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Bribing 101 – some basic tips to save your money

I will never forget my first encounter with a police bribe in Africa. I had heard about it from other Africa travelers, but was never sure if I was going to experience it. In fact, many travelers shrugged it off as no big deal, “just a part of traveling here,” one said. My African friend, my girlfriend and I were driving down the road, minding our own business, when all of a sudden a cop flagged us down. When I say “flagged” down, I literally mean waving his hand to stop us since, unfortunately, many police officers in the developing world can’t afford police cars. I always envisioned stepping on the gas, giving him the finger, and going about business. With modern technology making inroads into Africa, occasionally they have mobile phones and a bit fat boss at the next check point with his AK47. In other words, don’t attempt this. Back to my story.

Immediately when we pulled over, two police officers jumped in the back of the car, one on each side of us, and told us to drive. I have to admit, my heart started beating a little bit faster. I was very uncomfortable and nervous because I really didn’t understand what was going on. Then they proceed to accuse my friend of being an illegal taxi driver, asking why he was riding around with two white tourists. We explained that we weren’t tourists, but volunteers, he was our friend, and we had worked in the country for many months. It then became this pointless heated discussion were they threatened to take us down to police station, and take my friend’s drivers license. Fortunately, my friend knew what to do. He had to play their game for about 15 minutes. After we went through the whole bartering process, it came down to about 1000 shillings, equivalent to less than $1 dollar. After they got their “present,” or “gift” as many of them call it, they jumped out of the vehicle and went looking for other prey to stalk. The funny thing is, $1 dollar was a lot of nervous stress for 15 minutes of hassling. I would have given that to them in a heartbeat, but my friend said that the price started at $50. Shit, I would have given then $20 just to get out of the car. In the end, though, I began to witness more and more bribes taking place, and had to deal with a few officers, immigration officials, and a whole slew shady characters just to keep my sanity.

Here are some good lessons, advice and techniques that you should always remember if you get in one of these types of situations.

It’s Just a Tax
The first thing you should remember is that it’s just a tax, perhaps like crossing a toll —bridge of paying a few extra dollars on your groceries. Don’t take it personally, it’s just a fact of life in many of these countries. Most of these so called “police” are very poor too. I used to be someone who was pissed off because of the principle. It was just ethical and morally wrong for someone of authority to take advantage of people, I thought. But I soon learned that you can’t think this way. It’s just another way of doing business and even the locals, who have to pay bribes all the time, have to accept it. In fact, bribing is a way of life. You can get a lot done if you have a little money. Some countries function purely on bribes. For example, for students to get accepted into certain schools or if they get bad grades, they have to bribe the principal. I have even heard of police academies only accepting students who bribe their way into the program. Those students are then going out to get bribes from other people.

Usually as a tourist, your tax is a little bit more, but in the end, it’s only a few dollars and – trust me – is not worth getting upset. Just play the game, RELAX, and let it happen.

Pretend You Just Had a Muscle Relaxer
Instead of wiping out your money the second he or she asks (or implies), just relax and be very, very patient, to the point where they think you have all the time in the world. This is the key to getting out of it – and not paying an inflated price. If you really don’t see yourself getting away without paying a fee, remember bribes in Africa come down to a couple dollars, but the person in charge, will usually say something ridiculous like $100 for the “foreigner tax.” The first thing you do is just relax, tell that you are very poor, and that $100 is way too much – more money than you have ever had. Embellish to the point of being ridiculous. It doesn’t matter. They know it’s a game too, and just want to get to a final price.

One thing I have done is to mentally pretend that I am buying a car from a sleazy car salesman, but I absolutely have to buy the car before I leave the lot. I just took a valium, or a nice muscle relaxer, so I am plenty happy with taking my own sweet time. I have $1000 and the car salesman wants $2000. How am I going to make him lower their price? Obviously you have to use basic bartering techniques – be patient, never willing to pay, all the time in the world, and start at the lowest, I mean lowest, absolute price and don’t budge for a long, long time. Waste their time. It works. The more patient, relaxed, and smiling you are, like there is no care in the world, the better they can’t capitalize on your fear.

Watch Out For Boss Hog
According to locals in one country, the fatter the policeman the more they take bribes and more they hunt for people’s money to eat. It’s sort of like an elephant, they have to eat 200 pounds of food per day regardless, and he needs to always keep at that level or get more. That means, you can gauge how much you would pay depending upon the size of their stomach. If they’re fat, you just need to watch out and get out of the situation immediately. They could eat you alive. If they are skinny, then you can see they have no clue to have to make some extra money.

Play Dumb
One way I have managed to get out of a bribe, as a tourist, is just playing dumb. I was pulled over for not having my seat belt on (99 percent of people in parts of Africa don’t wear seat belts, let alone ride inside a vehicle), and the police officer proceed to tell me there was a $20 fine. Yeah right, most people in that country don’t even have $20 for the month, I thought. I just said, “I am sorry sir,” and then I put on my seat belt, and just stared at him and didn’t say anything – not a word and never mentioning money or reaching for my wallet. He said that is $20 fine. Again, I said sorry, it will never happen again, and then I again, just stared at him. He grew uncomfortable with the silence and me supposedly being naïve, and then told me to leave. I drove away with all my money.

Speak Jibbersish
I know this sounds absurd but it works. Depending upon which country, you can sometimes pretend you don’t speak their language well, and just shake your head, and pretend you don’t understand what they’re saying. Speak in the jibberish language you invented when you were a child. Speak in French or Spanish, if you’re in an Anglophone country – just repeat, “Hola, come estas?” They have no idea what you’re saying, then just sit back and see what happens. I know people who managed to get away by pretending to not communicate.

Smile and Respect

In a recent article by Robert Pelton, he said something to the effect that he has never been shot, or taken advantage of him, when he is smiling. Even though you cringe on the thought of respecting these thieves, the point is you have to fake it. It sucks, I know. Instead of telling them to go to hell and pissing them off, comment on how much you love god and hope they do to. Mess with their mind a little bit but in a respectful way. It doesn’t matter. Everything you say is going in one of their ears and out the other, until the mention of money. The point is, don’t disrespect them because it could end you up in trouble.

Big Bills in Your Sock, A Couple Bucks in Your Wallet
If you do see yourself having to bribe someone and realize that you have a huge wade of cash in your wallet, try to stash it was quick as possible. Shove it anywhere out of sight. Ask to use the restroom and put it in your socks, or before the cop approaches the vehicle, put it under the seat. Leave only the most meager amount of bills in your wallet – again, only a couple of dollars. When your are actually discussing the bribe, open your wallet and show them your little money. Usually they are shocked and tell you to continue on. Then they wonder, how are you going to buy gas?

No Receipt, Please
Some countries are trying to fight the corruption and so the police officers are now told to give receipts for anyone they give a ticket. This proves to their boss that they collected a fine, and then they document it. However, here is what happens. You get stopped for a fine, or a check point for whatever crazy reason, and then are told of the fine. Let’s just say $20. The police man will actually tell you that you can get a receipt and pay $20, or not take a receipt and pay $10. This way, he still makes $10, you save $10 and ever goes home happy. It’s sad, but often times you tell them you don’t want a receipt and they will lower the prices.

In the end, just remember bribes are a part of life. Don’t let yourself become nervous, upset or angry during the process – it’s not worth your time. You can actually grow to enjoy the process after you have done it a few times.