Illegal Immigrants, For a Few Hours

Lonely Planet said it was an official border crossing. Michelin made it look like a road, at least. But this, these two sandy tire tracks in the savannah, with a little row of tall grass growing wildly in between, this could not be an international highway. Where are we?

There’s a police officer ahead, two of them actually. He’s waving at us, better stop. Damn, I hope he doesn’t give us a hard time. We probably do look a little suspicious crossing the border this way. He probably thinks we have a car full of gems or rhino horns.

“It is very lonely here, you know. I haven’t had a soda all day.”

Is he asking us for a soda? Is that all he wants? Maybe he can tell us where the border is.

“Yes, it’s that way. Not far, you go.”

A conspicuous and incongruous metal sign is barely visible above the tall grass on the right side of the road. Tanroads, it says at the top, like a header, and below it lists four cities and the distance to each. Are we in Tanzania? Did we cross the border? And what is a mileage sign doing here? There isn’t a single mileage sign in all of Uganda, and now here there’s one where there are no drivers to read it.

At what looks like it might be an official border a log has been laid across the road, and a sign is propped on it: Police Checkpoint. To the left of the road is a house of cards, several rectangular sheets of scrap metal stacked in a way that just barely keeps them all standing. A thick, balding, jovial man in a purple soccer jersey sits on the dusty ground outside, plucking a chicken.

Najua Englisy?

“I only speak Swahili.”

Immigration?

“Kyaka, you go.”

Saturday?

“Yes, you go.”

With our tenuous claim to legal entry we drive to Kyaka, about a hundred kilometers away if the unexpected road sign could be believed. What happens if you get arrested for sneaking across an African border? In a car you never bothered to import? Without insurance? Can’t be good, can it?

The only people at the immigration office in Kyaka are a very large, underdressed housewife and what are presumably the children she and the absent immigration officer have parented. We sit in her living room and watch a Mexican telenovella while she phones her husband for us. She passes her phone.

“You come Monday. I am at the market.”

But we are illegal – shit, can I say that to him? that we’re illegal? – but we just crossed the border and we need to buy our visas.

“I am coming.”

In his office, which was separate from his living room, he is friendly but suspicious of our irregular movement.

“You must drive to the official border.”

But it’s an hour away, and we’d be illegal the whole way. The car doesn’t have insurance. What if the police stop us?

“I can’t stamp you in until Uganda stamps you out.”

But now that we’re here we can’t get out of Tanzania until you stamp us into Tanzania. They won’t let us back across the border. It was an argument we would win, though he quickly refuses when we ask for a multiple entry visa. Suspicious in his own way, he does not issue a receipt for the money we give him for our visas.

“You have seven days.”

Having legalized ourselves, we have to import the car. The nearest office doesn’t have the right papers – but does have a large heap of delicious dried pineapple sitting on the dirty counter – so we have to drive to another one, all the way back to the official border crossing that we talked the immigration officer out of sending us to. We are fearful that every police officer along the way might notice our illegal, uninsured car. We pass through several roadblocks, but no one stops us.

The customs officer requires a copy of the car’s registration, and the nearest copier is in Uganda. After struggling to get our visas in Tanzania, we now sneak down an alleyway back into Uganda, just to use the copy machine. Back at the customs office in Tanzania, the paperwork is perfunctory. As we are leaving we ask where to get the car insured.

“Why do you want to do that?”

What if the police stop us?

“What is this sticker here?”

Our insurance in Kenya.

“You just point to this one and you tell the police it is for Tanzania. They cannot read.”

Are you joking? Is he joking? We chuckle in a way meant to show we are either laughing with him at the absurdity of a government official suggesting we break the law or laughing with him at the idiots over in the police department, whichever one he means.

“You just look very serious. You don’t laugh, you look serious. They will let you go.”

We drove away. Do you think he’s phoning his police buddies at the next roadblock to tell them to be looking for a white couple in a Suzuki without insurance?

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