He wore an automatic assault rifle and an unpleasant attitude.
Dressed in a green police uniform, the officer lounged against the wall and scanned the room. After several minutes he crossed the concrete floor and approached us in line.
“Give them to me.” he said without a please.
Clearly, he didn’t feel any need to identify himself or give any further explanation. I could only assume that he was referring to the stack of American passports in my hands, as my children had not accompanied me on this trip.
“Pardon?” I said. “You want our passports? All of them? Where will you be taking them?” I was hoping for a smidgen of context or clarification. Perhaps he was trying to help us and I was reading it all wrong? Perhaps the hair on the back of my neck was standing on end for no reason? Perhaps something was getting lost in translation?
“Those passports.” he repeated, pointing with his chin. “You must give them to me and wait here.”
Welp. Apparently neither context, clarification, or help would be forthcoming today.
Welcome to Zambia: A stunning country I dearly love, but whose policemen do not love me.
“I’m sorry sir, but I cannot give you all these passports. Why is it, exactly, that you must take them elsewhere? Can I show them to you as we stand in this line? I am happy to do so!” I realized my friend had attached her suddenly-sweaty self to my side like velcro.
The officer looked at me squarely for the first time, and raised his hand. Instantly, there were two other uniformed men – each armed for an airport apocalypse – contributing to the mounting tension. Minutes of uncomfortable and unsmiling police banter ensued as if we were invisible.
Finally, one of the policemen said to me, “You must give him your passports now and wait here with us.”
“Well! Why didn’t you just say so! Of course – here you go then! Take them all for as long as you may need! We’ll be waiting right over here for your immediate return…” said no-one with a stack of American passports, ever.
I was starting to see things more clearly. They wanted a bribe, and any non-compliance on my part would be a deliberate decision to walk down a road that would end badly for me and my team. What should I do? What would you do? (“Not go to Zambia with Kim!” is not an acceptable answer.) I felt unusually vulnerable and disoriented.
Who would come to our aid, if needed? To whom could we appeal, if necessary?
How might this end for two women with no recourse?
[Rewind 1 hour]
The Lusaka airport is notoriously confusing for incoming tourists.
Knowing this, I had suggested to my never-been-to-Zambia team that they go ahead and collect our bags (before someone else did). I tasked one member of our five-person group, an adventurous young woman in her late-twenties, to stay back with me to help pay for our tourist visas.
We made our way over to a far wall and signed our names (with the attached #2 pencil) in the 3-ring blue binder. Unfortunately, the corresponding kiosk marked “Tourist Visas” was unstaffed and empty. This required anyone not fortunate enough to be a “Zambian National” or “Zambian Dignitary” to wait patiently until those lanes had completely emptied before being seen and serviced.
But we had settled into patience, and were not discouraged by the delay.
And so it was there – two women waiting in last place – that he found us. Targeted us, is really most accurate.
“Sir. As I’ve already said, I cannot give you these passports. They are not mine to give. If you really need to take them elsewhere, we will have to go with you.”
This is the part of the story where two American women found themselves brusquely escorted down the hall – flanked in green polyester and so many rounds of ammunition – and deposited in a Zambian holding cell.
The room was large enough for a small desk, a tall filing cabinet, and the two metal folding chairs on which we were instructed to sit. It was hot enough to show hospitality to any desert bedouin. There was a tiny port-hole window near the ceiling secured with bars, of course.
Was there really a single light-bulb hanging from a wire? I can’t remember – probably not – but it would have completed the interrogation feng-shui perfectly.
We sat waiting for the worst, hoping for the best, and imagining the infinite endings of all the what-if’s.
No-one spoke to us when they came in, or when they walked back out.
The passive aggression was killing me!
Our questions went unanswered.
Instead, men carrying heavy loads of chauvinism and artillery, would enter the room unannounced, lean back at the desk, and look anywhere but directly at us. Sometimes they might scribble something illegible on a notepad, or turn their backs to rifle through the ancient metal filing cabinet in the corner. They provided no information or further intimidation.
When it was clear we hadn’t changed our minds about offering them money, they would leave without word.
As the hours passed, boredom and bravery kissed. Or more likely, the suffocating heat and jet-lag started to mess with my discernment.
I grew increasingly curious about the metal filing cabinet in the corner. What was in there? I just had to know! Eve herself could not have been more curious about the forbidden fruit than I was about the contents of that cabinet.
Like a diamond thief negotiating a motion detector, I slowly stretched out my leg as far as was anatomically possible, and wiggled the heavy bottom drawer of the cabinet open with my toe. What the…?!?!! Abandoning all prudence and good-judgement, I stood to heave open the sagging middle drawer.
My friend gasped. “No stinkin’ way!” she said in a fierce whisper. And under the gaze of a life-sized, framed, photo of (former) President Sata…
I quietly shimmied the third squeaky top-drawer open.
We both peered over the edge of the cabinet in disbelief. Can you guess what we saw?
c) Skeleton bones
e) Stacks of passports
You guessed it.
We found hundreds – if not thousands – of foreign passports stacked high to overflowing in each drawer.
The rickety filing cabinet was a goldmine of international identification.
What on earth?
We sat back down quickly to think it over and strengthen our waning resolve.
After much of the day was behind us, we were released to the anxious others with no explanation or apology.
We had been inconvenienced, and I was sorely vexed, but we’d not been harmed or threatened in any real way.
With passports safely in hand, we were instructed to leave the premises – and make it snappy.
But what of those who aren’t targeted as they wait in last place, but who actually are in last place?
What about the poor?
What of those who have no recourse, advocate, status, or power to wait out common corruption?
Who will come to their aid?
Who will clear the snares from the dangerous paths the poor navigate each day? Who will beat the thorny bushes under which the nefarious lie in wait for those with no means? Who will take light into dark places and expose those who harass and and threaten?
Who will stand for those in last place?
Unpunished and unchecked corruption – like the most aggressive cancer – steals the lives, the joy, and even the daily bread from the poor.
Who will show them compassion?
Last week Gary Haugen gave this TED talk on the hidden reason for poverty: I commend his talk, his ideas, his passion, and The International Justice Mission to you wholeheartedly.
Who will fight for the poor?
Peace to you, as the light in you pushes out into all the dark places,
*most images from www.zambiatourism.com