One of the more prominent stereotypes of Africa purveyed in Hollywood movies is that every policeman, soldier, and government official that you cross will demand a bribe. I honestly arrived in Africa with very few preconceptions, but nevertheless came prepared to spar with crooked officials. I say, “prepared,” in a loose sense. I honestly had no idea what I would do, but played through enough scenarios in my head to know the outcomes weren’t pretty. Either I could acquiesce to the request, looking pride and money I could not afford, or refuse, and be at the mercy of the official. Even if a refusal ended with a benign outcome, I was fairly convinced I would botch the job and stand there stuttering embarrassingly before tourists who were handling their bribery with far more class.
To my relief, Malawi has lived up to its reputation for friendliness. The police, military, and government officials here are some of the nicest people I have met. The most likely place to run into police is at roadside checkpoints, which are scattered along Malawi’s major roads. They are the government’s primary method of enforcing vehicle registration and insurance, since patrol cars are still too expensive for ordinary use. The first few times I was pulled aside my pulse quickened and my mind began to race with images of Jack Daniels and wads of cash being coyly surrendered by tanned and muscular movie protagonists. At a roadblock near the capital, I think an officer noticed my apprehension since, after returning to the car with my license, sternly said, “we have a problem here.” His frown then immediately melted into a smile and he slapped me on the back and said, “just kidding, have a great trip.” Luckily for me, the police do not seem interested in booze or money, and if they are, show no compulsion to extort it from me. There are several things, however, the police nearly always want: a friendly wave, pleasant conversation, and information regarding how good your day has been.
The Malawian police also serve a handy dual purpose. Since the quality roads in Malawi are not accompanied by quality road signs, the police are often the only source of reliable directions. They always enquire as to your destination, and are quick to point out, always in non-judgmental way, that you took a wrong turn. I was once told how to drive half way across the country after a friendly police officer realized I had no clue where I was going. I think American cops could really improve their image by emulating the Malawian system. Of course, it might seem a tad patronizing for a police officer to ask if you are having a good day after pulling you over for running a red light. Just a hunch.
I lack the experience to judge whether Malawi is the exception or the rule, but paging through the Africa Lonely Planet leads me to suspect the former. The pages are rife with examples of bribery scams and boarder crossings to avoid. Tourists I have met are frequently hassled at the border crossings and checkpoints of neighboring countries. I am relieved that Malawi avoids this stigma, but nevertheless cannot shirk the feeling that I am missing out on the full African experience. Okay, that’s horrible. No one should ever root for corruption; it is one of the biggest obstacles holding back Africa. Still though, after playing out bribery scenarios in your head, you start to wonder what it would really be like.
Luckily for me, though perhaps not for Malawi, my curiosity was satisfied by a crooked immigration officer at the airport last month. I suppose that even in a country known for its friendliness there are always a few jerks. Jes and I were on route to a Safari with Jes’s family, but first needed to clear immigration. Pat, Wendy, and Elias all had no problem, but Jes and I were told we had to meet with the immigration officer. I half expected this, since at first glance I appear to have overstayed my visa. This is not the case; I was approved for a temporary residence permit and by Malawian law, need only the paper work and not a stamped passport. I had the paper work and had handed it over with my passport, so was understandably a little irked when I was told there was a problem.
“Well, should I go down to the immigration office?” I asked. The immigration paperwork had been courteously handled by a proxy from the airline while we licked ice-cream cones on the observation level. “Oh that’s not necessary,” relied the attendant, “he is going to come up here to talk to you.” That really should have been my first clue that something was wrong, but at the time I graciously accepted the seeming friendly offer to meet in a locale where I could finish my ice-cream unabated.
We choose a secluded table at the corner of the cafeteria and the conversation started out cordially enough. He started with a long drawn-out speech on how Malawi doesn’t issue fines for overstayed visas. ‘Well good,’ I thought, who would open with a line like that if bribery was to come. Looking back, he was probably trying to abolish any chance of legitimately buying our freedom. Nevertheless, at the time I was put at ease and accepted that there must be a simple misunderstanding. Jes and I ardently tried to explain our situation to the officer, but he didn’t seem particularly interested in our story and kept affirming that the permit was invalid.
Undoubtedly, Jes and I first appeared to the immigration officer as easy patsies. We look like young American tourists who overstayed their visa. He also knows that we are shortly scheduled to depart the country by plane, a scenario which probably entails subsequent expensive flights we will not want to miss. Indeed, by all accounts he should have had us over a barrel, but not all was as it seemed. Firstly, we were flying to Zambia on a private plane. There was no connecting flight, and as the only passengers, the pilot was unlikely to leave without us. Secondly, after living in Malawi for 6 months we had acquired some useful contacts and information.
“Why don’t you call the immigration officer who handled this for us in Blantyre,” I said, as I produced a phone number from my wallet. He wasn’t expecting this; as I said earlier, I had given the bribery stuff some thought. He quickly regained his composure and withdrew a cell phone form his pocket and dialed. Jes and I have been learning the local language, but we are unusual in this respect. Most international workers don’t bother since English is so ubiquitous. Now understand that Jes and I are in no way fluent, but at the time, we knew enough to suspect the officer’s conversation was likely to a friend, and not to our contact in Blantyre.
“I am afraid we still have a problem,” said the officer after concluding the call. He then proceeded to repeat everything he had already told us. I began to wonder whether we had been misinformed in Blantyre; maybe we really were in visa violation. After all, the immigration officer undoubtedly knew more than we, and had still said nothing blatant to suggest he was not an upstanding agent of the law. But part of me was still suspicious; little things just didn’t add up. The phone call, the discrepant information, something was wrong. I glanced to Jes and then back to the officer and noticed something peculiar. Usually uniformed men and women in Malawi have name tags, but the man before me seemed to have inconspicuously removed his. ‘That’s odd,’ I thought. “Well, what should we do?” I asked. “Well,” he said, glancing to the ceiling before reaffixing his gaze, “I could allow you to leave for humanitarian reasons.” ‘Sure, fine,’ I thought, whatever it takes to get us out of this mess. “Does that mean we could leave?” I asked. “You could leave today, but it is up to you,” the officer replied phlegmatically. What did he mean, “it was up to us.” Who in their right mind would spend their vacation dealing with entrenched bureaucracy? “You can call your friend in Blantyre yourself if you want, unfortunately my phone is out of minutes,” he said. I was pretty sure this was a lie. I was willing to bet his phone had plenty of minutes, but he knew that we probably didn’t have a Malawian cell phone and would therefore have no recourse. We did actually, have a phone that is; one that was stocked with an unusually high number of minutes that would allow us to call any official in Blantyre, no matter how protracted the conversation. We also happened to have the numbers of several people who are close friends of Malawi’s chief immigration officer. I was pretty sure that in few minutes I could have the personal cell phone number of this guy’s boss. ‘Bring it on’, I thought. I’ll call who ever I need to. And then it came, the final piece of the puzzle, the sentence that confirmed that the officer was not inept, just corrupt. “We can help each other,” he said.
Damn, this guy really did want a bribe. I was sure he could probably detain us, but at this point I was pretty pissed off and was prepared to inconvenience myself on principle. I just hoped Jes was on board. “He wants a bribe Jesse,” said Jes very loudly. Bless her heart, she was on board. Several people at the far corners of the room glanced in our direction. The officer across the table shifted uneasily in his seat. Then Jes continued, still very loudly, “I think we should call the people in Blantyre.” To the shock of the man across the table, I quickly produced a Malawian phone and replied, “I agree, this doesn’t seem right.” I then made a show of searching through contacts to the chagrin of the officer who now realized that he had messed with the wrong two tourists. His ambivalent demeanor quickly faded and he said in a resigned voice, “I think we are okay here.” I personally still wanted to call Blantyre and bust the guy, but our plane was scheduled to depart in minutes. As we passed through the immigration gate, the officer was all smiles. “I called Blantyre and got it all worked out,” he said as I walked past. I thought, ‘yeah right,’ and looked over at Jes as she flashed me a sardonic look.
After the feeling of ultimate victory had subsided, I began to consider whether the officer’s behavior was excusable. In the Africa Lonely Planet guide, a common boarder crossing bribery scam is described in which the author maintains that the officials “shouldn’t be blamed since they have probably have not been paid in months” (I tried to find the page number and exact quote, but the book is over 1000 pages and I failed to relocate it). During the Safari with Jes’s family, I overheard a tourist who was telling a story of how a guard demanded a bribe at a boarder crossing. He finished the story with an air of nonchalance, saying, “hey, he probably needed the money right?” I don’t know why this type of rationalization is so common. Perhaps it is fueled by a sense of guilt arising from witnessing the poverty that is so common in Africa. Perhaps people are masking their embarrassment of being cheated. Maybe stereotypes have made people so expectant, they don’t think twice.
It is very gracious to dismiss corrupt behavior as the product of poverty, however I worry such sentiments are more of an excuse than a cause. I am not about to begrudge a mother or father that steals to feed their family, but how often is bribery done out of necessity? In my bribery experience, the immigration official had a government job, and was therefore relatively affluent. We need to be careful to not excuse behavior that has such severe consequences
Every time a tourist pays a bribe, they are assuaging a personal risk but increasing the likelihood future travelers will encounter a dangerous situation. They are also contributing to a system of corruption that is holding back Africa. When encountering bribery, I would never encourage anyone to put themselves in physical danger, but safe countermeasures can taken. Have your documentation ready, have numbers you can call, and of course, don’t break laws or overstay visas. Most bribery occurs when the victim is at least a little at fault. If you are in the wrong, try to work through official channels even if it is inconvenient. If your relative affluence makes you uncomfortable when traveling in a poor country, donate your time or money to an NGO, but please, don’t allow a sense of guilt to rationalize corrupt behavior.