My day in Kibera’s law court

I’ve lived in Nairobi (“Nairobbery” for some) for almost five years and never once been robbed (though many of my friends have been) or arrested (though my friends have negotiated for me at least twice–once for not having “life savers” (reflective triangles), before I knew we were supposed to.

Over Christmas, I visited the US for the first time since I moved to Nairobi in 2005 (maybe I’ll post on that in one of the coming weeks.) On returning to Nairobi, I was arrested within 12 hours and robbed within 36.

I’m used to being pulled over out of a line of cars going past police checkpoints; white skin can mean quick money. Usually it’s routine: insurance card, check; driver’s license–I hand it over smugly. If they are ambitious, they ask for my “lifesavers” (I’m ready for them now.) Monday, however, the officer looks over my license and says, “Benjamin, do you know that your driver’s license has expired.” I look at him in disbelief, and he hands it to me to verify. Sure enough, Oct. 20. (How did I let that happen?)

So, Benjamin, what are you going to do?
Well, I suppose you will write me up, and I will pay a fine.
Oh, so you already know the system.

I nodded, but was thinking, “just a little bit.” The conversation was over in less than a minute, then I followed him to the police station and just kept reminding myself to be full of God’s peace.  I was second in line to go into the office.
“So… you will need to pay.”
“How much is the fine?”
“How much do you have?”
“What is the amount of the fine?”
“You will need to go to court.”
“Cash bail for us to release you is 5,000.” (about $65 at 75 shillings/$$. )
“5,000!!! [I panicked briefly] I don’t have that much.”
“How much do you have?”
(I did a quick calculation in my head. 1,500 is the amount I often carry; plus 3,000 I added for gas.) “About 4,000.”
“Okay, pay 4,000 and then you can be free.”
“And you will give me a receipt?”
He smiled.
At one point, he flashed out a little card with “Responsibilities of Being a Safe Driver” with bullet points about the importance of being insured, obtaining a valid driver’s license, etc. His hand was covering the last line and he only flashed it for 2 seconds, so I reached out and took it back from him and started reading it more carefully.

“Yes, these are good recommendations for the public, but as you know the actual Traffic Code is much more detailed.” Then I pointed to the part about being a valid licensed driver, and said that I had obtained a valid driver’s license it’s just in the pressure of my studies and my trip to the US, I had overlooked the expiration date.

In bold red print at the bottom of  the card he had flashed me was: “DO NOT PAY A BRIBE TO A POLICE OFFICER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.” I smiled and handed him back his little card.

“I’m sure the fine is less than what you are saying. I looked it up in the Traffic Code, and the amounts are much smaller.”
“Do you have the traffic code in your car?”
“No, I downloaded it form the internet at home.”
“How much were the fines?”
“You are asking me? I don’t remember, but they were much less than 4,000.” [I remembered 200-1,500, but I looked it up again and that it only recommends up to 2,000 or three years in jail—but the judge has total discretion.)]

“You will have to go to court.”
“Cash bail is 5,000.”
(I was about to say, “let me make a quick phone call” but I went through my wallet and started counting; there was an extra 500.)
“Good, you have 5,000.” (I don’t think he really wanted to “lock me up” either.)
I handed it over, and they began to take down my information, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology. The clerk behind the desk casually began to hum a praise hymn.

I took my expired license off the desk and put it back in my pocket.

“We’ll need to keep that,” the clerk protested.
“I’m not contesting the charge.”
“But you could renew it today and show it in court tomorrow.”
“Even if I renew it today, I won’t contest the charges. But I’m afraid that my license will be lost in the exchange between here and the court.” [She didn’t look convinced, but I assume that she knew the likelihood of my license being lost in the paperwork shuffle.]

Here the officer came to my aid. “Just let him keep it. You know the muzungu is different.”
I protested. “It’s not that wazungu are different…” [He should know. Why else would he have picked me out of the long line of cars on the road?]

“Well you are from Nairobi Evangelical School of Theology. You know God is watching you.” I resisted the urge to say, “And God is watching you too.” [Our church (Nairobi Chapel) has challenged its congregation to go to court and pay the fines properly to help bolster the system of justice in Kenya.]

So, I took my receipt (hoping that it had been filled properly), thanked them, and was on my way (about 10 minutes total).

I was still pretty nervous. What would happen in court? Would it be worth it? Might it get worse? Other friends have had some interesting experiences in traffic court that weren’t pleasant. I called a couple of friends and they assured me that it should be relatively routine, but gave me some specific advice. Make sure you take enough money in case the judge decides to stick it to you; you don’t want to be jailed. Take someone with you in case you have to pay in a different room and the court won’t release you; you might need someone else to pay for you, etc.

Josh, a 3rd year MDiv student here, offered to drive me, so I wouldn’t have to drive on my expired license. We were there at 8 as instructed, and the court opened at around 9 (as our househelper had predicted). But Josh asked the gatekeeper, and he explained the whole process, so we felt more at ease. Sometimes they go through the traffic cases first, sometimes later. It all depends on the judge. We entered the courtroom. There were about 5 rows of wooden benches for the audience. We sat in the front row on the left. After about 15 minutes they moved all of us over to the right side and brought out all the “inmates” through the side door (a mixture of people who couldn’t pay bail and people who had committed more serious crimes). Then they cleared us all out of the courtroom completely “because there are some hardened criminals in there, and they don’t want you to mix” (so we were told.) We all huddled around the door, but I could hardly hear a thing; it was a complete mixture of mostly kiSwahili and some English, and I wasn’t understanding much of either.

At 9:30, it looked like we were going to be there for a while, and Josh was the chapel leader for the week, so he rushed back to campus. I was on my own, but we were both pretty sure that he’d be back before I was called. Still, he asked the gatekeeper to look out for me. I stood around the door, having no real clue what was happening, when the gatekeeper tapped me on the shoulder and told me to go in. I pushed my way through the crowd, and the officers motioned me towards an already filled bench with about ½ a space left at the end. Then one of the officers started working his way up from the back. He took my bail receipt, told me where to sign, then counted out 5,000 from a large wad of cash in his hand. “Wow. That was easy,” I thought. I slipped 2k into my pants pocket and left 3,000 in my shirt pocket so it would be easy to hand over when the time for the fine came. (I was guessing 2k, but had another 6 in my wallet just in case; Josh had the insurance 10).  At one point, I thought I heard a butchered version of my name being called, “Beverly…” I started to stand slowly. Two officers practically jumped on me, “Sit down until your name is called.” I dropped back down as fast as I could and mumbled an apology, “I’m sorry, I don’t hear KiSwahili, and I thought my name had been called.” (KiSwahili will definitely be a priority when school is done.) From that point on, they gave very clear directions for everything I was supposed to do, “Sit here! Go there.”  The judge was ripping through the cases. Name after name was called to the front; each replied “Yes, mother” and walked quickly into to the docket.

At one point, a lawyer asked to be heard, and the judge told him to sit back down saying, “I have my work plan, and we are going to clear all the ‘mentions’ and traffic cases first.” “Oh,” he replied, “I thought you had already completed the traffic cases.” Apparently, all the first crew were resetting court dates and clearing traffic cases for those that didn’t post bail and were locked up overnight. Some were handcuffed together.

About 10 people at a time were called, and each case was handled within a minute or so.  The judge quickly pronounced sentences and wrote them on the back of each charge sheet. Some were told the date of their hearings (most seemed to be in March or May). Almost all the proceedings were in KiSwahili, so I wasn’t understanding much except the amount of fines, which were given in English. At the end of the docket was the door to the jail. Most of the people who went before me went right through the door to the jail. I tried to remind myself that they had come from behind that door in the first place.

Suddenly, the next round of defendants was called. “Beverly, Benjamin.” I walked to the front, hoping my mind wouldn’t freeze. Eight more names were called, pushing me closer and closer to that door at the end. A solitary police officer stood between me and the entrance to jail.

Case number:

“You have been charged with ‘Failure to renew your driver’s license,’ is it true?”
“Yes, it is true.”
Legal mumble jumbo…. “1000 shillings …. One month in prison.”  [What?!? Did she just say one month of prison?!?]
“If you are prepared to pay the fine, the clerk will write you a receipt, and you will be free to go.” [Ooooh. Whew. 1000 shillings OR one month in jail.]

I pulled a 1000 ($13.33) bill out of my pocket and looked at the officer next to me. “Do I give this directly to you?” He took it, gave it to the clerk, and motioned me to the back of the room. A minute later, another officer handed me my court receipt and waved me out the back door. Talk about efficiency.

I was so excited that I forgot to stop and thank the gatekeeper. I kept walking as fast as I could and walked right out of Kibera and up to Ngong road (about 10-15 minutes). I figured I would catch a bus to Karen, then have Christi pick me up.

Knowing I was carrying more cash than usual I was trying to be extra vigilant, I waited a while then jumped on a matatu to Karen. A few other guys jumped on too. One motioned me towards the back; another one motioned to the seat next to him up front. It started to dawn on me that the only reason these guys had gotten on the matatu was to rob me, so I held onto my wallet and was about to get off, when they all got off—including a guy who was squeezing in on my left. I was relieved, and we drove off. Then I remembered, I’d left some of my bail money in my shirt pocket. Gone!! My phone was still there and the 50 shillings I’d put there for the fare , but the 2k was gone. How could I have been so stupid not to check my pocket first?!?

I felt sick about it for a while, but I’ve told enough people that I’ve gotten it out of my system. I’ve got great, encouraging friends. At least it was just money, but it is a significant amount for most of my friends. For a while, I thought they had gotten my entire bail refund, but later, I found the other half I’d stuck in the pocket of my trousers.

Live and learn. It’s been an educational couple of days. Going through the full court experience has reduced some of my anxiety over encounters with the police. Imagine getting caught driving with an expired license in the US.  As far as the robbery, I was already well aware of some of the tricks thieves pull in matatus– like the “put on your seatbelts” distraction trick, but I guess I’ve learned a new one. I realize now that I’ve had guys rush a matatu before when I’ve boarded, but I must have managed to get a protected seat and be wary enough; I’m sure next time it will be a different trick. Hopefully, I won’t be dumb enough to leave money hanging out next time.

8 thoughts on “My day in Kibera’s law court

  1. Simon says:

    Amazing narrative Ben. My heart sunk when you wrote “Did he just say one month in prison?”

    I weep for those who cannot find $13 and have to spend a month in such a horrid place.

    Thank you for sharing.

  2. tiffany says:

    Entertaining Post :). I’m glad that it all worked out for you. I’m sure Christi is too, hehe.

  3. Ben says:

    Books could be written with similar stories. I figured I’d post mine for all those who can related. One friend of mine reminded me that they fear being robbed each and every day on the way to and from work.

    My heart too goes out to the poor who languish in jails all over the world.

  4. Jason says:

    Hey Ben, I’m in a similar situation (have to go to Kibera court tomorow morning). I can’t find where it is though…would you mind telling me what road you take off of Ngong? I’ll pray I don’t have any trouble as I’ll be by myself. Thanks for your story!

    • Ben says:

      Sorry. I didn’t see this earlier. I’m guessing by now you’ve found it and had your experience. How did it go?

      For anyone else looking for directions, as far as I know, if you take the main road through Kibera–just south of Prestige Plaza–you’ll see a big sign for the court off to your left (I don’t remember how far down it is, but if you come out to grass and the bypass, you’ve gone way too far).

  5. jeff says:

    Going through this court procedure tomorrow, thanks for the insight!

  6. […] I’ve been into Kibera a number of times for various reasons (including my day in Kibera court), the population “figure” mostly comes to mind when I’m driving a foreign visitor […]

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