(I’m going to hop back in time to the end of March, just as I was leaving Sudan. Forgive me the lapse in time, but hopefully the story will be worth the wait. It's a bit long, so grab a cup of tea first!)
Leaving Sudan that last day was hard, but I had already shed all my tears. So my face was dry.
Our flight left early that morning carrying our pilot, me, two other staff members (Dennis and Margaret), and a handful of Kenyan pastors who had been visiting to teach.
Our first stop was Rumbek --a forty-five minute flight from Tonj and our official exit site for Sudan. With the laws changing we needed to get our visas stamped properly to leave the country. But more than that, it was the perfect occasion to meet up with my Rumbukian friends for one final goodbye and to pick up a necklace that was on back-order.
This necklace was a mixture of plastic rods, Sudanese beads, and bullet shell casings. It epitomized the essence of S. Sudan for me, and I wanted it as one last memento.
Since it was finally ready, my friends met me at the airport with the necklace during my lay-over. I was so pleased with how the necklace had turned out, that I put it on immediately.
Touching it lightly with the tips of my fingers, I smiled to think of this last token of Sudan, then boarded my flight for Loki --the next stop on our flight home.
After Loki, we boarded another puddle-hopper for Nairobi. As we bounced our way back to Kenya, I noted the even weight of the shells on my neck and smiled. The turbulence was particularly difficult that day, but I didn’t notice it much. My heart was already in too much upheaval from my recent goodbyes.
Since our plane was small it took us longer to get to our destination and we landed late in the evening; the hustle of unloading bags and jostling boxes took my full attention and I didn’t pay attention to the guard motioning to my neck. I just walked on past him to the taxi stand.
Initially I thought he was just admiring my prize and so I nodded my thanks and moved on. But as I waited for my ride to show up, the airport guard brought a policeman up to me and pointed accusatorially at my neck.
Finally the blue-suited officer spoke:
-- “This necklace is offensive. Come with me,” he barked, signaling for me to follow.
Confused how a necklace could be ‘offensive’, I wrinkled my brow and asked him to repeat himself.
And he did just that.
-- “This is offensive. This is very offensive. Come with me,” he continued on. Initially I followed him as he marched with irritated purpose... until he took me behind barred gates.
-- “What is the meaning of this? I’m not going to go with you... my friends are there,” I protested politely, signally to my friends standing by the curb. “I don’t understand the problem.”
Thin-lipped to begin with, he proceeded to pinch his lips into even tighter lines until they all but disappeared. Then he pointed at my necklace with disdain and said, “This is offensive. This is offensive!” He was starting to sound like a broken record.
“This is absurd,” I laughed. “I’ll take it off if it is offensive,” I said, turning my back to him and walking back to my friends. By the time I reached them, the ‘offensive’ object was removed and in my pocket.
I figured that I’d committed some kind of social gaff, and was trying to politely cover up my blunder. But by the time I got back to my portion of the curb, Mr. Thin Lips was at my heels.
-- “You have to go to the police station!” he insisted, pointing to a concrete building around the corner.
-- “What?” I sputtered. “Why?”
It’s at this point my driver, then Dennis, then two of the pastors on my flight all chimed in on my behalf. As they warbled in Kiswalhili, I tuned them out. All I could think of was how ridiculous Kenya was... yet again.
I mean... come on. I’d taken off the ‘offensive’ article. What was the big deal?
By this time the thinned-lipped officer was now red --as red as his charcoal complexion permitted. And as time lapsed, his color deepened.
With more annoyance than fear, I watched my friends banter and beg. They seemed scared for me, but for the life of me I couldn’t understand why.
Eventually, Mr. Thin Lips climbed into our taxi --AK47 cradled in his arms-- and escorted us to the police station. Everyone around me looked stressed, but all I felt was annoyed. This was too much pompous chicken scratching in the dirt for one day. I mean, come on. I’d already taken off the necklace. What else did they want?
The station was literally around the corner and we got there in no time. As we piled out of the taxi, I still couldn’t figure out the hubbub. And... I was too tired to care.
Three steps and we entered the police station only to be greeted by three more thin-lipped Blue Suits. My accuser then confiscated my necklace and handed it to his comrades.
--Seriously, what was his deal?
He held it high like a prized medallion for all his friends to see. Five copper bullet casings interspersed with plastic and ceramic bobbles hung accusatorially... but I still couldn’t figure out why.
First my friends spoke in my defense. But they switched so quickly between Kiswalhili and English that I could not follow the conversation. But what I did grasp was that they wanted to fine me... no... they wanted to put me in jail.
It’s at this point, I took a step back and watched. What was I missing?
All the while, my heart was calm. I didn’t feel the slightest bit stressed by it all. If they wanted to put me in jail, I’d go. Seriously, what did I care? As best as I could see, this was just another shake down for a bribe.
My necklace exchanged hands a few more times, while the story starting shifting. Only when they started threatening my Kenyan friends with culpability did I perk up. One officer kept insisting that Dennis was Kenyan and therefore should have know about my offensive act. Perhaps he should be fined instead.
It’s at this point things finally clicked in my brain, and I started reinterpreting the conversation in my head.
“Offensive must mean something else in Kenya,” I thought to myself. But the only definition that I could conclude by the circumstances was “Illegal”.
So I inserted “illegal” where they said “offensive”, and it all fell together. They wanted to arrest me, put me in jail, then fine me for bringing in illegal contraband into their country.
How could I be so dense? No wonder they were all stressed and I was not!
-- Ignorance truly is bliss!
Once I realized I was smuggling in contraband, I was even more willing to go to jail. Honestly, part of me was curious what it’d be like. I’ve never been to jail in the States before... why not go to one in Kenya!
But I didn’t tell them I wanted to go to jail. Instead, I interrupted the long discussion with a slight raise of my hand.
-- “Excuse me. May I speak now?” I asked as humbly as I could. The room quieted down to hear what I had to say, and the main Blue Suit motioned for me to speak.
-- “I am so sorry. I am not from here, and I am just now starting to understand,” I began. “I realize now that I’ve done something illegal, is that right?” I stressed the word ‘illegal’ and locked eyes with my accusers. They nodded, a bit relieved that this silly American was finally clueing in to the severity of the situation.
-- “Also, I must sincerely apologize to you, Sir,” I said motioning to Mr. Thin Lips. “I am so very sorry I did not understand that ‘offensive’ meant ‘illegal’. Had I known I would never have disobeyed you.”
I meant every word.
-- “Sirs, please tell me. What do I need to do to fix this?” This one question settled the room instantly and they switched back to Kiswalhili.
Although we’d already wasted over an hour in discussion by this point, it looked as if I had not yet spoken to everyone; I still needed to speak to the head hancho. It’s at this point I was ushered into the back office to meet their chief.
The room was large but crowded with an oversized conference table, a dozen metal chairs, and a clunky desk. Behind the desk sat a opened-faced man in his forties. He greeted me kindly, indicating the chair before him. And I sat down.
-- “You know this is very offensive in our country,” he explained with a slight smile. I nodded then apologized again.
-- “Yes. I understand that now. I would never have brought it here if I had known. Please forgive me.” I felt complete peace while we spoke.
-- “Even having one of these shells gives me permission to fine you 10,000 shillings and put you in jail,” he explained clearly. “You have five of them!”
-- “Yes. I do. I am so sorry.”
-- “If I put you in jail, you will have to be here all weekend,” he explained, watching my face while he spoke. “The judge must see your case,” he continued, “and he does not appear until next Monday.”
It was Friday evening. That meant I’d be spending the weekend in jail. I didn’t love the idea... but again. I didn’t mind if I had to go. God would work it out. I had utter peace.
Then he hesitated a bit, so I spoke.
-- “Is that what you want to do?” I asked him kindly. “You tell me. I am a foreigner here. I will do whatever you say. How do I fix this?”
He laughed out loud at this point, and sat back in his chair. As we studied each other, he continued to explain that if he put me in jail, I’d be there all weekend. I think he wanted me to understand the severity of the situation. I assured him that I did.
I listened intently, willing and ready to serve the time for my crime. I told him that if he thought that was necessary, then that was necessary. Then I smiled.
I wasn’t interested in losing my necklace... but I figured that it was long gone by this time. Instead I focused on whether or not I’d be spending the weekend in jail.
I couldn’t tell if he was waiting for a bribe or not. So I continued to smile and waited.
He just looked at me again, laughed, then changed the conversation.
-- “Why would you wear a necklace like this?” he joked, holding the necklace up for us both to admire.
-- “I find it very beautiful. I paid a lot of money for it,” I said sweetly.
That just made him laugh harder.
-- “Why would you pay money for this?” he said with mock surprise.
-- “It’s a beautiful reminder of Sudan. Don’t you see how beautiful it is?”
He laughed whole-heartily by this point, looking back and forth between me and the necklace. I could see he was still not convinced, but there was no denying... he was thoroughly entertained.
He hesitated a few seconds then finally said: “I will not arrest you. Instead I will take all your bullet shells and you will take your beads.”
I nodded that such an agreement was more than fair... then he proceeded to pull my necklace apart.
I was sad to lose my necklace within hours of buying it.... but I was more relieved not to spend the weekend in jail.
With string, beads and plastic bobbles in hand, I stood and thanked him for his kindness, shook his hand briefly, then turned to leave.
With my hand on the doorknob, I turned to tease him one last time. “Make sure you don’t make a necklace with those shells!” I joked “Your wife will not appreciate it!”
Our eyes met and I held my breath for his response.
We locked eyes a moment and then he laughed so loud it echoed down the hall and into the lobby. On my way out his officers asked what happened and I explained, “He took my shells and gave me my beads. I can go now.”
I walked toward the door confidently, but my friends hesitated to follow.
Once we were back in the car, Margaret asked, “Did you have to pay a bribe?”
-- “No. He did not ask me for one.”
-- “But...” she hesitated again, “they cannot ask. You have to just offer.”
-- “Well then, no. I did not offer. I was willing to go to jail.” She looked at me in disbelief, so I continued. “I was NOT willing to pay any bribes. I think he realized that and just let me go.”
Only once we were well on our way, did it occur to me how annoyed my friend had been. Apparently, my stubborn refusal to go with the officer, my initial denial of all guilt, and my insistence that he not take my necklace away... had put them in quite the bind. So I apologized.
I really was sorry I’d upset them... but I wasn’t sorry for the experience.
One thing’s for sure... the next time a Kenyan accuses me of being ‘offensive’, I’ll know what he means!