That Time I Was Kidnapped In Arusha

Share the love

It’s no secret that, like many African nations, Tanzania is lousy with corruption.  Everyone I talked to that had spent any amount of time there had a story about being pulled over by the police for something ridiculous and then asked for a bribe.  The car being too dirty, wearing flip flops while driving, marriage proposals from the police officers, those are all actual first hand accounts I received.

I was fortunate enough to have this true African experience in my two weeks in Arusha.

While driving with my friend Dave (well, the roads look like this, so he was driving),


we made a right turn onto what was most certainly a two way street.  Right after turning a man walked into the middle of the road in front of the car.  We stopped to avoid hitting him and three other men surrounded the car and places spikes on either side of the front tires so we couldn’t drive away.  The first man approached the car and told us we had made a wrong turn and owed a 50,000 shilling (around $32) “wrong turn fee”.  While all this was happening several cars passed us and continued on their way, so it was for sure a road people were allowed to drive on.

Mind you these men were not in uniform, just regular clothes with lanyard with an id attaching them to a vague company that may or may not have been government run.  It was more a matter of principle than money, that and a lack of cash.  When we told the man we did not have the money and asked if we could go to an atm, he said “no, there are spikes on your tires.”

We asked what would happen if we didn’t pay and we were told that they would have the car towed and call the police.  Were I by myself, I probably would have opted for this, but Dave lives there and I trusted he knew more about these procedures than I.  There was a long stand off as they asked for money and we repeatedly told them we didn’t have it.

The stand off ended with the man asking to get in our car to take us to his office, where we could have an argument about not having cash in a different location.  We told him he couldn’t get in the car, and that we would follow him to the office if he drove his car.  Apparently, we didn’t seem trust worthy (fair) and the man once again insisted that he get in the car with us.  Dave agreed that only the one man could get in,  that would be something that made me super uncomfortable, but I was assured that this wasn’t America and no one had a gun.  Not exactly comforting.  This is where I was borderline kidnapped.

Anyway, the man ended up in the car directing us to some weird office and calling us “my friends” about a hundred times.  I was not his friend.  Dave took the longest route possible, refused to drive on dirt roads, and purposefully missed turns on the way.  He later told me that in instances like this (which apparently happen fairly often) that you can sometimes just drive the person around for a while and if they don’t have a phone eventually they will just ask to be let out.

This guy however had a phone.  We were stopped by the other 3 guys with him who had caught up with us in their own car.  We asked again if we could stop by an atm, and were again refused until we went to this office.

As we pulled into the “office”  I couldn’t help but notice that it was not an office, but appeared to be a auto body shop.  There was a large metal gate with a list of services they provide for cars.

We drove through the gate and saw a few other cars in garage-esque structures.  The “office” area was one partially walled “room” with two desks, one with a woman who seemed to be some sort of book keeper and a man that explained that we owed 60,000 shillings for a wrong turn fee.

When asked about the sudden 10,000 shilling increase, the man gestured to a sign on the wall and explained the 10,000 shilling “gate fee” for having driven to their office.  We explained to this man that we were directed (forcibly) to the office after not having the cash to pay.  The man in the office asked if we spoke Swahili (nope!) then explained that it was probably a misunderstanding, but not the kind of misunderstanding that got you off the hook for 60,000 shillings.

At this point we were told that we would have to get cash at an atm.  We expressed our obvious frustration with many implied expletives, I say implied expletives because swearing at someone is actually illegal there and can get you a real life ticket and fine from an actual police officer.  It’s a really unfortunate law somewhere where everything is frustrating and inconvenient.

I offered the man 40 usd if we could leave, which would have given him an extra 4,000 shillings.  He refused and told us that someone had to go out on the terrifying dirt road and find a place to trade in foreign currency while one of us stayed there.  Guess who drew the short straw?

Well, actually both tasks seemed pretty horrible and there was no way I would ever be able to find anything on that road, so I was collateral.

I don’t know the rules in this country, and I don’t know that the people I was dealing with had any real authority, but I know at home I can usually talk my way out of a ticket.  The second Dave left and I was stuck sitting in that office, my captor got super chatty.  He asked when I was from, I told him America.  He asked where in America and I told him Florida.  Then he asked if I spoke French or Spanish, not in an, “Do you speak French or Spanish?” way, but in more of a “Which do you speak, French or Spanish?” way.  He of course asked me this in English.  He didn’t know a lot about America.  He also still made us pay once Dave got back.

The money we gave him went straight into his pocket until we asked for a written receipt.  He then took the money out of his pocket and filled out a form in a large book.  I hope we ruined his day, but I’m sure we didn’t.  That had to happen several times that day.

This is, from what I understand, one of the problems with being white in Arusha.  Constant targeting and fining by officials (or perhaps not so officials).  There are enough white people in town, however (and each with their own absurd fining story), that the fact that the roads are still dirt and they haven’t quite gotten the hang of electricity is really a testament to the level of corruption.  How many of us must they have stopped on the road that day?  Most of them probably gave the men the 50,000 shillings to avoid a hassle (as I wish we had been able to) and none of that seems to go back into the community.

Transparency International has ranked the Tanzanian Police Force as the most corrupt in East Africa.  From the little I’ve seen, that’s quite impressive title, and rightfully earned.

As frustrating as it was at the time that a quick trip into town took an extra hour and a half and cost $40.  I do feel like I walked away with a real African experience, or at least a real white girl in Africa experience.  Unfortunately, I was too terrified and confused at the time to photo document the process.  Talk about a missed opportunity, but this is what we felt  like after.




8 thoughts on “That Time I Was Kidnapped In Arusha

  1. […] liked to explore further, but I was still a little shaken up from having been borderline kidnapped (story here) on the way and wasn’t feeling particularly enchanted with Tanzanian Culture just at the […]

  2. That sounds terrifying! Lucky you got out of there with only a bit of time and money lost! x
    Kelly recently posted…48 Hours in Lucerne, SwitzerlandMy Profile

  3. […] Bring cash-  Take some of the money you saved in trip planning, and bring cash with you.  As Americans, we take for granted that everywhere takes credit cards.  Cash is king most places and this way you’ll be guaranteed not to be stranded somewhere hungry with no way home, and depending on the destination it can get you out of some sticky situations. […]

  4. […] That time I was kidnapped in Arusha- okay, so it wasn’t a full out kidnapping, but I was taken to a location against my will and […]

  5. […] take her up on it!  And it may never happen again.  She wasn’t even a little worried when I got kidnapped in Africa.  Going to a conference in Cancun is probably the safest thing I’ve done in a while.  Life […]

  6. Oh my goodness! This reminds me of walking around in Mexico and being harassed by the Mexican police! Crazy story. You live like I do!
    Bobbi Gould recently posted…15 unique travel quotes to inspire your wanderlust!My Profile

    • Mags

      That’s what I live for, nerve wracking at the time, but a funny story for later!

  7. Oh1 What an experience that. I am sure most people would be traumatized by such an experience in a foreign country. It is good that you had Dave with you who had some knowledge of the terrain and was able to keep his cool.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> 

CommentLuv badge