The seatbelt wouldn’t buckle. I tried a few times just to make sure it was the seatbelt’s issue, not mine. It seems tempting fate not to wear a seatbelt, especially in a taxi in Kenya. But I let it go. We weren’t going far.
Ryan and I were planning to meet a KGSA partner for a beer. In hindsight, we should’ve asked the taxi driver to avoid Ngong Road and take back streets. Ngong Road is a major two lane street cutting right through the middle of Nairobi lined with restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations. It is congested at all times of the day. With John, our go-to driver after dark, would have done that without us asking. But John was busy. I was headed down Ngong Road with a stranger at the wheel and a broken seatbelt in the darkness of night.
A few minutes after turning onto the main road, at first sight of a orange cone, a policeman waved his flashlight toward the side of the road signaling us to pull over.
“Is your seatbelt on?” Ryan asked from the front seat.
“No. It’s broken.”
I inserted the buckle as far as I could so it looked locked. There was no click. Two Kenyan policemen in navy uniforms approached the car. One flashed his light in Ryan’s face. The other, using both hands, held a large shotgun diagonally at his chest. Ryan leaned back and locked my door.
“Let me do the talking.” Ryan said. He had done this sort of thing before, many times.
The taxi driver turned the key and shut the car off. It was black outside. I stared at my feet.
The man shined his light right at my unbuckled seat belt. “So, what do we have hear? She is not wearing her belt. You are going to have to pay a fine if you want to pass.”
“No,” Ryan said. “What is your name, sir? What’s your badge number?”
“I do not need to tell you anything. You need to pay.”
“We don’t have any money sir.” We did have money. Plenty.
“I need 4,000 shillings ($46.50 US). Now.”
Ryan laughed. “4,000? That’s rich. This driver is taking us to an ATM machine. I have no cash.”
“What are you going to do about this violation? There must be payment for your offense.”
The light was now shining in my face. The gun was lowered to waist height, in my direct line of vision.
“It’s not illegal to ride without a seatbelt in the backseat. There’s no offense. Give me your name and badge number.”
“You need to pay.”
“No. The seatbelt is broken. The driver can pay. We’ve done nothing wrong.”
“You must pay for your offense.”
“With what money? I have no money. I will not pay your bribe.”
There was a lot of fast talking in Swahili and English. The policeman snide, Ryan angry, the taxi driver silent.
“Can you help us out here?” Ryan asked the taxi driver. The Swahili was getting too fast for him to keep up. The driver did nothing. I focused on my shoes. The volume rose. I was stuck. The man with the light leaned his hand through Ryan’s open passenger window, reached and unlocked the door on my side.
Ryan reached back and locked it.
“We will just have to take the madame downtown.” He said and unlocked my door.
Ryan locked it again. “You are not touching her. You aren’t taking her anywhere.”
“Sir, if you will not pay, the madame needs to come downtown.”
On the shoulder of Ngong Road, men were yelling. Guns and flashlights were waving. I was not a person. I was a piece of meat being bargained for.
“Fine, if you won’t let us go, we’ll walk,” Ryan said.
Deep in the female collective conscience, women have somehow learned that this moment is our worst nightmare. Being in a foreign country in the dark, with foreign men wielding guns, pulling you out of the car. There is nothing to be feared more than this moment. I became aware of my vagina. I had no power or control.
I did not want to get out of the car. Everything depended on me not getting out of the car. If I was, indeed, taken downtown, I would probably spend a boring, albeit uncomfortable evening in a cell. Probably. But then again, I knew nothing of the Kenyan legal system. You just never know how women are treated in another place when no one is watching. Staying in the car was my salvation. I said nothing.
At wit’s end, Ryan asked the driver how much cash he had.
“Okay. Pay them what you have and let’s get out of here. I’ll pay you back half, but it was your broken seatbelt an.” He was upset with us. The two police men took the 2,000 shillings from the driver and waved us on to merge back into traffic on Ngong Road. I exhaled. I was safe in the backseat, but my mind lingered at the side of the road fro the rest of the night.