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What could a Congolese traffic cop possibly want with 40 Thai Baht?

November 15, 2010

So, I had my first (and probably not last) run-in with the Congolese cops last week.  It turned out ok, no jail time or corporal punishment, but still not a pleasant experience…

But first, a little background on the situation to put it into context:

DRC Cop, Photo by Julien Harneis, from

Your run of the mill police officer here earns about $40/month (not a lot, even for Kinshasa).  Also, because DRC government paychecks are inconsistent, the police, like many other government employees, may go months at a time without getting paid.  So, they get their money from the streets.

To avoid serious shake downs, it is common place for Congolese drivers to occasionally give the traffic cops the equivalent of 50¢ or so in passing.  But, mondeles (local word for ‘foreigners’) in general are both unaware of this pay-your-taxes while you drive system and often don’t like to encourage such behavior.  Recognizing the vast potential for cash, the traffic cops step it up a notch.

If you’re in a ‘nice’ car, and especially if you don’t look Congolese, they stop you for anything they can think of- from ‘routine’ checks, going the wrong way down a 2-way street, not stopping at the non-existent stop sign, to having your headlights on too early in the evening (all stories we’ve heard).  They then say (or yell while trying to open your car doors and banging on the hood) that you must pay a large fine or face imprisonment.  All scare tactics, which often work because the thought of ending up in a DR Congo prison is, quite frankly, scary.

The advice from expats on how to handle the local traffic cops while driving here has gone something like this:

  • Don’t stop for police officers, ever.
  • Do what ever is necessary to get away.
  • Don’t let them surround your car.
  • If they do corner you, keep your doors locked and windows up.
  • Don’t give them any of your papers, just hold them up to the window to see.
  • Don’t ever let them get in your car.

…which of course goes contrary to the always-obey-cops-or-else policy we’re taught growing up in the States.

And unfortunately, people seems less capable of giving advice on what exactly to do at that next step, when your windows are up, doors locked, but there are still aggravated police officers surrounding you.  Katie and I contemplated these stories and advice while we were purchasing our car, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “hmm, what would it be like to be in that situation?“.

Well last Friday I got to find out.

On the way to pick Katie up from work, I was presented with an ‘either run this cop over, or pull to the side of the road as they are motioning to do’ situation.

I was nervous.

While one police officer stood in front of the car, and one in back, another police officer at my window told me that I shouldn’t be scared (was I that transparent?!), that this was just a routine stop, and that if I show him the ownership documents and my drivers license everything would be fine. Oh, and that he is having trouble hearing what I am saying and that it would be better if I rolled down my window more (I had just cracked it), and that actually, it would be much better if I unlocked the door and let him get in.

While I wasn’t about to let him in, or lower my window beyond what I was comfortable with, showing him the paperwork should be easy enough… Oh! wait! that’s right, the paperwork for the change of ownership is currently being processed, so I actually don’t have the ownership documents with me! Crap.

After showing the officer my International Drivers license, I then proceeded to explain why I didn’t have ownership documents in the car.  He didn’t seem to like my explanation, and I saw dollar signs appear in the reflection of his eyeballs.

Luckily, I did have with me a small laminated card that was given to Katie by the Security Officer at the Embassy that looks halfway official and says something to the effect of, “I’m a diplomat, I’m not permitted to get out of the car or to transport anyone, contact me at the Embassy with any further questions, thanks for your understanding”, in French on one side and Lingala (the most common local language in the capital) on the other, which I held up to the window for him to read.

He relaxed (sweet!), and said, ‘ok, I read your card, and if you give me something for my time, I’ll let you go’.  Fine by me, I was ready to get out of there and since I did in fact lack proper documentation I wasn’t about to take a moral stand.

I looked in my wallet and found a $10 bill (not going to give it to him), 400 francs (about 40¢), and 40 Thai Baht (about $1) from my trip to Thailand that have been in my wallet for the past 5 years.

I gave him the 400 francs, telling him it was all I had, but he said, ‘no, I saw more money in your wallet’.  Trying to be more slick about it this time, I removed the 40 Baht declaring that it was money from Thailand and it would be of no use to him.  However, his eyes lit up, and I could tell that he was very interested.  I offered it to him and he took them with a huge smile and a declaration that we were now great friends! and that his name was Bosco! and that I should have myself a great day!

While I always knew that those Thai Baht were meant for some greater purpose, I never would have guessed that they would be responsible for not only helping me out of a sticky run-in with the DRC traffic cops, but making me my first Congolese traffic cop friend.

Only thing is, we still won’t have the ownership documents for the next week, and I’m out of Thai Baht.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric Ortiz permalink
    November 15, 2010 10:43 pm

    Wow…that is a crazy story! Good thing you had a variety of currency with you. We’re going to have to get you guys some more Baht. Say hi to Bosco.

    • jamesko permalink*
      November 24, 2010 9:46 am

      Seriously. But until I get more real foreign currency I might make a stop off at the main supermarket downtown and find myself a Monopoly board – you know, claim it’s Alaskan money or something.

  2. KatieM permalink
    November 16, 2010 7:23 am

    Ok that story is both horrible and hysterical! I’m sorry you were trapped by traffic cops but at least you have a new friend now. And, I’ll send you all the Thai baht you need 😀

    • jamesko permalink*
      November 24, 2010 9:53 am

      Hmm… All the Thai Baht I need huh… That’s a dangerous proposition 🙂

      Also, personally, I think that Katie and I should just take an emergency trip over to Bangkok ourselves to get some more Baht. And then since we are already there, we should extend our stay, hang out with you, and do some traveling around!

  3. Amanda permalink
    November 20, 2010 10:17 pm

    We humans really are quite mysterious, aren’t we?
    I’m so glad you got out of the much-anticipated first traffic stop safely (and humorously)!

    • jamesko permalink*
      November 24, 2010 10:36 am

      Thanks Amanda! Yea, mysterious and unpredictable. I hope all is well, and say hi to Mimi for us!

  4. Aunt Melodee permalink
    November 23, 2010 5:25 am

    I was literally holding my breath as I read the story…of course the fact that you were able to write it sort of gave up the ending, but it didn’t matter. A compelling narrative. You guys better write a book! So glad you had that Thai Baht! I think I am going to put some Danish Krone in my wallet just in case…

  5. jamesko permalink*
    November 24, 2010 10:58 am

    A book huh? I don’t know – that sounds like a lot of writing to me… 🙂 And I think the Danish Krone is a good idea. It may seem silly at this point, but you never know where you will be in 5 years time.


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