Greater Manchester Police officers in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, England.
By Freddy Macha
In most places I have lived across the globe, police are feared or hated. Beginning with home, sweet, home, i.e. East Africa.
The first time I was truthfully scared of a policeman was during my visit to Nairobi while still in secondary school.
We were a group of friends from Ilboru Secondary School which was those days one of the best (if not simply, the best) Ordinary and Advanced Level learning institutions in Tanzania. We were called The Gringos and had wandered into Nairobi, then called the London of East Africa. Genuinely, fabulous, metropolitan city. Shopping opportunity (lovely and cheap), night clubs, mesmerising roads.
Tanzania was building Ujamaa so in early 1970s, Nairobi was sweet heaven for any teenager. We would come in for bits of weekend sightseeing then take a bus back, next day. Sometimes Uncle Kiago, a celebrated Arusha visual artist would drive us excited boys, The Gringos, to Nairobi just for a night and back to school Sunday evening.
I don’t remember the exact details, but we had done nothing serious. And there stood a Kenyan policeman. Mean looking! A huge black guy with a weapon. Don’t ask what weapon.
Two years earlier, in July 1969, Tom Mboya the charismatic Luo Cabinet minister had been assassinated on the same spot we were lingering. If you want to expand this slightly… are you listening?
Mboya was a good friend of Barack Obama Senior, father of future US President.
It was 1971. We ambled into Government Road (today Moi Avenue). Extremely curious.
We stood outside the Chania Pharmacy where Mboya had been shot, allegedly by one Nahashon Njoroge.
Childish and typical teenagers, we yapped and joked loudly.
“Nyinyi…what are you doing?”
The conversation increased tempo when we answered back in Kiswahili. Fast-paced Kiswahili. Too fast for a Kenyan policeman.
“Apana kuleta Kiswahili murefu, murefu!”
Tanzanians were then (and even now) known for fast talking, fluent Kiswahili, which a disgruntled police officer found annoying. He chased us away and promised booting us if he ever saw us again.
Kenyan police had a reputation. Then.
I do not know about now.
Twenty years later, I was in Brazil. Had just dropped a friend in an area called Tijuca, north of Rio de Janeiro. It was around 2am or thereabout, when I stopped to relieve myself by the roadside, while my car still rattled. Within seconds heavily armed police encircled me like scabies.
“Hands up! On your knees!”
They shouted in Brazilian Portuguese.
Adding in high pitched accusation: “We know you. You are a drug dealer.”
It was as dramatic as it was funny.
But they meant business. If you have never seen machine guns at close range, what strikes you initially is the smell. Not just metal but cyanide. And oil. The guns have been used already, that is why.
To cut a long story short, there was intense, heated dialogue. The rules are same. Everywhere. When confronted by men of law, be clear, loud, respectful. Do not be a hero and talk back foolishly, like: “Why are you asking me this?” Just answer the questions. That saved my life.
Hey, there are more stories.
But let us return to London.
You have heard of tales of black men dying in police custody, right?
You have most probably heard of several policemen pinning a black bloke down. Choking him to death. All that.
In comparison to other places I have been in parts of Europe, Africa, US and Latin America, the British police are quite polite.
They rarely scream at you.
In my personal experience, your reaction determines how they treat you. They might be sarcastic. They chide. Reprimand. But hardly violent. And no guns.
This has interested many, especially Americans.
“How do the Brits manage to police without firearms?”
That is the question. For 188 years, these guys have never carried guns. Bobbies, as they are called, always believe in politeness and egaging with the public.
So it was indeed huge news when it was announced recently that British police are to be armed…due to the rise of terrorism. William Matchett, a former police who served in Northern Ireland for 30 years, said British police now face same situation as hotspots of Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.