Can we help each other, officer?

The other day was a rather sad one. I spent the afternoon sampling state hospitality in a police cell. Now I am not your average petty (or sophisticated for that matter) crook. I was arrested for indulging in a habit I’d really like to break — smoking.

Here in Kenya, from July 1, it is illegal to smoke in any public place — including on the street. If caught you could be fined between 50 000 and three million shillings (about R5 500 to R332 150), or face a jail term of six months to three years.

Living in the rural backwaters of Kericho, I thought it would never come into effect. So when I read the legal notice in the newspaper I just laughed and passed it to another fellow who, being a smoker, snorted in derision.

But since July 1 even the veteran smokers among us fear lighting up in public. For the past few weeks, we hardcore puffers have congregated in an alleyway between the post office and a timber shop opposite the market. We designated this as the smoking area.

I would pass by the alley before going for lunch and in the evening before heading home. It seemed the safest place to puff. In the small roadside town of Brooke — where I work and live — half the township could see you enjoying your cigarette. As more people came to the alley, the lone dustbin became a mini exhaust chamber with up to 30 butts smouldering away in it.

That day I left the office at midday after a brainstorming meeting for a presentation for my boss. Corporate relations — the work I do — can be tedious and being an intern doesn’t help. I quickly walked the hundred-odd metres to the smoking spot and lit up. The place was surprisingly deserted. This should have been a warning, but you know pride. I assumed that being the middle of the month everyone must be broke.

Just as I took my last drag I realised everybody was looking at me. I turned to see two policemen, smiling rather callously. Instinctively I dropped the butt and ran out the alley, my necktie flailing in the wind with the police gaining rapidly on me, all this with half the market cheering me on.

With my lungs not being in the best condition, it was only a matter of time before I was caught. One of them grabbed me from behind by the belt and led me to the police station. The walk to the police station was unpleasant, largely because my belt had been pulled up so high it was closer to my shoulder blades, forcing me to tiptoe at high speed.

The laughter that accompanied my walk through the market to the station was raucous to say the least. I knew I was going to be the topic of discussion for some time. I also knew that my boss would be informed, if she had not been already.

Ours is a miniature town and the gossip grapevine is well connected. So I looked down at the road, staring intently at the pebbles during the walk that felt like forever.

The Brooke Police Station is a small building at the farthest end of the town’s centre. It looked good from afar, with a sparkling roof, tended hedges and a flower garden next to the door.

But inside it was dreary and a smell emanating from the cells nearly caused me to choke.

The cops found their voices and informed me that smoking in public was a crime and I would pay dearly for it.

Having been caught red-handed I knew there was no point proclaiming my innocence. Instead I asked the loaded question: ”So Bwana Officers, how can we help each other?”

Their reaction wasn’t the one I expected. Unceremoniously I was bundled into the cell to contemplate my fate as they deliberated over my proposition.

Having heard stories of inmates who take pleasure in terrorising new chaps I realised I was alone and sighed with relief. I sat in the corner and, as the temperature dropped with every passing second, the smell got more pungent. My left foot, which peeped out of my torn sock, was now shivering and slowly losing sensation. They had confiscated my belt, tie, wallet, cellphone and one shoe (though I do not know why it was only one shoe) and somehow I felt naked.

My mind conjured up images of me in court with one shoe and all my workmates laughing in the gallery. I started panicking big time. Despite the chill, I started sweating furiously, wondering what the cops had decided.

In the middle of all this the door swung open. My boss stood there at the counter, looking angry.

”Put on your shoes and get out of here!” ordered a policemen while massaging his pocket. Needing no further prodding, I grabbed my stuff and headed out.

The boss was in a sour mood and told me to go home and shower. I must have really stunk, because she cringed when I moved closer. She reminded me of her meeting with the board in two hours’ time and the presentation that I was supposed to give her. She drove off ignoring my pleas for a lift. Looking at my watch it seemed impossible that only three hours had elapsed.

I walked to the nearest shop, bought a cigarette and jogged home. Back at my room I locked the door and smoked nervously, watching the window like a teenager and not the 25-year-old that I am. I showered and headed back to the office — minus lunch.

On my arrival the boss took the document from me without a word of thanks and informed me I owed her 3 000 shillings. That, she said, had been the price of my freedom.

Victor Ngeny is a journalism student, poet and blogger. He writes for the African Path website and he lives in the Kericho district, Kenya


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