one thing i’ve learned… (1)

In Tanzania, it is apparently illegal
to talk on the phone while driving.


I had been all day in the blistering sun of Dar es Salaam, attempting to gain possession of our new truck.  This was not the first day I’d done so.  But on this (did I say it was hot?) day I did procure the vehicle, and was slowly making my way north to the SIL guesthouse in 6:00 pm traffic. I was moving along at a speed of at least 2.5 miles per hour, and called Christie to share with her the good and the bad news:

  • Good = I was coming with our truck… at long last.
  • Bad = A few of the truck’s parts were stolen while our warranty was being issued at Toyota of Tanzania.  And it would be AT LEAST an hour before traffic would allow me to reach the guesthouse.

That’s when the police officer waved me over to the side of the road. Thinking he was pulling me over for not yet having registration and insurance posted in my windshield, I began retrieving the papers from my bag.  But he didn’t mention the registration; rather he asked why I was using my phone while driving.  I explained that I would be late to pick up my wife and daughter, and was informing them of that fact.  He kindly offered that I should have parked my truck on the shoulder of the road to make the phone call.  I didn’t argue that the shoulder was already in use by all of the many cars using it in attempts to pass those of us waiting patiently in traffic.

I did, however, answer that I didn’t know it was illegal to use a phone while driving in Tanzania.  He was shocked and asked where I was from — as if all decent countries have laws against mobile phone use while in an automobile.  [I remember when mobile phones could ONLY be used while in your vehicle.  And never mind that I wasn’t technically “operating” the vehicle, but was rather inching forward at slower than walking pace….]  I told him I was from the U.S., and he was shocked as if I should have then assumed it was illegal to talk and drive.  He must have thought I was lying when I explained that, to my knowledge, it is indeed legal in the U.S. to converse while at the steering wheel (but not to text?).

I told him that, while I didn’t know at the time I was breaking a law, I would still be happy to pay the appropriate fine because I was indeed a transgressor.  So he got in the car to make the trip with me to the police station (where you must go to have your ticket written — if you pay a “ticket” on the spot in Dar, you have not in fact paid a fine, but rather you’ve bribed an officer).  He directed me to drive on the wrong side of the street, ignore stop signs, make illegal turns, run down elderly women crossing the road with their groceries, and break sundry other rules of the road, all en route to the police station.

On the way to the station — amidst his blatant disregard for all laws of traffic — Mr. Officer explained that I would be required to appear in court the next morning to pay a 250,000 shilling fine (almost $200 USD).  That price tag seemed not only high, but impossible.  [A typical traffic ticket here is 20,000 shillings.]  I was being set up for a bribe.

In good corrupt police officer form, our man began to fret about how in the world he might be able to help me.  After all, he wanted to spare me the extreme hassle and embarrassment of appearing in court and paying such a hefty fine.  He thought this way and that, while declaring his respect for my time and announcing his concern for the welfare of my bank account. He paused awkwardly, waiting for me to respond with an offer as we sat parked just outside the police station.

Instead of offering a small token of my gratitude (10-20,000 shillings), I responded with: So I guess we need to go inside to write this ticket and make arrangements for my court hearing.  I realize I’ve broken the law, and it’s best that I take responsibility for my actions and pay the appropriate fines.  I am ready.

Officer: Well… I suppose I could forgive you just this one time, provided you not let me catch you talking on your cell phone while driving ever again.

Me: Wow.  I’d really appreciate that, but I understand if I need to receive my ticket.

Officer: No, I want to forgive you. [Awkward pause.]  But now there’s just the question of how I’ll return to my post…  I suppose I could take one of those taxis? [Another awkward pause.]

Me: No problem.  I can give you a ride back to your post.  It’s the least I can do.

Officer: But I wouldn’t want you to be an inconvenience by asking you to sit through all that traffic again; you’ll be late to meet your family.  There are lots of taxis right here.  [Awkward pause.]  I just need to figure out how to pay for one of them…. [Very long awkward pause — as the officer was surely reflecting on how he might possibly afford a taxi.]

Me: Yeah, but taxis are so expensive. [Starting my truck.] I understand if you prefer to go with one of those guys, but I really don’t mind at all giving you a lift. [I start to pull away.]

Seemingly surprised at my unwillingness to donate to his cab fund, the policeman gets in the truck and I drop him off right where I picked him up, shorter on time but not on cash… or on integrity.


I still don’t know whether or not it’s illegal to speak on the phone while driving in Tanzania.



Filed under living in africa, one thing i've learned, tanzania

22 responses to “one thing i’ve learned… (1)

  1. Maybe you should text next time. LOL

    • christie called me later that evening — after i rather abruptly hung up on her while saying i was being pulled over. i answered only to tell her she better text me.

  2. Andrew

    Wonderful! How nice of him to forgive you. 🙂

    Now I’m sure you’ve forgiven him as well.

    • he is indeed forgiven. though bribery is a big problem in dar. this was not the only bribe i was asked for during this 6-day stay there. it is a VERY regular occurrence. and what’s worse is that i hear from people living in some other african countries that tanzania has a lot less corruption than… kenya (for instance).

      • Yes. This is a much, much, MUCH more honest country than its neighbors.

        • so i hear. hey, your mom contacted me about bringing you something from kenya, but it was after i was already at the border crossing into tanzania. sorry we missed the timing on that. (and sorry if you don’t like personal messages shared in public — at least i didn’t tell everyone the embarrassing nature of the package… having to do with your recent bout with worms.)

  3. mark

    That was brilliant.

  4. well played! Did he even write a ticket for it? Or did you get that whole experience and blog post for free?

    It’s only illegal in certain states, I’d be a bit skeptical if its illegal in Tanzania. And not only that, its barely enforced here.

  5. Wow. And well done!!! I have no idea what he took away from that, but maybe something…

  6. I wouldn’t be awful surprised if it’s illegal here. I admire your patience and negotiation skills in the situation, and am triply grateful that I have not yet been compelled to drive in this country.

    • i’m generally not a patient person. and before living in tanzania, i very rarely acted with patience. God has been improving me as i go — and africa seems to be just the place for marked improvement in this area…

  7. Jason Miller

    I’m nearly positive it is illegal…and yet have seen officers doing it while driving their vehicles.

    Just like its illegal to drive in flip-flops. Really.

  8. I am so happy you were ”on to him” and his tactics.

    Proud of you and holding fast to your integrity in the face of a painful, annoying, tedious, questionable circumstance.

    I am also, laughing. 😛

    glad to have you back in blog world.

    • integrity, for me, is not hard to hold onto during these discussions with police officers.

      however, when paying for some extremely expensive work to be done on my truck yesterday, it was much harder to grasp it firmly. a relatively common question here is, “do you need a receipt?” to answer with a ‘no’ means you won’t pay 18% tax on top of your purchases; but it also means you’re cheating the government and aiding / encouraging that business in doing so.

      18% of a large bill is a lot of money…

  9. My American roommate came with me to visit my family in Nigeria last year. She wrote about our experience with a bribe-soliciting officer of the law, with a slightly different outcome…

  10. Pingback: mercy, not sacrifice | aliens and strangers

  11. ugh! this story really doesn’t suprise me (except for the possibility that talking on your phone in Tz is illegal..who knew!?)

    that was so well-handled! if it had been me, i would have just caved. the moral of this story = i’d better make sure im not talking on the phone next time i pass the men-in-white on airport road :-/

  12. Pingback: missionary predicament: machine gun bribery | aliens and strangers

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