I can hear myself tap the steering wheel with the rhythm of the music from the radio while we are standing in line for the next road block. The sun is intense, but the black officers who are checking all the vehicles are well dressed in their tailored khaki uniforms, high black boots and matching caps. The AK47 straps cut in their necks I see. That weapon must weigh around 10 kg and looks like a real burden to me. Our windows are rolled down all the way and we both lean out of them when we approach the officers. We think it will be a “hello, how are you?” and wave where they don’t really pay attention to us and we are not worried at all.
But it is different this time. The officer’s face is unreadable when he steps towards our car and peeks his head inside to have a look. In very good English he says:” could you please pull over your car on that side of the road, we will do some routine checks.” With a heavy heart we do as he says.
Out of nowhere three officers circle around our car like bees around a honeypot. Their eyes scan the vehicle like it’s a routine and we are told to stay in the car. The officer who seems to be in charge says: “ all right, we’ll start with your lights, could you please turn them on?” His trained eye immediately detect that the lights above our number plate in the back are not working… He asks me to step out of the car and on my way out I grab the packet of cigarettes and a lighter that we have in the car for these circumstances.
Very smug with himself he points out the lights that are not working. I put on my contemplating face while I get the cigarettes out of my pocket. I can tell by the way his eyes follow the cigarettes that I’m dealing with a smoker. I put one between my lips before I offer one to him. Side by side we light our cigarettes between our dry, chapped lips and with the smoking cigarette dangling from the corners of his mouth he says: “ I will have to fine you for these missing lights, $20,-” He pulls out his ticket book and starts to write things down. I look at the lights and back at him. “But really, there is no problem, I can fix that right now!” I say. I get my screwdrivers from the car and start to take apart the lights. He watches me for a little while and answers: “ well, in that case I still have to fine you for driving around without you licence plate lights.” I glare at him.
“I am not giving you $20,-” I say very firm. “ Officer, we’ve been travelling with this car around the world for over 2 years,” and I show him the map on the side of the car. “ I’ve never been pulled over and fined for something so useless. I will repair these lights and not pay anything.”
The officers breaks eye contact and I can see his eyes travelling down to my pockets. I pull my cigarettes out of them and offer him one. His colleagues take this opportunity and also accept one. The cigarettes are being lit and he looks at me meditatively. “ Ok, keep on driving,” he mumbles. I quickly throw the screwdrivers back in the car, get in the car next to Helga who hasn’t left her spot and tell her what happened as we drive away. “ That explains why you smell like smoke,” she says smiling.
Not 20 minutes later and we are back on the side of the road. This time it’s a young woman in police uniform who has directed us off the road. This time it’s the white reflective tape on the front of our car, which she claims is not the right type and she wants to fine us $20 for it. “ I bought this tape 3 months ago in South Africa according to the specifications the Zimbabwean government set, “ I tell her. She looks at me and politely answers: “ Well sir, the specifications changed about three weeks ago, I will have to fine you for neglecting to follow the rules.”
I look at her quite stunned and decide to follow a different tactic. By now I know that Zimbabwe is mostly run by males and I ask to speak with her supervisor. She walks away to pat an older guy on his shoulder. He walks towards us and repeats what the police lady just told us. Luckily I am now “an experienced smoker” after the last roadblock and I start to perform the same routine as I did at the previous roadblock.
With the cigarette in between my lips I say: “ Sir, we’ve been travelling with this car around the world for the past two years. I have never been fined for something so absurd as this. As you can tell by the reflective tape we put on the front of the car we are trying to follow all the rules the Zimbabwean governments sets. We were not told that the rules had changed recently. Just tell me where to get the right tape and I will make sure everything is sorted out by the end of the day. To fine me for this seems totally unnecessary. “ “ I’ll decide what is necessary,” he replies gruffly. I get my cigarettes out of my pocket and offer him another one. After he’s taken it he say: “ all right, continue.”
That night I am not celebrating our road block victories, but instead I am in bed early with a major headache trying to sweat out all the nicotine from my body.