Friday, August 28, 2009

Talking Money with the Cameroon Police

I’m standing on a shabby wooden bridge photographing men in canoes pulling sand from a creek to be later mixed into concrete when five policemen suddenly appear.

“You’re arrested. Give me your cameras and your passport,” the policeman in charge orders. “It’s a crime to photograph bridges.”

“I was not photographing the bridge,” I protest, “only from the bridge.” But they shout that I’m telling lies, and arguing in a loud cacophony that I have compromised Cameroon’s national security. I offer the men to give them my film, but they want my camera equipment as “evidence.”

And so the game begins. I know that in much of Africa the photography of government buildings, airports and bridges is prohibited but this humble bridge could have no strategic value, and I did not photograph it. But I have travelled in West Africa often enough to know that those men couldn’t care less about this bridge. They want money, and how much depends on my wits.

Raymond, my driver, a quiet middle-aged man, keeps prudently to the side but our companion, Moise, enraged at the police, lowers the chorus by repeatedly punching the police chief in the face. Moise is tall, vigorous and short-tempered and puts up such fierce resistance that it takes five policemen several minutes to handcuff him. I watch in disbelief. Then everyone calms down.

We sit down on a couple of benches under a palm roof around the end of the small bridge where the men had been hiding. A strong smell of marijuana permeates the air and the chief uncaps a large bottle of beer. He swallows it in one draft, and throws the empty bottle to the ground next to several others. His eyes, as are those of the other policemen, are bloodshot. For a while nobody talks and I simply wait.

The chief avoids dealing with me directly, though we are sitting only a few paces apart. He uses Moise as the messenger and wants $300 tin exchange for our release.

“Tell him that I want to see a judge,” I tell Moise.

“A judge?” he asks . “Do you want to spend a week behind bars waiting to see one, and then to pay him at least ten times that amount?”

And so Moise goes back and forth between the officer and me. Much of my money is fortunately well hidden, and I keep insisting that I can’t pay even the steadily decreasing amount that the officer would accept.

This lasts for over two hours, and the police is getting more impatient than I am. In the end they settle for the content of my wallet: about $40,00.

That paid, the police return my photographic equipment and passport and release Moise. Now all five men warmly embrace us, including Moise.

“Have a good trip and stay away from police,” they shout as we drive away.