I was pulled over awhile ago for speeding. Twice in one week. Each time I was traveling to and from Zomba Theological College (ZTC) when I passed through a speed trap. Both times it was at a transition from 100 km to 60 km; the first time I was likely speeding, the second time definitely not.
I was driving a few students from ZTC to Blantyre when I was stopped the second time. They were shocked and offended. They protested, saying that I should argue with the police because I was not speeding. I thanked them for their concern and went over to pay my 5000 kwacha (about $10 Canadian) fine. I didn’t argue because I had been stopped for driving while mzungu.
Mzungu is a term widely used in East Africa for white people. It can have pejorative connotations but not necessarily. Last week I was walking out of a bank and a street vendor stopped me. He was selling wooden carved pens and wanted me to buy them. Without shame his pitch was, “Boss, you know that black people don’t buy these things, only mzungu. Do the right thing and buy a pen. Malawi is poor but you mzungu, you can help.” Mzungu brings together race (white vs. black) and class (wealthy vs. poor).
Road traffic control in Malawi is quite passive. Paved two lane highways, the norm for major roads, have periodic police check points. You approach the checkpoint slowly and either get waved through or you get pulled over. The police then inspect whether things like your insurance and your Certification of Fitness (CoF) are up to date. There are permanent checkpoints and spot checks, but in either case the police either wave you through or stop you.
In the dozens of times that I have gone through checkpoints, I have never been stopped. The ubiquitous mini-bus is regularly pulled over. Mini-buses are the main form of road transportation in Malawi. This massive fleet of mostly imported Japanese minivan-size buses are notorious for pushing to the edge of safety and legality. Each mini-bus has a driver and a conductor and the stages (bus stops) are a cacophony of conductors trying to get customers. The drivers seem to abide by their own rules on the road. Malawians seem to begrudgingly accept the mini-bus as the most affordable transportation while also despising the drivers and conductors.
Mini-buses face a disproportionate amount of police attention at check points whereas I face a disproportionate amount of attention at speed traps. I think this is because the police know that the probability that a mzungu would drive without insurance or an up to date CoF is low. Couple this with the probability that I have 5000 kwacha in my pocket, I do not know Chichewa well enough to argue, and it is just easier for me to pay than to delay my trip any further, and you have an explanation of why I get caught for “speeding” more than others.
On the other side, the probability that a mini-bus is not compliant with the law is much higher, and mini-bus drivers and conductors are famous for the amount that they will argue. This makes it more likely that they will get stopped at check points, not speed traps. Check points often occur near mini-bus stages likely for this very reason; if there are passengers in the mini-bus then the driver will rectify the delay quickly.
Above I referred to this as driving while mzungu. I’m intentionally playing on the phrase, “driving while black.” Many African-Americans get pulled over for no other reason than “driving while black.” Substitute anything for “driving” such as “walking” and you get a sense of the frustration that the African-American community has when it comes to racial profiling.
There is a kind of racial profiling going on for me as well but there are critical differences. I am not pulled over because the police fear me. Quite to the contrary. They come to the window all sweetness and nice. There is an almost lazy sense to the collection of officers at the speed trap; the opposite of vigilance or watchfulness. Driving while black is based on fear whereas driving while mzungu is not.
There is also no threat of violence associated with being mzungu. There is no body armor, no guns pulled, and no instructions to keep my hands visible. The police were not threatening in the least; there was no aggressive posturing or implied violence. My reaction was annoyance not defensiveness. Driving while black is different. Violence is not just implied.
Until a week after I got pulled over, I would have said that these observations—that police interactions are relatively free from fear and violence—held true for the mini-bus driver as well. The most common reaction to getting pulled over is to argue, to negotiate a non-receipted fine (sometimes called a bribe), or to wait out the patience of particular police officers. Minibus drivers are victims of racial profiling in the sense that to be black likely means you aren’t as rich as someone who is white. The opposite holds true, that I am profiled for being mzungu more based on my class (all white people are rich) than my race (all white people are to be feared).
I say this was true because a week after I got pulled over, a police officer shot and killed a mini-bus conductor. The incident occurred in a very busy market area, so when the shot rang out the response was immediate. The subsequent riots were quelled by tear gas. The police officer was part of an increase in vigilance due to a recent large motor vehicle accident that claimed the lives of 22 soldiers. The governmental response has been to increase the number of check points and increase the fines. Where I might normally pass 3 check points to Zomba, I now passed 10.
The mini-bus driver was not shot, even by accident, because of his race. However, his class was a factor. I didn’t get pulled over at any of the 10 stops, even one not far from the shooting. No stopping means no chance of getting shot. Increased attempts by the state to discipline and control disproportionately affects the poor. In the coming days I will see whether or not I get caught for speeding more often. The fine is apparently getting raised to 50,000 kwacha (about $100 Canadian), and that is enough of a deterrent, even for me, that I will be fastidious about watching my speed. I’m not sure that there is a change of behavior that mini-bus drivers can take that will mitigate against the discrimination they face. I will continue to get to drive while mzungu and they will continue to face the repercussions of being poor.