Note: I don’t have a practical de-escalation lesson for this story… Honestly, I just wanted to tell this story…
I had just flown to Zimbabwe by myself to volunteer with a human rights organization.
Their secretary picked me up at the airport.
As we were leaving Harare (the capital city), we stopped so I could take a picture of the skyline.
I got back in car, and it was IMMEDIATELY surrounded by three men.
They were wearing street clothes, but they all had police badges.
Crud… I had just taken a picture right in front of four Zimbabwean secret police.
They made me get out of the car and started questioning me.
“Who do you work for? New York Times? Wall Street Journal? Who?”
They thought I was an unregistered foreign journalist (3-year minimum prison sentence).
Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell them why I was really in their country. Being a journalist is bad but being a human rights lawyer is even worse.
I’ll never forget the moment when the leader of the group said, “You are under arrest.”
It is VERY surreal—and more than a little anxiety-producing—to get arrested in an African dictatorship.
We started driving to the police station and I became increasingly panicked. I knew that once we got to the police station, my situation would get dramatically worse.
I tried being funny.
They didn’t care.
I tried being cute.
They didn’t care.
I tried being the “dumb American.”
They didn’t care.
Not knowing what else to do, I tried one final thing:
“Hey guys, they are just going to give me a fine and let me go. How about I just give you the fine—IN CASH—and you all can take it to the police station for me?”
They pulled the car over.
The police captain asked me to take a walk with him.
The conversation started EXACTLY like this:
Police: How much of a fine do you want to pay?
Ryan: I don’t know. What is the fine for taking a picture?
Police: Well, the fine for public drunkenness is $100 U.S. dollars.
Ryan: Ok, I’ll give you $10.
Police: What?!?!?!?! I just told you that public drunkenness is $100?!?!?!!?
Ryan: Yeah, and I’m not drunk.
Pause the story for a second.
You should probably know that I had $3,000 in my wallet. I needed it, though, for the three weeks I would be in Zimbabwe.
Ok, resume the story…
Police: I like you, American. You are a funny guy. But it will not be my fault what happens to you when I turn you over to Zimbabwean Central Intelligence. How much do you REALLY want to pay?
Ryan: [Looking down I see a $90,000,000,000 Zimbabwean bill on the ground. I pick it up]. I’ll give you $90 billion.
Police: [Taking the bill from my hand and dropping it on the ground]. U.S. currency only.
The negotiations went on for about 45 minutes. I knew from experience in other African countries that whatever I agreed to would not be the final price.
That is exactly what happened. We agreed on $50. Then he raised it to $70. Then he raised it to $90.
Ironically, they didn’t even pretend that this wasn’t a bribe. He literally said, “There are three of us and $70 does not divide three ways very easily, but $90 does.”
Then they let me go.
This was the first time I went to Zimbabwe.
The fourth time I went, I did actually get interrogated by Zimbabwe Central Intelligence.
Maybe I’ll tell that story some other time.
Oh, if you want to see where I took the picture that got me arrested, you can see it HERE
At $90 USD, it is the most expensive picture I own, so I have framed in my office with the $90,000,000,000 Zimbabwean bill that the secret police wouldn’t take.
Have a fantastic week!