Many times when I drive past traffic police officers, especially in heavy jam where I have ample time to observe them, I am distracted by thoughts about the circumstances of their work.
Sometimes it is in the hot sun, but this man/woman has to stand through it. He wipes streams of sweat with his palm as he struggles to regulate unruly drivers and boda bodas.
Signs of exhaustion can be seen on his face, but he doesn’t tire, occasionally choking on dust and motor emissions as he shouts at indisciplined motorists.
There is this very tall traffic lady who used to operate around Nakulabye roundabout. Taxi touts have a funny nickname for her. I have seen her on the streets for years. You spot her greeting and waving at drivers, quarrelling with some crazy ones, yet remaining sober enough to smile in the next minute.
You sometimes feel like stretching your head through the window to tell her: “Mama, you are a heroine”.
For at least this could help to let them feel appreciated and respected for what often passes unnoticed. Yes, I know it is their work, and many of us toil too.
But I also can imagine how hard it is to do such a job and wait for peanuts at the end of the month. Yet, like others, you also want your family to yield a decent life out of their parents’ day-long stand in the scorching sun amidst pessimistic reports about your work.
They want to be seen as human too, although the brutish behaviour of some of their colleagues is often used against all.
Some genuinely belong to the jungle, but many are good, struggling humans. I try to imagine how it feels to do all this sacrificial work knowing that, at the end of the day, you are going back to join your family in a tiny, dilapidated ‘uniport’, to sleep only a little more decently than a Marabou Stork (kalooli).
I think some of these gallant officers even envy birds in their nests. No wonder many harbor intense anger, which they displace onto innocent citizens.
Does anyone practically care how they raise their families in those miserable colonial tins that we choose to call houses?
When they put their heads down in bed with children under, what really runs in their exhausted minds about their value in this nation as keepers of law and order?
I pass by Kira Road police station in bewilderment about the slum-like view of their residences that still peep through the billboards that seem to be vainly aimed at shielding the shame of their abandonment. From a distance, it looks like a huge dump of rusty tins.
In many organograms, the lower you are in the picture, the more waste you receive from above. Many officers in low ranks live a life of a spoon. They carry food to Above’s mouth without tasting it – even when it is served very hot.
Yet for those that enjoy the fruits of these poor officers’ labour, the latter’s risks are only job hazards! And by the nature of their profession, orders should be followed.
While relegated to a position worse than that of a church mouse (for it sleeps better), how do these good officers feel to learn that their department takes one of the biggest budgets but that buying tear gas and tracking opposition politicians enjoy more privilege than their wellbeing?
How does it feel to hear that money for bettering their salaries and accommodation can’t be found, yet, just in a blink, billions of shillings are available for short-circuiting the Constitution?
Nevertheless, in one man’s attempt to drunkenly hold onto power, they have to bear the raw brunt of the angry masses and take the stones, plus insults. They are the unfortunate tongs with which he turns his meat on the hot fire.
Have you seen these wretched officers caught up in the middle of tear gas and flying rocks? Struggling to find water to wash their faces and sometimes bleeding profusely? Their blood to be let for the power ambitions of another from whose table only crumbs fall.
And, despite all the brutality that they are made to exercise onto the populace, people still love them. They extend them water to wash their faces when they choke on the substance they administer on behalf of the powerful. We know that the low-ranking officer is equally trapped.
The words of Asa’s song to the Jailor capture it aptly:
“I’m in chains, you’re in chains too…
I’m a prisoner, you’re a prisoner too Mr Jailor…
“You suppress all my strategy
You oppress every apart of me
What you don’t know
You’re a victim too Mr Jailor
So you better rearrange your philosophies
And be good to your fellow man”.
Sometimes, in their pain and desperate efforts to appease their bosses for a bigger cut, they forget that we are in this mess together – perhaps with them in a worse position. We are in a scenario where one lame cow kicks the other, both on a truck to the slaughterhouse.
Some of the people you brutalise are the ones that want to give you back your humanity, to make you feel counted.
They know that after your public display of might and violence, you go home and cry helplessly.
You are not really a violent man, Mr Policeman. Ugandans are generally gentle and humane people. So, when I see you throw a fellow Ugandan onto a truck like garbage, I tell myself that deep within you must be a crisis you are struggling with.
But don’t bite the syringe. As you raise your club to hit the next person, be reminded that those Ugandans wish you well, and you can be a better person.
The author heads the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.