Welcome to Maputo
Franco was leaning back in the passenger seat of his patrol car. The old Toyota Hilux had known better days, but it was still better than having to walk. He moved in his seat as he tried to get comfortable. His uniform pants were cutting into his waist. They seemed to get tighter by each passing week. It wasn’t working, no matter what he did. He gave up with a sigh. He stuck his hand out the window and waved his fingers. The young officers sitting on the bench up on the back of the Toyota didn’t notice. They were busy smoking and chatting: relaxing before the evening’s work. He knocked on the roof of the car and showed a finger. That worked. One of them quickly jumped up and passed him a cigarette.
He had tried to give up smoking but there was little to break the monotony of the long hours in the patrol car. He smoked as he sat and observed the traffic along Julius Nyerere Avenue. The street was changing. Gone were the old places. Now there were fancy shops popping up all over. It was the same all over Maputo. Expensive restaurants and flashy cars.
“Some people are making a lot of money,” he said to the young officer in the driver’s seat next to him. The young man nodded. “It is all the coal and gas that the foreigners are digging up all around the country. Everybody is making money, except for you and me.” The man nodded again. “The wife wants to go on holiday. To Cape Town! Can you believe that?” Franco shook his head. “On a policeman’s pay?” The young man nodded. That’s why Franco liked him. He didn’t talk much.
They were parked on the sidewalk by the large intersection, across from the Mundos Bar. It was always crowded with expats and tourists. It was as a good spot from where it was possible to keep an eye on two major roads at the same time. They sat in silence and watched as one by one the shops closed for the night and the street restaurants started to fill up.
“There is one,” he yelled and banged on the roof as he pointed out the open window with the other hand to a car that was making an illegal turn. “Are you idiots sleeping?”
Two of the young officers on the back quickly scrambled down and ran over to stop the car. Franco watched them in the rear view mirror arguing with the driver. At this time of the evening, it was the only thing to do: catch a driver or two for some traffic infringement. It didn’t pay much but it was good practice for the new officers. They finished arguing and one of them came over and handed him the money.
Franco looked at the notes. “What is this?”
“It was all that he had.”
“All that he had? Manuel, you idiot!” Franco turned in his seat and leaned out the window. Manuel instinctively took a step back. ”You believed that? You let him get away with paying two USD? How many times have I told you? Never less than five, no matter what the guy has done.”
Franco sat back heavily in the seat and sighed. This lot still had so much to learn. They might have the uniform but they still had no idea about being a police officer. It was his job to teach them. They were assigned to him for that reason, so that they could learn. He had been through the same a long time ago; he had learnt the tricks of the trade; how to make money and how it was shared with the higher ups. He was good at it. That was why his police chief had assigned him a car. Because he brought back more money than most.
They sat in silence for a while, just watching and observing; waiting for an opportunity but none came. The only thing to do was to keep waiting. It was part of the work; endless hours of waiting. There was a breeze blowing in from the sea and the temperature was pleasant. It made the waiting easier. He really wanted another cigarette but fought the urge.
The driver was starting to get impatient. His wife was due to have their first baby any day now and Franco knew he was eager to make something extra. He looked at his watch. It was still a bit early to start driving around but the driver’s fiddling about in the seat was starting to irritate him. He quickly bowed his head and prayed, asking for good fortune. He had hardly finished before the driver pointed at something down the road.
The street was only partial lit and Franco has to strain his eyes to see. It was a small group of young tourists chatting and joking as they walked, oblivious to the attention they created.
“Alright! Let’s go to work.” Franco gave the driver a nod. As soon as the engine started, the conversation up in the back of the truck stopped. “Just go by them so we can see what we have,” Franco instructed the driver. All eyes were fixed on the group as they slowly drove past. They continued a bit further down the road.
“So?” the driver asked.
“Looks good!” Franco said. “Pull over.”
They made a U-turn and stopped some 100 meters in front of the group where they waited. The tourists, still unaware, walked straight into the waiting trap.
Franco got out of the car. “Good evening. Identity papers please.”
The other officers remained seated with the Kalashnikovs on their laps, observing; ready to provide some muscle should there be any problems.
“We didn’t bring any. It’s at the hotel,” a young man tried to explain.
“The law says you have to have it on you. We need to check for illegal immigrants.”
“Illegal immigrants? We are students on a study tour with our university.”
“If you don’t have any ID then I need you to come with me to the police station so that we can verify that you are in the country legally.”
They looked at each other dumbfounded.
“What?” The young man still didn’t understand.
“Are we under arrest?” a girl asked in disbelief.
“Yes, unless you can show me some ID.”
“What do we do?” The group looked at each other while they debated. They looked at Franco and the patrol car unable to decide what to do. One in the group was a bit more clued in than the rest of them.
“Perhaps we can talk about it?” he asked.
Franco looked at him. “Talk about it?” The man nodded and Franco motioned for the two of them to step away from the group.
“200 USD,” Franco said with a satisfied smile as he got back into the car. In his rear view mirror he could see the group looking distraught. One of the girls was crying and got comforted by a friend.
“Welcome to Maputo,” the driver said with a grin as they drove off.
“Let’s just continue further out that way,” Franco instructed him. There wasn’t much happening yet but perhaps they could pick up some action further out on Julius Nyerere Avenue.
They drove in silence. The sidewalks were deserted. They always were at night. Only tourists walked. Everyone else drove. Franco felt like another cigarette. They drove past the presidential palace and continued further out the road.
“Looks like our colleagues are busy,” Franco said as they came upon an improvised checkpoint. “That got to be Samy and his group.” He turned to the driver and said with a laugh, “Samy will never graduate to anything above foot patrol. He has never learned to share. He will be walking around on his big flat feet until he retires.” The driver nodded. “Well, well, looks like they got lucky,” Franco continued as he noticed the car parked on the side of the road. A foreigner was standing next to it, looking agitated while arguing with a group of policemen.
“Pull over,” Franco said. One of the policemen waved when he saw them and smiled as he walked over. “Hi Samy. What do you have?” Franco asked.
“A South African.”
“No, he works for some mining company. A drunk driver. He won’t pay though. He keeps saying he hasn’t been drinking. He says he wants to be tested to prove it.”
They both laughed.
“Wants to be tested, that’s a good one,” Franco chuckled and his large belly wobbled.
Samy smiled. “Yes, let’s see how long he lasts. I am going to keep him waiting here all night if I have to.”
Franco nodded. “He will come around. They always do. Manuel!” Franco held up two fingers and Manuel readily obliged and passed cigarettes to the two of them. Samy leaned on the car as they smoked in silence for a minute.
“Say, Samy, what’s the story with that house invasion in Sommerschield the other night. I heard they got a very nice BMW. Would fetch a good price in Jo’burg.”
“Yes, I heard that too. It must be some South African gang you know. They come here and make all kinds of trouble.”
“South African? I thought it was locals. I was told they spoke Portuguese.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that. It had to be South Africans,” Samy insisted.
“Yes, I guess it had to be.” Franco nodded as he studied Samy’s face. “Well, catch you later,” he said and signalled for the driver to continue.
“You stay clear of that man, you hear,” Franco told the driver as soon as they were out of earshot. “He is no good. He makes money, but he messes with the party leaders and their friends, robbing them and what not. Sooner or later he will get caught and they will make an example of him. Stick to the foreigners and don’t forget to give the bosses their share. It won’t make you rich but at least you can expect to get old.”
“Yes, Patrão,” the driver nodded.
They continued out Julius Nyerere Avenue. Down the side streets women were standing discretely waiting for customers to come by. They were locals. They didn’t have any money; just trying to get by like the rest of them. Still, they were worth keeping any eye on, just in case. They cruised out to the end of the road to where the fish market used to be. The whole area was dark. No street lights and no living creature to be seen except for street dogs.
“There is nothing here,” Franco muttered. “Drive back to the Polana Hotel. Let’s see what we can find there.”
Flooded in lights, the five star Polana Hotel was visible from afar. It was a grand relic from the colonial times, popular with foreigners and rich locals alike.
“Have you ever been inside, Patrão?” the driver asked.
“Only once; in uniform of course. The guards wont let people like us anywhere near the place otherwise. It was some minor thing. A son of a politician had hit a foreigner who then called the police. We didn’t do anything of course, just calmed the foreigner down. No one in his right mind was going to get involved in that.”
“So what is it like? Inside I mean?”
“Just like the movies; just like the movies, my son.” Franco got distracted by a solitary figure walking out of the hotel’s driveway. “Well, looks like we are in luck. Go in hard,” he said. “We need to be quick in case the hotel guards try to intervene.”
The Toyota made a sharp left turn, flew in over the curb and cut the man off. He took a frighten step back as the car stopped with screeching tires right in front of him. He stood shocked and confused and watched as Franco jumped out of the car.
“Passport please,” Franco said and signalled for the others to join him. All the officers on the back quickly jumped down and surrounded their victim. They looked aggressive, with their Kalashnikovs in their hands. It worked! The man was clearly intimidated. “Passport!” Franco repeated.
The man reached into his pocket and reluctantly handed over his passport.
He nodded. “Yes, from California.” Franco flipped through the pages before he passed the passport to one of his men who walked off. “Hey, my passport,” the man protested.
“We need to check it,” Franco said while assessing the man. He was middle-aged, well dressed and wearing what looked like an expensive watch. Not a smart thing to do in Maputo. Chances were that he would get mugged by some local thugs before the night was over.
“I need my passport,” the man said and tried to walk after the officer.
Manuel blocked his way and pushed him back with his Kalashnikov.
“You stay here!”
It took a little while before the man realised his passport was not coming back on its own.
“Alright, how much?”
“Another 100 USD,” Franco noted with a smile as he got back into the car. “Good work guys!” It was promising to be a good evening. Stopping foreigners was always a sure win. Either they didn’t have their passport on them and would be made to pay, or they had their passport and would be made to pay to get it back.
They returned to their spot by the intersection. The Dolce Vita bar down the street was getting busy and there was a growing line of expensive cars parked outside. Unfortunately, its patrons were all off limits. They were related to senior party members. Franco knew because they were the only locals who had money and who could afford that kind of cars. They were also the ones who could make a lot of trouble for a police sergeant who didn’t know his limits.
“Look at them driving around,” he said as a couple of the cars were cruising up and down the street. “They are burning so much money every evening just on gasoline.” He shook his head. It was such a waste. Kids like that had never known hard times, that was for sure.
Someone came out from the Mundos Bar. Watchful eyes followed the drunk as he stumbled across the street. He turned and came closer. Franco got a better look. He didn’t look like a tourist. Perhaps a businessman; not a westerner, but from somewhere in the region; maybe South African.
One of the officers, leaned up against the car, said a quiet “Boa noite” as the man walked by.
“Good evening,” he answered.
A smile spread across the policeman’s face. It was not a local.
The man stopped and turned aggressively towards the officer.
“I am diplomat. I know what you want and you can piss off!” He flashed a red diplomatic ID card right in the face of the officer. The officer stopped, turned and looked to Franco who shrug his shoulders.
“Let him go,” he said.
The man had already continued on while muttering, “Corrupt, rotten police; shitty country!”
Franco watched the man stumble on down the street. Diplomats were a hard target, even the drunk ones. It was only in the early hours of the morning in the red light district that one could get anything out of them. It was a shame though. They had enough to share for sure but like the politicians, they knew how to hold on to what they had.
Franco smoked another one of Manuel’s cigarettes. It was getting late and the street was quiet. He was doing a quick count of what they had made so far and tried to calculate his share. It was looking good. He needed more nights like this one. School fees for the children were due in a month and he had nowhere near what he needed. There were other ways of course. Samy had more than once suggested that there was money to be made if he was interested in joining him for some off duty work but he was resisting. It was a path from which there was no return.
He put the money in his pocket and checked his watch. It was after midnight. It was almost time to move on. There wouldn’t be much more money to be made in that part of town that evening. It was still a bit early for the red light district but perhaps they could cruise around and catch a drunk driver or two. Suddenly, a yellow sports car appeared, racing straight through a red light. Manuel jumped out on the road and waved his arms, trying to stop it. The driver didn’t even bother to slow down but roared past. Franco sighed. They still had so much to learn, especially Manuel. He sat and watched as the sports car pulled up in front of the Dolce Vita.
“Manuel!” he called.
“You are an idiot!”
Franco got out of the car, took a deep breath. It was time for a lecture. The others were all standing around and turned to look at him. Not Manuel. He had climbed back up on the bench in the back of the car where he sat and sulked.
“Why don’t we bother locals in expensive cars?” Franco asked. Without waiting for an answer he continued. “Because they will complain to the police chief and then all the money you made this evening will go to pay him off so that we don’t get grounded in the station for a week. Right, Manuel?”
“So why in God’s name do you keep doing it? It’s not like I haven’t told you! Is it?” The last words were yelled rather than spoken. Manuel didn’t reply. Franco looked at each of them. They were avoiding his stare, instead looking down at their feet. He could tell he had probably taken it too far. They were just young and keen; trying to do what was expected of them. It was time to cheer them up and let them have some easy picking.
“Alright boys, enough about that. Time to get back to work. Let’s head down to Baixa and see what we can find in the red light district. I will buy a beer for the man who makes the most!"
“Yes, Patrão!” they answered as one, all smiling enthusiastically as they quickly jumped up and joined Manuel on the back of the Toyota. Franco nodded as he got back into the car. They were good boys; eager. Even that idiot Manuel was all right.
Thomas Kring July 2020