One morning as I was attempting to jog, I was rudely stopped by a stick-wielding, masked police officer with three stars on each of his epaulets. The mayinja’s they are called in local speak, commandingly shouted, “wewe,” (you) and he probingly pointed at his mask.
I told him “I am exercising.” He dismissively waved me away. Interestingly, many people on the road whose walking step was providing competitive pace to my running had no masks, but were let off.
Uganda has that side to it. If you are ‘fat’ you are likely to get different treatment from others. Oyo munene’(that one is big.) A big man is thought to be privileged and living a soft life. Privilege may also imply access to public finance, some of which one may be creaming off illegally. It also means one can easily part with a bribe.
The soft side implies that you cannot imagine the hardships behind the prison’s gate, which include being barefooted, sleeping on the hard cold floor and eating poorly prepared posho and beans, which one thereafter eases into a shared bucket.
A few days later ,I was waved down by a traffic officer in a brand new white uniform at one of those make-shift, untidy Covid-19 road blocks, mounted in the middle of many roads in Kampala’s suburbs. Typically, the roads are narrowed down using all manner of discarded paraphernalia - from used tyres to broken benches, perforated plastic jerrycans, discarded saucepans and of course spikes.
Ridiculous as it sounds, the officer told me I had committed the offense of ‘disregarding Presidential directives on social distancing by not wearing a facemask, which tantamounts to attempted murder.
My plea for him to revise it down to attempted suicide, because I was alone in the car and,therefore, only capable of spreading the virus to myself, fell on deaf ears. I could see on the roadside a hawker with a plethora of untidy home-made facemasks whetting his appetite. The salesman in white was closing a sale.
Let me digress a little just to throw some light on the confusion we are working with. A few days ago, I was called for a consultative meeting. Trying to sound like a techie in these dangerous times of the coronavirus pandemic, I suggested we have a zoom meeting instead. The convenor, who also authorises payment, told me “just come over. If God has destined us to die of Covid, we shall die. You can even die in your sleep.”
When I arrived at the office, maskless, the one manning the gate read the mask riot act. I called the boss who earlier had sounded philosophical about death and destiny and two masks were promptly delivered. Mask and sanitizer on, we started the meeting with gusto.
In a short while, I could not breathe properly and besides my glasses were getting moist when I exhaled. A few minutes into the meeting and all masks were either on the table or dangling precariously on the chins. When I left the meeting I went to a supermarket whose policy is no-mask-no- entry.
I met a doctor who had been bounced and we chatted a bit. He saw my mask and said it was useless in as far as blocking coronavirus was concerned. They let me in with my mask.
Back to the roadblock, when the officer insisted, I checked in the glove compartment and pulled out the ‘useless’ mask and perched it in on my face. The police Covid-19 roadblocks are no doubt doing a relatively good job, including supplementing the incomes of some officers, who have not interacted with traffic offenders for about three months of the lockdown.
But health matters are not anywhere near the core competences of the police even if one stretches their imagination to beyond breaking point. There are people trained for that.
Nicholas Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues.