Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Mozambique Police Whisperer

A better title: “Driving While White.”

A couple weeks ago, a group of friends and I went to Mozambique for the Easter long weekend.  We met in Maputo where most of us had flown in, although one friend and I opted for the 6 hour drive from Joburg instead (it wasn’t part of original plan, but my issues regarding my South African tourist visa made us swing back to Joburg instead of driving up the coast).

Joburg to Maputo to Tofo

Joburg to Maputo to Tofo

Weeks later, I still have mixed feelings about Mozambique.

We arrived in Maputo around 8pm in the evening.  Even without a GPS, we thought it should be relatively easy to find our hostel.  I had printed out directions from Google Maps and my friend’s smartphone gave us a basic layout of the city, although without a data plan it didn’t show any street names.

Maputo is the capital city of Mozambique, but it’s not very big.  How hard could it be to find our hostel, when Google Maps only had a few street turns off the highway?

Very difficult, it turned out.

For some reason, the city of Maputo doesn’t seem to believe in street signs.  I thought Jozi was bad with its mix of well-lit street signs in affluent areas, names painted on crumbling sidewalks in other places, and no street indication whatsoever in much of the city.  But Maputo was on a completely different level: nothing at all.

We yelled at some people when we were stopped at an intersection, “Hey do you know where Rua Das Palmeiras is?”

They shook their heads.

We drove around, trying to find the Fish Market mentioned in the Coast to Coast South African hostel handbook.  Apparently our hostel was only 1.5 km from there.

No luck so we drove back towards town.  We asked a security guard and he gestured vaguely down the street.

We stopped at a gas station and asked one of the attendants.

Another shake of the head, but he pointed us inside.  The cashier gave us the same response.  So did the two police who were there buying coke and chips.

I got out my Coast to Coast book.  Maybe those directions would make more sense than Google Maps?

One man got excited and said he knew where it was and he’d take us there.  Excellent!  We jumped into our car, prepared to follow him for a couple minutes to our hostel.

It wasn’t as short a drive away as we had thought it would be.  No, we followed the guy for at least 15 minutes.

At one point we were pulled over by the cops, which we soon came to realize would be a common occurrence.  Our guide got out of the car and argued with them until they finally waved us away.

At the hostel, we paid him R200 ($22 CA) for his kindness, an amount that was probably comparable to his weekly salary.

Thank goodness for that guy!  We met our friends just in time as they were leaving the hostel for dinner.  We went to the restaurant in an expensive restaurant down the street.  Two people ordered “medium prawns.”  Oh my word, these “prawns” were as big as some lobsters I’ve eaten!  My vegetarian lasagna wasn’t comparable at all.

The next day, we were in the car and on the road to Tofo Beach by 6:05am with minimal cajoling.

I drove for the first few hours, blasting along the highway.  The Mozambique highway is one lane each way and in relatively good condition.  As I drove, sometimes I’d see signs for 80km/h shortly followed by a 60km/h sign, then a 60km/h sign with a slash through it.  For the most part, I ignored these, averaging around 120km/h including the slow parts through the towns (meaning I drove upwards of 140 km/h whenever the road was straight and there wasn’t a car in front of us).

Around noon, my friend and I switched so that I could take a nap.  Within half an hour, he got pulled over for the cops just after passing someone in an 80km/h zone.

The cop brought out his handbook and showed that at 20km/h over the speed limit, we owed a fine of R1000.  I paid R300, which made him really happy.  He explained to us that in the villages we had to slow down to 60km/h, but otherwise we could drive 120km/h.

Villages?  Those were villages?  Most of the “villages” were two or three huts beside the highway, one of which was usually a bar.  The cynic in me suspects they were built just so the police could set up speed traps.

My friend got pulled over once more on our drive to Tofo.  I’d been sleeping and woke up to him arguing with the cop.  He ended up paying R70 ($8 CA).

Finally, after a 6+ hour drive with a car overflowing with people, luggage, and food, we arrived in Tofo.

Yes, it was worth it.

Strolling along Tofo Beach

Strolling along Tofo Beach

A mostly empty beach, warm water, sunshine, yummy food, cheap drinks, a bar with a dance floor – what else could you ask for?

How about a whale shark?

The largest fish in the world, the whale shark is neither a whale nor a shark.  But it’s beautiful.

We went snorkeling one day and were lucky enough to swim with one for half an hour.  At 7m long, I can’t explain how gentle it was.  Its movements in the water, its facial expression – the animal radiated peace.  Afterwards our guide said that they hadn’t seen a whale shark for over three weeks and that they usually dive relatively quickly.  What we’d experienced was rare indeed.

Whale shark

Whale shark

Like I said, the trip was definitely worth all the driving!  Even if the drive back to Maputo on Easter Sunday was a nightmare.

Thank goodness for my friend and his composure.  I don’t think I would have been able to handle driving with as much patience and good-naturedness as him.

We got stopped by the cops almost every half hour once evening fell.  It was ridiculous.  Even though we didn’t have low-beams (we’d switched cars with my roommate for our road trip since I couldn’t take my rental car out of the country), the police were pulling us over bribes, not traffic infractions.

One man argued that we should pay him because we were going 61km/h in a 60km/h zone.  Instead of yelling at the cop, my friend joked with him until he let us go.

Someone else took wouldn’t give my friend his Driver’s License back and said he would have to follow him to station to get it back unless he paid a bribe.  My friend argued that he wasn’t going to give up any of his documentation, although he’d follow him to station if necessary, and gently reached out and plucked his license out of the cop’s hands.

The national language of Mozambique is Portuguese and many of the cops are not fluent in English.  One had simply said “Money” over and over as my friend chattered at him.  Exasperated, he let us go.

That became my friend’s main strategy: just keep talking.  When he told one cop that we didn’t have any money, she pointed at me and said, “Ask your wife.”

“She’s not my wife.  She’s just my friend.  We were with a big group of people.  In fact, she had to pay the hostel bill for all of them so she doesn’t have any money either.”

Stuff like that.

Somehow my friend had managed to talk his way out of paying a single fine, despite being stopped at least half a dozen times in a car with no low-beam headlights.

In Maputo, a group of cops saw us stopped at an intersection and jumped into their vehicle.  They used a flashlight to pull us over and said that we needed to pay them because we didn’t turn our hazard lights on when we pulled over.

I bit my tongue and let my friend work his magic.  Afterwards, one of our passengers in the back said, “You’re like the Mozambique police whisperer.  You should have your own TV show.”

Despite being squished, tired, and hungry, we all laughed at that.

The next morning, we drove out of hostel and started driving towards the highway back to Joburg.  Not even two minutes from our hostel, my friend turned the wrong way down a deserted one-way street with no different pavement markings than a normal street.  Nor was there a sign warning not to enter.  Once the traffic light at the other end changed, however, we quickly realized our mistake.  But it was too late.  A cop pulled us over and demanded a bribe.  We explained to her that we had just paid our hostel bill and didn’t have any money on us.  She wanted us to go to an ATM and withdraw money.

Like the night before, I had a hard time not flipping out.  But I sit back and let my friend chat to her until she waved us away in exasperation.

As we drove out of Mozambique, we exclaimed that we’d never do that drive again.  Apparently you can fly directly from Jozi to Inhambane, beside Tofo, for R5000 ($560) or less roundtrip.  I definitely think it’s worth it if to avoid the corrupt police.

Even though we didn’t pay anything extra on our drive back to Maputo from Tofo, the police added at least an hour onto an already extremely long drive.  Very, very exasperating.

On the plus side, I’m not near as frustrated with South African police anymore!  They rarely pull me over!  And they all speak English.

Despite our vexation with the Mozambique police, however, this is what I’ll remember:

The view from Dino's Restaurant

The view from Dino’s Restaurant

Gorgeous.  Simply gorgeous.


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One thought on “Mozambique Police Whisperer

  1. Big Fran on said:

    um I miss you already

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