That Time I Spent Thanksgiving in Jail- in Africa

the village of N'Dalatando Angola

Yes, the rumors are true. I was arrested last weekend and thrown in the slammer. In Africa. As Jonathan says “All respectable expats have spent some time in jail. Welcome to Africa!”. Here’s the story:

Chris and I were taking a road trip to the Calendula waterfalls, about 8 hours away from Luanda. Naturally with a long drive like that we would take turns driving. However, we both forgot all abut the fact that my purse had been stolen the previous weekend, and my driver’s license along with it. Of course about half an hour after I start driving, we get pulled over. It was just a routine police check just before N’Dalentando, the capital of Kwanze Norte province. Chris showed his id cards but they also asked for mine. I didn’t have my driver’s license, and I had left my passport at home (we had thought it would be safer there). So the police took us into the city, to the Office of Immigration.

truck falling into sinkhole in Africa
Giant sinkhole in town

We spent the rest of the day (Thursday) dealing with Immigration. They were mainly concerned about seeing my passport. But they were also acting like it wasn’t that big of a deal, so we thought they would eventually just let us go. Everything in Africa takes time. But by the end of the day, they still were dealing with us, so they made us spend the night there. We slept in the car in the parking lot of the immigration building. We called a friend in Luanda and he got the key to the house, and retrieved my passport.

Friday morning, our friend in Luanda took my passport to the Immigration office in Luanda and showed it to them, and they called the guys in N’Dalentando, and we were done. We thought. Then the immigration guys said we needed to go see the police chief about the driving without a license charge. So we drove over there. When we got there, a woman asked us a bunch of questions, and decided we needed to see the judge. So we drove to the courthouse, and waited around there a while. Finally, the judge asked a bunch of questions (mainly the same ones) and informed us that the penalty for driving without a license in Angola is one month in jail! We explained about the stolen license, and she said she needed to see a copy of the license, and until she did, I was going to jail. And with that, she picked up her purse and left for the day! Even though it was only 2:30 in the afternoon.

We were pretty freaked out about the jail part, so I called Ken, in Texas, and asked him to go to my parents’ house, and look through the mail- I had ordered a new license when my purse was stolen, so it should have arrived. Chris was going to call Ken back in an hour or so, and the police took me off to jail. They took my shoelaces. Chris gave me some clothes from our backpacks to use as pillows, and a magazine, and some bottled water. I went into the cell and the guard locked the door. The cell had no electricity, it was about 5″x8″, and it had an outdoor latrine. I was the only one in there for a few hours.

Chris had found a courthouse clerk named Amadou, who spoke some English, so they went off together to go find a way to get me released. He promised to return in a couple of hours with some dinner.
Being in jail wasn’t too bad. The guards were really nice and came over to talk to me and play music for me on their cell phones. After a while we started doing Portuguese/English lessons. You learn a lot of words when you’re in trouble with the law in a foreign country. I learned more Portuguese in those four days than I did in the first four weeks I was here.

Meanwhile, Chris was busy, finding a phone with charge in it and some phone minutes (his phone charge was gone and we hadn’t brought the charger with us), finding internet connection (he had to go to four or five places before he found the only one in town, at the Catholic Mission), and coordinating with Ken in Texas and other people in Luanda. Ken had retrieved my new driver’s license and scanned it in and emailed it to Chris, who got it printed out. He brought me some dinner- an MRE and some juice- and said he was going to look for the judge or the police chief, and he’d be back later.

The sun sets here around 7 pm and when there’s no electricity, there’s nothing to do except lay down and try to sleep. Another woman, Vivi, was brought to my cell for a while, but released about an hour later (her husband was abusing her so they put her in jail for “protection”). I couldn’t really sleep- all I had was a blanket (from Vivi- she told me she’d come pick it up the next day) and a somewhat dirty sheet, on a concrete floor- so I sat up in the doorway with a lit candle for a while. I was still sitting up like that when Chris came in again at 9:30, and said they were releasing me from jail.

I was out of jail but we had to stay in town for the weekend. I was basically detained under house arrest. We found one restaurant to get lunches and dinners, but other than that I just stayed at the “hotel” (an empty boarding house, maybe?) we found. If I left the hotel, the police followed us around. But really, they were pretty nice about it and were just trying to keep an eye out for us, I think. We hung out in the city (town, really, it wasn’t that big-maybe five or six main streets) on Saturday and Sunday, and then Monday morning we went to the courthouse. We met with the same judge, who took us into to a “tribunal”, a short trial with three judges. The other judges didn’t seem to really care at all about this whole situation, but for some reason my original judge really had a thing for keeping the case going. Finally, after a couple of hours, I was declared “absolvo” and released. I waited a good half hour while some guy on a manual typewriter typed up a copy of my release papers,– and then actually SEWED my court case shut with twine– and then we beat it out of town. We never did get to see the waterfalls.

All in all, it was an interesting weekend. I learned a lot of Portuguese. I got a close look at the Angolan justice system. An even closer look at an Angolan jail. And, it was an excellent lesson in reminding me to always keep paper copies of my documents with me. It wound up being a very cheap Thanksgiving vacation- when we added it up, we came to about $270 for a five day trip. Of course, two of those nights were in the car and two nights were in a very scary “hotel”- I use quotation marks because I can guarantee that unless you’ve been to a third world country, you haven’t seen a place like this. But at least along the way we met some really interesting people, and a few people like Amadou and Americano, a police officer who was very helpful. And we got to have an adventure.