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Police in Dar Es Salaam

I arrived in Dar Es Salaam from Australia. I intended to go to Zanzibar for a few days before heading to Arusha in Northern Tanzania to start  the mountain biking. I spent a day in Dar Es Salaam the largest city in Tanzania organising my bus tickets to Arusha and my ferry return trip to Zanzibar. Riding around Dar Es Salaam you see the usual array of street stalls so common in the third world. Amongst those were stalls selling movie video tapes and DVD's. I picked up a few video tapes at prices much cheaper than in Australia. I was travelling with a very small travel pack which would allow me to ride with all my luggage on my back. This meant that I had little room to add video tapes to my luggage. DVD's were far more practical for me to carry. However being a poor country DVD's were a lot less popular so there was little to choose from. I had asked a  couple of stalls for some particular DVD titles. None had them, but all had indicated that they could get them in about a week. This was no good to me as I was heading up to Arusha in three days.

In a small place like Dar Es Salaam nothing is secret for long and a few of the touts who hang around the hotel had noticed me at the street stalls. They suggested that they may be able to find the particular DVD's I was after, while I was in Zanzibar. I realised that they would be making a cut out of the transaction but that would be ok if the price was right. I had planned to catch the ferry back from Zanzibar which would arrive at 17:00 in the afternoon in three days time.  It would only take me a few minutes to ride to my hotel the Safari Inn, so I arranged to meet then outside the hotel shortly after 5 pm. It eventuated that I caught a earlier ferry and arrived back in Dar Es Salaam just after lunch. At the agreed time I went outside the hotel but the touts were nowhere to be seen. I then headed downtown to pick up some supplies for tomorrows bus trip and decide on a location for dinner.

About 6 pm I met one of the touts who told me that they had found the DVD's I wanted, and that they had gone to ferry to meet me rather than the agreed location outside the hotel. He explained that they had planned to take me straight from the ferry to the persons shop. We then agreed to meet with his friend outside the restaurant where I had arranged to have dinner with someone. Outside the restaurant they told me what DVD's they had found and the price. They informed me that the shop was now closed for the day, so we would have to go the the persons house to buy the DVD's. I told then that I was not interested at that price. I gave them the price that I would buy the DVD's at. They said they might be able to do something and they would meet me outside the restaurant when I had finished dinner.

At the restaurant I met a young Australian couple. The husband was a teacher working on an education project in Tanzania and his wife was a nurse. A very enjoyable dinner took a while. When I came out the touts had been anxiously waiting. With a bit more haggling we came to an arrangement where I would buy six current DVD movies at an equivalent of around seven Australian dollars each. I had deliberately made sure that I had only this amount of cash on me. We went to a location outside some houses where they asked for half the money, so they could go in and collect the movies. I wanted to go in with them, but they said that was not possible. We seemed to be at a stalemate at this point and I almost walked away. Because it was such a good deal from my point of view I decided to offer them a quarter of the money (About ten Australian dollars). I decided it was worth the risk as only one of them was going inside with the money. A few minutes later one of the touts came back with a parcel. They immediately started walking back towards my hotel. The touts were nervous and said they did not want to stop and do a transaction in view in this area. However I did not want to go to the hotel as I had something else to do in the opposite direction. Eventually they got to a spot where they were happy to stop under a street light so I could check out the DVD's.

No sooner had we sat down on a retaining wall than two men walked up to us. They obviously knew the touts and the touts knew them. The two men started asking questions as to what we were doing and what was in the parcel. The touts were very nervous and evasive and I ignored the questions as I did not know who they were and considered it was none of their business. The two men then took the parcel and my original deposit that the touts were holding. The men then announced that they were detectives and showed their badges. They asked whose money it was. I advised them that it was my deposit on the purchase of goods from these men. They then stated that the goods were stolen. The two touts were selling stolen goods and it looked like I was receiving stolen goods. I stated to the detectives that I did not know that the goods were stolen. I asked them how did they know that the goods were stolen as they had not opened the parcel to see what was in it. The detectives procrastinated a fair bit and went on about how serious the matter was. I had read about Tanzanian police trying to extract bribes or blackmail tourists so I stayed relaxed. The touts acted very anxious and worried and encouraged me to do something with the policeman. I took the attitude I have really done anything wrong, so lets tough it out. After a few more questions the detectives announced that we were all to go to the police station.

Conveniently the detectives seemed to summon up a taxi driver to take us to the police station. In the taxi the touts put a lot of pressure on me to offer the detectives something to get us all out of trouble. I replied that unfortunately I was not too worried about them and I did not think that I had anything to worry about myself. In fact I had a very big problem. I had to catch a bus to Arusha the next morning at 6 am and I could not afford to miss it. But I figured that I had over nine hours to when the bus left so it was far too early to panic. It was clear that we were not heading directly to the police station, if we were heading there at all. When the touts failed to pressure me the senior detective tried. I challenged him to provide some evidence that the goods were stolen, or even to tell me what was in the parcel, as he had not opened it. I challenged him to tell me what was going on as he clearly was not heading to the police station. The detective already had ten Australian dollars of my money, and I figured there was fat chance that I would see that again. He was going to work a lot harder than this caper to get any more of my money. Eventually they stopped the car and the discussion continued. The detective indicated that he was doing me a favour of providing a last opportunity to offer him something. I perceived that they were getting a bit desperate. I suggested that we should have a talk away from the others. We left the car and I insisted that we stand under a near-by street light.

When we were under the light I showed him documentation of my affiliation with the travel industry. I explained that I would be writing articles on my trip for various magazines. If bad things happened to me they would be written about. I told him that if he arrested me he had better be sure the charge would stick. If it did not a lot of people would hear about it and he would not be too popular to say the least. He made another hardly veiled pitch for a bribe. I replied to him that if he really thought he could get a charge to stick he should arrest me, it was his duty. However he would not want to make a mistake  as the shit would really hit the fan. After a minute or so to think about it, he asked me would I be ok if he left me there, because if I was, he would take the two touts on to the police station and let me go. By now we were a fair way out of the centre of Dar Es Salaam and with all the twists and turns I was not sure if the way back was forward or back or left or right. However I grasped at the opportunity to extract myself from the situation, and said yes I was ok. Figuring that the safest bet was to walk back in the direction we had last come from, I immediately started heading that way as soon as he turned towards the taxi.

In fact we were quite a way out from the centre of Dar Es Salaam. After walking in the dark for about a kilometre I arrived at an open shop to ask for directions to the centre of the city. Luckily a customer at the shop with his family was heading across to the other side of Dar Es Salaam. He offered to drop me off on the main road a couple of blocks from my hotel. In the end it turned out fairly well, I rode down to catch my bus the next morning, it cost me ten dollars and I did not get the DVD's, but I filled in my last night in Dar Es Salaam with a bit of adventure. More adventure than I could buy for ten dollars. I did eventually get a couple of the DVD's cheaply on a shop in Arusha.

It is possible that the whole thing was a set-up from the beginning, but unlikely. The touts were not to know I would catch an early ferry and they would miss me earlier in the day. If the main plan was to make money from blackmail why did they almost blow the deal by insisting on some money before they would get the goods. In fact why were they so insistent on getting some money in advance at all? It did not strengthen the handing stolen goods accusation. Better off to have me caught with the parcel in my hands, but they never handed it to me. Why did we walk for blocks and blocks before they would sit down to show me the goods. If it was a set up it would have been just as easy to have the detectives come up at the quite location where they picked up the parcel.

I suspect that the detectives were simply opportunists, who saw an opportunity to make some money from a tourist. The touts are probably known petty thieves. The touts are probably young guys working on commission for a shady entrepreneur. Maybe the goods were stolen. But maybe they were not stolen but to prove that they were not they would need to reveal who their boss is and they dare not do that.

I guess what you can learn from my experience is if you are going to buy goods in a third world country do it in the daylight in the open at a stall or shop. If you do not have the time or opportunity to do it when the stall or shop is open don't bother. If you do get into a spot where the police try to blackmail you and you don't think you are guilty and do not think they have a strong case, them tough it out as long as possible. If possible try to turn the pressure and threats back on them, because they are more exposed than you are. Just make sure it is not worth their while to kill you.

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Revised: April 01, 2006