense that there's a chance you don't know the law, although heaven forbid you act like you do, which is then taken as a patronising attitude towards their job.
There's a little hope to be found, I suppose, when you think about Alcoblow sometimes taking people off the street when they shouldn't be on it in the first place - but even those instances can be easy to avoid when you have some money or a quick reverse gear. Sometimes, yes, justice is served and the offenders get their just desserts. Other times, it's a game of cat and mouse. We're the mice, in case that's unclear, and the catnip to distract the cop is your wallet. They don't actually care about whether or not you can drive - they care about whether their bosses can. And who can protect the ordinary Kenyan from that? Certainly not the force that perpetuates it.