Today something happened to me that happens to almost everybody in the third world at some point, I was asked to assist the police with their enquiries. It took about an hour, which, I should add, by the standards of the Guineans, Béninois, and Nigerians, is nothing much. I have spent much longer at police checkpoints and the like in my time. The last time I was in Burkina, in 1985, I got arrested in just about every provincial capital, sometimes more than once, on my way to Ouaga from the Togo border. But this time, I didn’t have the diplomatic passport and ID card to wave at them.
What happened was, I was riding back from Ouaga 2000. I had gone down there for some minor medical treatment at a clinic close to the American Embassy. I made a side trip on the way home by way of la Patte d’Oie, to do a little Ingressing and possibly say hi to my friends the Thiams (though as it turned out, they were at work). Four kilometers or so later, there’s an Ingress portal at a bit of public art on a corner along the airport road, and a quiet shady spot with a bit of a mosque next to the airport wall, so I stopped for a drink of water and some fiddling with the mobile phone.
The airport is a security-sensitive area, but the spot where I stopped was a hundred meters at least from the nearest guard post. Turns out they were concerned anyway. Apparently, the people who pray at the little mosque had seen me stop there regularly and fiddle with my cell phone and they thought that was suspicious. They called the gendarmes, and I was duly asked my business by a couple of Kalashnikov-packing, armored young men. The guys on the beat couldn’t make up their minds about me, so they called a guy in plain clothes, who in turn decided he needed to go to his superior, and ultimately I ended up in the office of the chief of the Brigade of Gendarmes for the airport. They asked for my supervisor’s phone number, but I guess they couldn’t get in touch with her, so they next asked for Djibi’s, and they did talk to him. I guess he was convincing enough, so they finally let me go. Smiles and handshakes all around.
I had been on my way to choir practice, so while I was waiting I called the head of our choir, who is the wife of the Deputy Chief of Mission at the embassy. She was going to give me the number of the security officer, but I thought that if I got him involved it would only escalate the situation. So I refrained from calling for official backup.
The key in these situations is to remain calm, be polite, have patience, and tell as much of the truth as you can. It always looks better if your story is checkable and innocent. I managed to avoid mention of the little camera in my bag, though of course they could see my cell phone. Taking pictures of airports and other such facilities is, in fact, against the law, and I was fully prepared to show them that I had not taken any pictures of their airport. But I thought a camera would confuse things. I mentioned that I was playing a video game but I left out the part about the game taking place in real space, so that you have to play in particular places.
And, because Burkinabè are really nice people, I got away with it. I even got Lieutenant Zoundi’s phone number. I’m going to call him this weekend because he would make a good interview subject. I’m interested in what middle-ranking people in the security forces think about the transition, the new government, and the terrorist threat. I already know that they are on a short fuse as regards security – I’m sure that before January 15th, there would have been no question of arresting the white guy who stopped for a few minutes next to the airport wall.