While driving through Guinea in a car with the Mercy Ships logo emblazoned on the sides, we were often stopped by police. Sometimes it was for medical advice. A couple of times it was to say thank you for helping a family member.
Usually, it was asking for money.
Twice, when riding with locals, the police weren’t very friendly. And could not be cajoled out of their demands. They took the car registration and drivers licenses of the people I was with. Until bribes were paid. My friends didn’t mind much. They were pleased to get their papers back without too much fuss or delay. The money was handed over happily, and the papers were returned with complete attitude adjustments that included a smile and respectful nod. (Wish it was that easy with my kids’ attitudes which frequently need adjustment.)
While the seeming injustice of this would have angered me in the past, I no longer see bribery as black and white. You see, I’ve learned some of the police are paid no salary. And all those I saw were on foot, without a squad car in sight. They pay for a uniform, and have some training to uphold the local law, but are expected to use their authority to make their living. My local friends knew this, and didn’t begrudge paying their part in the system to support the police officers, by giving them money to feed their families.
A western doctor friend of mine, carries cash with her each day, to pay the requested bribes she encounters.
There are some definite benefits to the system. If you pay an officer, you can have the street outside your house closed at night, and heavily protected against possible vandals or intruders. Or, for someone like me, who’s always in a hurry, I love that you can pay, a relatively small sum, to have the street of your choice changed to one-way, going the direction you prefer. Of course that’s fun in theory (for me anyway), and while most of the time I found it hilarious in practice, it can be extremely dangerous. And the time I spent two hours completely immobilized in traffic as my one-way street ran head-on into three lanes of traffic coming at us from the opposite direction, it wasn’t so fun. And maybe not so smart either. But somebody was having a good time counting their money while cars, buses, semi-trucks, and motorcycles, inched their way out of that mess. Some did U-turns. Some, like the city bus, used their size, and the road shoulder, to just keep on coming, while we slowly got out of their way.
But, as we know, corruption isn’t always so harmless.
Guinea has a long history of allowing officials to loot its treasury. During the last years of ex-President Lansana Conte’s rule, employees of the treasury said they would regularly see the president’s convoy drive up to their building and leave with bags of cash.
Ok, I know that sounds fun.
But, so very wrong.
Guinea’s current president, Alpha Conde, with his zero tolerance for corruption, appointed Mrs. Boiro as Head of his Treasury. She launched an investigation into the recent loss of 13 million francs ($1.8 million) which went missing from the state coffers. While I was there, she was gunned down in her car, and killed, in what her colleagues describe as a brazen assassination aimed at silencing her.~ AP. Conakry, Guinea November 10, 2012.
Many locals feel that since Mrs. Boiro’s murder, Conakry is becoming more and more lawless. Some even wonder if Guinea might not be better off run by a strongman than a well-educated humanitarian–someone who is able to keep order with an iron fist.
I don’t know the answer to that. But even asking the question saddens me.
Realistically, I wonder what the motivation is for those in power in Guinea, and many countries like it, to usher in change, and progress. What would motivate them to share power and wealth downward? To get rid of the corruption? There is a level of society that lives above the law, that has huge wealth and power, and access to education, medical care, and luxuries that I can only dream of. Where is the benefit to them?
Corruption isn’t bad for those on the top and middle of the chain. It’s impossible for the man on the bottom of the chain. When the local dockworker earns $1/day, and has to bribe the dock security at the beginning AND end of each day, then it’s impossible for him to earn a living. To get ahead. It’s those at the bottom of the chain that feel helpless. Who wait for someone or something to deliver them.
While the situation in Guinea has no easy answers, I’m not without hope. When I first visited neighboring Ghana in 1991, driving across the border into the country was like crossing over into a barren and ruined land. But, now they are the success story of the region, with development and infrastructure, and stability.
So, I’m not giving up.
As Bono says, “If you want to turn the world right side up, it’s going to take your whole life.”
This is a journey, right?
At this season of reflections and resolutions, what are you committing your life to? Where is your journey taking you? Take a look at what your actions are saying.
Join me in committing to make choices that will help turn the world ‘right side up’. To help bring peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind.
*I must give credit to Susan Parker, for blatantly plagiarizing her account of Mrs. Boiro’s murder, and the inspiring verse I used in the close above. They’re taken from her column in this month’s Navigator on the Africa Mercy. See, corruption really is rampant. I’m going to have to start with some serious housekeeping in my own life.