We would find ourselves in the Sergeant’s office that evening. She sounded more like a mother than a police officer – her words were measured and deliberate, in that kind of terrifying way that a police officer can be calm. You never know with these ones. Better the hotheaded ones, because with those ones, at least you know where you stand. All this time I knew things had gotten out of hand and we were either going to be arrested and arraigned in court, or if we were lucky, we’d be banned all together from visiting the park. She turned to the three of us. “Nani kiongosi wenu? Who can tell us exactly what happened?”
“Ni mimi,” I said immediately. I was seated closest to her.
“OK, but can you please calm down? You look like you still want to fight.” I do not know why every officer who had been involved in this case had asked me to calm down. I was calm. At least now I was. But the more they kept asking me to calm down, the more it irritated me.
I took a beat, and then I began explaining what happened. What I had told two previous officers.
See, all we wanted to do was take photos. But Nairobi hates photographers. The people think you are going to sell their images to witch doctors, the government has decided that you are a terrorist, kanjos and cops see a camera and their pupils turn into dollar signs, and if these guys do not get you then the thugs definitely will. So the first rule of owning a camera in this city is to know that you have put a target on your own back. We know this. So when we went to the park to shoot that afternoon, we decided we were going to do everything by the book. Walked up to the paying booth, checked the prices, paid for parking, entry and photography. It’s the law. The book.
It is still ridiculous that we have to pay to take pictures at a park – a public utility that is funded by the government. On that day, they had just revised their prices upwards; the pricelist was written on manila paper stuck to the glass booth. This I know because I had been training in that park every morning. That is how I had known of this one spot that I wanted to do a shoot at, so when the opportunity came, I told my friends we had to visit.
There were three of us. Two guys, one girl. Like that band Lady Antebellum. I know if you are reading this, you probably have figured out who those two were, but for the sake of this story, let’s say I am Dave, the other guy is Charles and the girl is called Hillary. We walk in with two sets of equipment. I am a photographer and I have my own equipment, but on that day I was the subject. Charles was shooting with his equipment. I just carried mine along just in case, you know? We share lenses, camera bodies, etc. Hillary was just tagging along, really. To carry bags, keep us company and shit.
(Hang in there, this is all about to be relevant in a bit).
We were actually done when the drama started. I had taken them down to the river for the shoot, and we had wrapped up when I said, “You know, there is another route. This place is pretty, there’s no need to go back the way we came.”
In hindsight, I wish someone had objected – or that I hadn’t suggested it at all. Because we had not even made two meters when I looked to my right and saw a flight of stairs. It looked like a staircase to heaven. The leaves were lush, and the sun was setting behind the trees, with its wounded orange hues. I insisted that we do one last shoot here.
“We have all the shots we need,” Charles said.
“Yeah, I know. But look at that!” There was still some hesitation. “Look, guys, we are already here. We have paid. Let’s get the most out of that money. Utarudi huku lini?”
Begrudgingly, Charles started setting up the tripod and the long lens. Hillary stood and watched. She did not seem to mind either way. Just ahead of us, there were some girls doing a shoot of their own. Three, if I remember correctly.
Then a policeman showed up.
If you have dealt with a policeman in Kenya, you have probably dealt with one like this one. Walked up to us, threw his eyes around, watched Charles set up his camera (he was trying to get the 100-400mm balance on his Sony A7ii).
“Mnafanya nini hapa?”
Surely, what did it look like we are doing?
“Tunapiga picha,” Hillary must’ve been the one who answered.
Hill showed him a receipt. “Tulilipa na kadi, sio MPESA.”
He was actually walking away when I said, “Thank you, ofisaaa. Endelea na kazi mzuri.” Then he turned back to look at me, and as he did, he noticed me holding the second camera.
“Ngooooja kwanza. Hii ni nini umeshika?”
“Well, yes and no. As in not at the same time.”
So here is the thing. We were shooting using natural light, no strobes or anything. And because I had carried my gear, Charles was interchanging between mine and his. No need to keep switching lenses; when using the long lens he was using his, and when we were looking for wider angles, I was using mine. But now, how do you start explaining workflow, focal length and depth of field to a Nairobi police officer?
Turns out, he wasn’t interested in any of that photography jargon. “Mmelipia hio pia?” he asked.
Apparently, if you are shooting inside this park, the charges for photography are per camera. As in, it is KES. 1,530 for every camera. Does not matter if it is one photographer who has multiple pieces of equipment. It was our first time shooting here, so we object. There was nothing like that on the manila paper where prices were indicated, and the cashier had not mentioned anything like that either. Also, it does not make any sense at all. Why would you charge photography per camera? And when they say per camera they mean per camera body. You can come with multiple lenses, multiple SD cards, batteries, tripods, lights etc. But the moment you show up with another camera body, then that is where they draw the line.
Doesn’t matter that a camera body by itself is inoperable. Without all this other equipment, it is basically a pen with no ink. As useless as tits on a bull. It is like Kenya Power one day waking up and saying you can have electricity all over your house, but only one lit bulb per household. So what is the point? Let’s start cooking rice one by one now that we have decided to be irrational.
It did not help when I tried to explain that a camera body is just one of the many tools in a tog’s bag. The absurdity of it all was lost on him – like fart in a wind tunnel.
“I don’t care, I don’t make the rules. I will have to confiscate that camera.” He did not say those exact words, but he might as well have.
“OH, WAIT A MINUTE!”
At this point we knew we weren’t going to do this last shoot. Charles had started packing up. The sun had drifted lower, so the stairs weren’t magical anymore. It was gone.
“If you want, naeza piga simu huko mbele musikie.” He said, dialing. It was the person manning the front booth where we’d paid. He was even arrogant enough to put him on loudspeaker, but things did not go the way he thought they would. I spoke to the fella on the other side, explained that we tried to do everything by the book, stated our case and in the end, he said there was no problem. But as soon as that officer sided with us, the policeman who had stopped our shoot hung up the phone and insisted on taking our gear.
Now we were convinced that this chap here was after something else, and I had categorically decided that I was not giving it to him. I told Charles to wrap up, we are leaving. Hillary told the cop, “You know what, if you insist on us paying again, we will. Twende kwa gate, tutalipa.”
Instead, the policeman reached for one of the bags – mine. I blocked him.
This is what you need to understand. Charles and I had just bought these things last Christmas. They were not even two months old when this was happening. In my bag, which he was reaching for, was a 100-400 Sigma lens E Mount, 55mm prime, 16-35mm wide lens and a Sony A7iii (had put it in the bag when we started talking). That and other stuff like SD cards, batteries … the works.
Google the price of those things before you continue. (P.S. I hadn’t insured them yet, this was our first gig)
The reason I blocked the police officer was because the bag wasn’t zipped up when he went to grab it. As aggressive as he was, he was going to lift that bag just like that and everything inside would have dropped on the ground. Swear to God I saw my life flashing in front of me. Where the hell was I going to get that money from again? The windfall that came last Dec doesn’t come often. In fact, I had a difficult time deciding whether I should buy a kaplot somewhere or finally cop my own camera equipment.
I saw red.
First instinct was to secure the bag (however you interpret that), then go back to face the afande. It had been a long time since I locked horns with a police officer. Sure, I have participated in a number of demonstrations in my time, and eaten copious amount of teargas. But the last time I was in one was in 2017. I am the one who convinced Boniface Mwangi (he had retired from activism to protect his famo) to come back so that we protest against killing of protestors. I was standing next to him on Kenyatta Avenue when he was shot in the chest with a teargas cannister at close range. Whenever I think of that day, a little bit of guilt nibbles at my heart.
Now here we are with this cop, four years later. My anger is up to my hair tips. He is demanding my bag, and I am not giving it to him. He shouts at me, I shout louder and louder. Hill tried to come in between us, but achieves nothing. Then that policeman cocks his gun at me.
I do not know guns, so I do not know what model he is carrying. Must’ve been an AK47, but don’t take my word for it. That shit does not sound like it does in the movies. If you have never heard a big gun being cocked, and you think you know how it sounds, trust me. You don’t. Especially when it is done with you in mind. That is a summoning of death. Maybe it was because of the heated moment that it sounded more dreadful, but for a moment there I knew I was a goner. At the corner of my eye, I saw the girls who were doing a shoot just ahead of us take off.
“You want to kill me? Unataka kuniua mimi? Mimi?” I began. “Sawa bas, piga!” I took off my jacket, threw it to the ground, opened my arms wide, looked him straight in the eyes and dared a Kenyan policeman to shoot me. He had decided to do it, so he might as well go ahead. No need to run if you cannot run faster than a bullet. No need to fight an armed man if you are not trained in combat. “Nipige bas!” I pounded my chest like a baboon. “PIGA! Unaogopa tena?”
I do not know what had come over me. If someone else was in this situation, I would tell them to get on their knees and beg. But my temper had shot up like a thermometer in a volcano, driving me to madness, and I thought I was ready to die. That is what happens when my fury breaks its banks. Now when I think of it, it would have been the most stupid death to ever die. Over what? Camera gear? Costs a fortune, yes, but what is the value of life? But that is just coz time has passed and I am thinking about it rationally, but in that moment, this was no longer about money. Or the cost of my equipment. I would rather bleed than plead. I would die with my gonads intact.
“Kama leo ndio siku yako ya kukufa, me nitakuua.” That cop said, pushing me with his free hand.
“Unangoja nini basi? Niue! Nitarudishwa kwa mamangu anizike!” If anyone ever tells my mother I said this, I will deny it.
It was Hill and Charles who managed to pull us apart. Mostly Hill, though, because Charles was also now shouting from the ceiling of his lungs. But even as Hillary separated us, the cop took out his radio and called for backup saying, “Nimevamiwa.” Nobody had laid a finger on him. If the three of us – the Lady Antebellum – had done anything, then it was to shout and refuse that he takes my equipment.
The first responder was a female cop. Tore through the trees running. She said she was responding to a fellow officer’s distress call. That our argument could be heard all the way up to her station, but where was the distress? I explained. Angrily, in between breaths, I explained. She sided with the cop, saying he was entitled to take the camera, but what was the point of the argument? We could have just gone up and paid if he insisted. We told her we offered to do that. She then mentioned obstruction. And she was the first person to say she was terrified of my eyes. The second officer, a dude, coming to the rescue, said the same thing.
But what the hell were they scared of? I was not the one holding a gun, was I? I was just angry. The only thing I know how to shoot is a camera.
That is how we ended up at the Sergeant’s office. Escorted by what felt like a legion of Administration Police. I did not know there were this many police officers inside this kasmall park. As it happened, there were eyewitnesses who had seen what had happened and called the Sergeant directly, saying there was a situation down by the river. I was sitting there, ready for the worst. I had texted a lawyer friend and told him to stand by just in case we were thrown inside, and then texted my girlfriend saying that a situation had occurred and we’d been arrested.
Surprisingly, none of that happened. The Sergeant explained that it is true, photography is charged per camera. But also that the situation has escalated further than it needed to. The couple that called the cops came, urged us to press it further – if not for us, then for the sake of others who may find themselves in that cop’s hands. Did we want to make a formal complaint? It was already dark, curfew was fast approaching, and I was tired.
“No, we just want to go home.”
Charles and Hillary didn’t seem to disagree.