How I got arrested in Senegal and mistaken for an American CIA Spy

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at the steps to the monument of African Renaissance. It is larger than life.
At the presidential palace with the red guard
fry fry at the bus stop, it was delicious
the flat that took 2 hours to fix
morning stop at tambacounda
i noticed in Senegal that Muslim leaders are super stars. Their photos and images are everywhere from inside taxis, to the the exterior of the shops
the bus ‘vieux routiere’ at tambacounda, 12 hours after we left Dakar
village view from the bus
the bus from Dakar to Kayes, Mali. It was chocked. After i took this photo the policeman came on the bus

My mother warned me. She said traveling in a francophone country is no joke. I said mummy don’t worry, i speak french. We will be fine. Then the day before i left, my father also warned me. He said “you are going to shoot in a francophone country, are you sure?” I said of course…mummy has done the necessary paper work with the ministries to make sure everything goes okay. That was not entirely true, but you are allowed to tell your parents white lies to ease their fears and worries. The same white lies you tell when they ask I hope there will be no drinking or drugs, you say…of course not in fact my friends’ parents will be home to supervise the party.

I left Freetown in good spirits, that even the turbulent ride on the boat across to Lungi Airport could not drown. We landed in Dakar and easily found our way to our host family’s apartment. I hooked up with a Senegalese blogger Yaye Marie whose blog i had been following for some time now, and we had the usual girl talk over two big meals at Chez Loutcha Restaurant. I couldn’t even go half way on my meal before i had to put it away. Yaye and i talked about everything from skin bleaching, to les ambassades restaurant in harlem, and ofcourse i had to ask why Senegalese men were so damn good looking. We spent the rest of the afternoon together as we hugged goodbye, i thought, this is the beginning of a long friendship. I had a quiet evening at home before our departure for the Stade de l’Amitie to take the bus to Kayes, Mali.

Earlier in the day we had bought our bus tickets at the Gare Routiere. They told us the trip from Dakar to Kayes was going to take 8 hours maximum and cost $26 per person. So although we had intended to leave Dakar on Sunday, we decided to take the Saturday night bus instead. My camera man and traveling companion had wanted to take the bus to Tambacounda (the last major town in Senegal before the border), spend the night there and take another bus to the border. However, i had made up my mind to cross the border in one go and so that is what we decided to do after we were assured that it was an 8hr bus ride. I knew it would take longer and i was prepared for a 12 hour ride.

The bus to Kayes was to depart at 10pm and we were asked to be there by 8pm. Not wanting to spend the entire evening waiting at the bus stop we left the house at 9pm and still made it to the Bus in time to load our bags on the bus. We ate bread and fry fry a la Senegalese, nice, greasy, and tasty before we stood in line to hear our names called to enter the bus. The bus was dark but for the use of my nokia prsp phone flash light.

We sat on the second to last row, next to a window, and the soon to be discovered latch to the second door on the bus. At this point i was already feeling very confident and i thought “i don’t understand all the fuss about traveling by road, this isn’t bad at all”. By the time the bus’s door was closed i knew i had concluded too soon. Every possible space on the bus was occupied…no animals on board but we sat five per row, including the aisle seats. The bus pulled off just a couple minutes after 10pm and my spirits lifted a bit because we had left on time. Ten minutes on the bus, and we drove into a gas station, nothing peculiar as i noticed that commercial vehicles in Dakar mostly buy fuel when passengers on board.

Thirty minutes later and we were still at the gas station. The temperature and human body odor had become unbearable and the rest of the passengers on the bus were losing patience. I looked to the side of the bus closest to the fuel pump and realized that not a single drop of fuel had been pumped in the 30 minutes that had passed. So what the hell where we doing at the station?? My cameraman pulled the latch on the door next to our seat and jumped out of the bus and this was the beginning of what i would later come to regret. Seeing the door was opened, the rest of the passengers started to jump out, greasing my knee, stepping on my feet, squeezing past me to get out. Fed up, i too had to get off the bus.

Another 15 minutes later, as people disappeared to dark places to pee, the driver a tall dark skin rather strong looking fellow boarded the bus while his apprentice yelled for everyone to board.  We had to wait till everyone else had boarded before we could sit down, so as to not be trampled on.

Finally we were off again, we drove for about two hours and the bus pulled off again. What is it now? We had a flat. Everyone got off the bus, and conversations broke out between different groups of passengers as I crossed the road to find a dark place to pee. A couple years ago, two Nigerian ladies and a pastor lived in my grandmother’s compound and rumors had gone around that the women stood up to pee. I never saw them do it as i was only on holiday but every time i am met with a pee situation such as that which i repeated on each bus stop. I was envious of those women. If only all African women could learn to stand up and pee, i am sure the continent would be a different place.

I wiped the pee off the side of my foot and joined the rest of the passengers. There was an a old man with too much lugguage, a woman traveling with three children, A lady named Elizabeth from Ivory Coast, A girl from Gabon, two tuareg looking Senegalese guys who stooped to pee, A light skinned woman who asked me to watch her water as she went to pee, two white french guys with curly dirt blond hair, a quick talking senegalese guy in a checkered black and white button down, a Nigerian kolonko with a Liberian accent claiming to have had all her property stolen and several other characters for a Sembene Ousmane film.

Conversations died out as time passed and those who had been standing found a place to sit, while those of us who had been sitting quickly spread lappas, and other items to lay on. I started out laying on my side but my hip bones hit the concrete and i found laying on my belly was easier. My spirits were probably higher than they should have been but i consoled myself with the fact that flat tires could happen to anyone, at least they had a spare. We most have been on the curb for 3 hours before we boarded again. There were more stops on the way but nothing lasted as long as what we had already endured. We drove through the middle of the night and i stayed in a space somewhere between being half asleep and awake. It started to rain and the window which was once a blessing, now refused to close and the rain drops hit my face. I hid under my lappa, and it saved me again.

At 10am, twelve hours after we boarded the bus and four hours longer than we had been told the entire journey would take, we arrived at tambacunda. Everyone got off the bus, to brush teeth, wash face, pee, and eat. I bought and apple and water, and ate some dry bread i had bought at the bus stop the night before. I was afraid to eat anything substantial so as not to force the need to do a number 2.

We were at Tamba for maybe an hour before everyone got back on the bus. As we drove i took photos of the huts and villages outside of our window. I took photos of the inside of the bus. And then we stopped. My traveling companion jumped out of the bus and he was greeted by a police officer asking for his passport. They went off to sit and chat. Everything seemed harmless.

A tall dark police officer got on the bus and started looking at passports and checking for yellow fever cards. He made friendly banter with the passengers. While he was still far away, i took a photograph. He raised his head and the smile evaporated from his face as he said “donne-moi l’appareil”. I gave it to him and he continued looking at passports and making sure everyone’s documents were in order. He was still making jokes. When he got to me he took my passport and asked me to get off the bus. He held the documents of all those who were not en regle. We followed him towards a small makeshift bench covered with a thatched roof. He sat down in a chair next to the hut as each individual begged and pleaded for their passport. One by one he gave everyone their passports except for me.

He kept my passport and said that in Senegal c’est interdit de prendre photo des gendarmes. I apologized and explained to him that i was not aware of that and i was merely a tourist on my way to Mali. The older shorter police officer chimed in and said that i had to be taken to the gendarmerie to explain to their commander why I had taken the photo. I explained myself again, i am a tourist and i have taken many photos in Senegal and i didnt know it was illegal.He then retorted quite coldly “tu es une espoine pour le CIA, tu parles avec un accent american mais tu es sierra leonaise”. I didn’t even know what to say “you think i am an american spy because i have an american accent but i am traveling with an sierra leonean passport? The older police officer ordered the driver to get my bags off the bus. The driver asked me to point out my bags but with so much on the bus we couldn’t find it.

Since the incident began to escalate many of the passengers pleaded on my behalf but the police would not hear it. We went back and forth begging for 30mins when they gave the final order to the driver that if he didnt move the bus and leave me that he would join me in jail.

One by one the passengers reluctantly boarded the bus. You may be wondering where was your cameraman when all this was happening? And the answer to that is i don’t know. He stayed far away from me during the entire ordeal. The first time he tried to communicate to me was as the bus was already pulling away. He stood on the side door, asking me what to do. I waved him off thinking if you’ve already decided to stay on the bus, stay on the bus. The bus drove ever so slowly as if to tell the police we are going, if you are joking let her go now. Both of the officers turned their backs to the bus as i watched it in despair. A couple minutes and it was out of sight. If i hadn’t seen it with my own eyes i would have thought i was dreaming. I felt exhausted. This is exactly what my mother warned me against and now look whats happened. Ah my mother, she is a diplomat, this is a good time to call her.

“Hello, mum? I ‘ve been arrested”. I burst into tears as i said the word arrested and ofcourse my mother went hysterical “where are you?” “I dont know…in Senegal” I recounted the story and she told me to stay calm and she would would try to do something. My mother is one of those African mother’s you should never mess with. I knew that one call to her and she would raise hell to get me out of there…maybe even more hell than i wanted raised. She asked for my cameraman and i said he’s gone with the bus “WHAT? He left you?” “Yes mom.” “Okay keep your phone on i will do something”

Before i could get off the phone the younger police officer whose picture i had taken noticing i was crying uncontrollably at this point.  Told me that they were going to let me go and that i shouldn’t cry. I cried harder. The older of the two yelled over from the other side of the street that he didn’t care if i cried, he knew i was a spy. I knew then nothing was going to come of it. They were playing good cop, bad cop but why?

I hung up the phone and explained “je pleure parce que je ne crois pas que tu m’avais fait comme ca en Afrique. Moi je suis africaine comme toi, si tu as le pouvoir c’est pas la penne de faire souferire les gens. Ce n’est pas juste. Tu m’as vraiment maltreate et pourquoi? Pour un photo? J’avais deja explique que je pourrais effacer et tu as vu que je l’a efface. Mais tu as insiste et tu m’avais fait descendre du bus. Mais pourquoi? Parce que tu as le pouvoir?. Ce n’est pas juste” I said all this in between sobs. Truly they had broken my heart that in Africa for no reason what so ever other than because they had the power to do so, they made me get off my bus for nothing. They messed up my traveling for nothing and now because he said he would let me go he expected me to smile. I refused. Instead I cried really hard, and noisy, and snotty.My only source of revenge.

The older police officer came and sat next to his colleague and tried to taunt me telling me to cry that he didn”t even have a heart. Tu es mechant i told him and he smiled. My phone rang and it was my mom again. She couldn’t bear to speak to me so she gave the phone to her colleague who asked me to explain what had happened and where i was. I said close Tambacounda. But i assured him that they were going to let me go not to worry. And to call me back in 30 minutes.

When i got off the phone the older police officer insisted i had just been on the phone to the CIA. While the younger officer began to profess his love for me. He said he had stopped me cause i was beautiful and he would have let me go but he didn’t want to do it with the whole bus crowding around him. He then went on to explain that he would like to marry me since i was a foreigner. He said that when you marry a Senegalese woman, you have to take care of her whole family and he didn’t want that. He asked if i would marry him and stay in Senegal. I said of course not.  

I asked him how they expected me to catch up with the bus and he said that they would stop a car to give me a ride and the bus had not gone far. We waited up to 30mins and there were no empty cars or buses. Impatient with their effort to get me a ride i recommended that the young officer give me a ride on his motorcycle. He agreed and i bade farewell to the older mechant officer. Ten minutes on the bike and he stopped, i asked why and he said: je dois pisser. Well okay then.

He tried to explain how to ride the bike to me and i could barely hear him over the revving of the engine so i nodded intermittently. He asked me if i could give him a kiss and i said. My husband would not like that. He said but your husband is not here. I know that, but i am a good muslim woman, to this he shut his mouth and we kept moving. My feet trembled uncomfortably and i was certain that my karankay slippers were not made to withstand the vibrations.We rode for an hour and the bus was still no where to be found. Not wanting to go any further he pulled off to the side and waited for the next approaching vehicle; it was an 18 wheeler truck with 4 guys up front headed for the border with containers on the back. They agreed to take me and without looking back or saying thank you to the policeman i climbed the steps into the truck and sat next to my new traveling companions. Only one of them it seemed could speak small small french. He asked how it was i missed my bus and i said “c’est le gendarme qui m’a derangee”. I leaned back into the little cushion i shared, held on to my phone, and closed my eyes wondering “what if i don’t catch up with the bus?”