I’ve been in and out of Uganda for the last 5 months and for the most part there hasn’t been much ridiculous to report. Yesterday however I had an incident that is very African and quite ridiculous. First, you need some background. I am not working these days, rather I’m doing some volunteer work for openstreetmaps.org as I indicated in my previous posts. What this entails right now is having the driver of a special hire (car) take me drive me in really odd loops around the Kampala while I’m sitting in the passenger seat with my maps, gps, camera, and pad of paper taking notes, marking points, and directing the driver. I also walk some places as it’s more accurate data and slower pace for note taking, but you can cover more ground in a car. Specifically I’m “Mapping Users Needs” such as Clinics, NGOs, Marketplaces, schools, roads, Being an American, a tourist, and a volunteer, I don’t normally carry my passport (for theft reason) nor do I have papers indicating I work for OpenStreetMaps from the government or the organization. etc.
Yesterday around 3pm Daniel (the driver) and I just visited a friends house to check in on it, then drove to a supermarket so I could pick up a few things before we set off on our mapping for the day. We drove all of a few hundred meters up the street from the supermarket and noting a sign for the United Nations Clinic we drove towards it. The clinic itself is a UN faclity, which means it had Police Guards, a barrier, and the razor wire fencing (that many homes have too), but although there are signs on the street there were no signs on the barriers or building. So I asked the Police guards if this is the UN Clinic. Little did I know that this question would end up being a major annoyance lasting many hours that carried over to today. They started asking me questions about who I am, why I’m doing this, who it’s for, what the purpose of knowing the UN Clinic, etc. Being a transit person and growing up in the US under US rights of self-indictment I often times give vague answers to questions and don’t volunteer large amounts of information, especially in situations where you are suspected of something. I gave them what information I could, but continued to ask them what the problem they had was, which I got very little of the information about. This is all at about 4-4:30pm, eventually they took my Colorado Drivers License and Daniel’s papers into the clinic asking us to wait. I later learned that they went in and spoke to someone at the UN Diplomatic Security Service, who asked them to check me out. They did not tell me this however, so I was outside waiting in front of the clinic with no idea what’s going on, dealing with Ugandan Police (some of whom were carrying AK-47s as they do), feeling rather intimidated & rather pissed off.
Around 5:30pm they eventually asked us to go over to the police post with them where they would have me talk to their superiors. Mind you although one of the Corporals who accompanied us to the Post was uniformed, another Constable was not, and they did not identify themselves (no name tag, badge, or ID). This was also true of the Inspector who took my case history, life history, travel history, and incident history. I’ve been more frustrated in my life, but not often. When someone who isn’t uniformed and doesn’t identify himself in a country that has the possibility of being corrupt starts inquiring about where your parents, brothers, and friends live, I’m get somewhat offended and retort sharply. In addition to being asked idiotic things irrelevant to the incident, I had a heck of a time understanding this Inspector who was using techniques of superiority which don’t sit well with me. (i.e. things that go beyond polite) It can be said there was a cultural difference here, and I did manage to keep my cool for the most part and did get through this. I did however start texting and calling friends, specifically a friend of mine who works for human rights organization here in k’la and asked if she could help. I became increasingly concerned about this as I continued to asked what the issues was at hand they still wouldn’t answer and I wasn’t sure if they were ramping up for a bribe or something more serious. I asked my friend if she could indicate a lawyer, and I did this while the Inspector was speaking to me intentionally to make him understand I wanted more info and results.
Finally that ordeal ended, which I’ll admit afterwords was the most ridiculous part of the whole incident. The inspector took me to the Officer-In-Charge of the station. A youngish looking guy who wasn’t in uniform either. The inspector recounted his findings (slightly skewed) and the detaining officers started to explain, however they up and took it to the next room with the un-uniformed Division Police Commander (DPC). I sat for 15-20 mins while they chatted, then they called me into another couch (Daniel is still here and asked to stand outside). At this point I finally understand more of what’s going on, as I mentioned previously, the detaining officers called and asked someone what to do and they said to send it up the line. They thought of me as a suspicious person, and apparently there is a increased security threat alert right now, so they were trying to determine who or what I was. At the time I thought it was ludicrous that they would suspect a white umuzungu as a terrorist, especially one with such as bad cover story that it took hours to explain what openstreetmaps was, that it was a volunteer activity, and that my reasons for doing this was primarily altruistic and maybe I can make money off selling it later. I’d send a Uganda, or I wouldn’t even bother as most people around new it was a UN clinc (and it had signs on the road).
In any case the DPC similarly though this was a waste of time as he was familar with google maps and could understand the notion of openstreetmaps.org, but he still had protocol to deal with. He was a bit put out as the detaining officers did not report to him, they were VIP police who brought this to the local division. Something that he didn’t consider suspicious, nor an uncovering of secrets (as the UN clinic is publicly noted on the road). As I didn’t enter the barrier, then he was befuddled as to why they stopped me. At this point it was 7-7:30pm and the UN Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) has gone home, but he called the US Embassy. They sent someone over, who turned out to be a Investigator for the State Department Diplomatic Security. As I didn’t have my passport and the office were close at the US Embassy too, they eventually said they had two options. Detain me overnight or go with me, get my passport, and I’ll return the next morning. It took some haggling, but the latter was finally chosen. Even that took another 15 mins to sort out as trying to figure out the logistics of what car they were taking, who was going with who, and how they were returning required haggling, repetition (something very african in nature, even if you understand something the first time you tend to get it repeat two or three times), and finally decision.
I finally returned home last night at 9pm, took picture of the investigators US ID, got his card and gave him my passport. I got on the horn with several people, but was just hungry, tired, and zoned out by this time so I eventually just went to bed. I didn’t sleep overly well as as it was a rather nerve wracking situation and it wasn’t exactly over I was to meet the investigator at the police post this morning at 10am to get my passport back, assuming everything was cleared up.
I arrived with Daniel this morning at the police post, met the investigator who said I came up fine and had no warrants outstanding. We waited for the DPC (not the VIP Commander but the local DPC), I chatted with the constable who detained me and the investigator. After only brief wait we saw the DPC (now uniformed). The Embassy Investigator indicated his (non)findings and the constable was asked if this resolved his situation, and the DPC said he was satisfied and I left.
Oy vey! Who knew that African bureaucracy and American isolationism would meet in such as abstract way. This all started because the intelligence services think al qaeda types are using Uganda and Eastern Africa as a operations area. (I’ve gotten several emails from the US embassy listserv about this.) Both because of this and the christmas increase in crime (that the embassy also warned about while relating an incident involving Americans) there is an increased threat level. I’ll admit that I should have carried a copy of my passport and I can sort of see why I might be a suspicious character in this situation, but the aforementioned method of umuzungu intelligence gathering seems to make me a unlikely suspicious character. Add the repetitions, time consuming, personalized, and seemingly asinine way of determining my (non)suspicious character that is the Ugandan way, and I’ve just seen a part of Uganda I hope I never see again. If this constitutes a mix up, what constitutes a crime?
It was all taken care of though. I’ll go on with my mapping, and I think I’m headed back to the states here soon, as I’m not making enough head way on making money. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.