Thursday, August 9, 2012

Cops and Robbers

Gendarmes and Police

When I arrived in my town, my community homologue took me around and introduced me to the important people.  Two of our stops were at the Gendarmerie and the Police Station.  At each place I was introduced and they wrote my name and other information from my identity card in a log book. I wondered about this two level system of law enforcement. Here are a Policeman and and Gendarme in uniform. The policeman is in white and tan, and the gendarme is in blue
 Last year the man who is the assistant to the head of the police here stopped by my house.  He had been talking with friends in Ouagadougou who mentioned that people for the American Peace Corps could be helpful to someone who was interested in farming. I told him I was not a volunteer in the agriculture section, but I would be happy to see if I could get some information for him. He invited me to see his farm the next day and offered to take me there on his motorcycle.  He had arrived just at dusk, when he was getting off from work. He was not in a uniform and I really did not know whether or not to trust him.  I told him I was not supposed to ride on motorcycles (which is only about half true) because it did not seem like a good idea to jump on a motorcycle with a strange man claiming to be a policeman. I told him I would meet him at the radio station in the morning and ride to his farm on my bicycle.  The radio station is the one run by the association with which I do some work, and also the place I went every couple of days to get my computer battery recharged and to work using electricity. When I got to the station the next morning, the first thing I did was to ask Isadore, the program manager, if Vincent really was a policeman. Isadore assured me he was what he claimed to be and greeted him when he arrived, so I felt reassured and agreed to go see his farm. 

His farm was about a 15 minute bike ride further down the road. He had a cow and several sheep tied up under a hangar, those structures made of tree branches with a woven mat on top to provide shade.  It is also the place where farmers store feed, as we might store hay in a barn. Inside a courtyard he had constructed several round chicken houses made of mud brick.  Inside there were nesting boxes all around the wall. He showed me his well, which was only about 15 feet deep.  He said he had hit the granite layer and could not get through it to dig the well deeper.  What he was hoping I could do through Peace Corps was to give him some financial aid to drill a deep well.  I had to tell him that this kind of project was not something Peace Corps could help with.  I did agree to see what I could find in the way of printed material about farming in Burkina Faso. Peace Corps did have a number of resources electronically that I was able to get for him. Eventually I printed the big book about chicken farming for him. He was also interested in doing some tree farming and I got some free tree seeds for him through our program to encourage Burkinabè to plant trees. He has been a policeman for 25 years and was thinking of farming as what he would do when he retired. Here is a picture of Vincent, again in uniform.

When my bicycle was stolen, I reported it to the police and the gendarmes.  At the police station they made an entry in their log book. They also assigned a number to the report and gave me a piece of paper with the case number on it, with the official stamp of the police department. I also reported the theft to the gendarmes, who went through the same routine, except that they did not give me a paper to show I had reported it. Because the bicycle was recovered by the gendarmes in another town, they checked around with other gendarmeries and the folks in my town called me and told me where to go to recover it.

Why two police forces?

When I asked why there were two different law enforcement groups in town I was told that the police were for the town and the gendarmes dealt with problems in the outlying villages. When I went to report that my cameras had been stolen, I met a new gendarme, Omar, who had recently been assigned here from a posting in Ouaga. 

Omar stopped by the house to visit on his day off. He knows a little English, but we spoke mostly in French.  I asked him to explain the difference between gendarmes and police.  He said that the gendarmes are really part of the army. Their task is security.  That means that if there is threat to the country from outside, they become part of the army.  The rest of the time they are concerned with internal security, which means keeping the peace and offering protection to the population. Their training begins, like any soldier, at a boot camp where they are put through rigorous physical training and so on.  After that, they learn about the law and law enforcement.  I asked him if they ever did things like look for finger prints at a crime scene.  He said they did not have the technology to do that.  They do not have a data base of fingerprints or a way to match prints they might find with known criminals. They certainly know about the idea from European and American movies and TV programs that are popular here.

The police are more responsible for local problems.  While I was reporting my stolen cameras at the police station a number people came in to get various papers recorded or stamped to make them official.  If you want to apply for a job or to be admitted to a college or Lycée you have to show you have the educational qualifications. You get a copy made of your certificate, buy an official stamp from the mayor's office, and take the original and the copy to the police who check you ID, the original and the copy and stamp the copy to show that it is valid. In that sense they are like the notary public in the US. 

One of the popular action TV shows here is the series 24, known here as Jack Bower.  It has been dubbed in French and people pass around the episodes.  I have not watched it, but I understand that they show a lot of high tech intelligence methods on the show. My cameras were stolen while I was watching the finals of the Lycée soccer tournament.  One of the teachers was using his new camera to record the event.  He used the video recording function to record a couple of the speeches that were made before the game. While the speech was going on, he panned across the audience and of I was easy to pick out of the crowd. He thought maybe we could figure out who had been sitting behind me during the game and thus catch the thief.  We loaded his video onto my computer and we used the freeze frame function to get "snapshots" of the people in the crowd.  Then I zoomed in on the faces of the people sitting behind me and he thought the police might be able to recognize the people from what we could see.  The images were very poor and all you really could see was a blur.  He thought the images could be enhanced, like they do on TV, but of course I don’t have the technology to do that and neither do the Burkina Faso law enforcement people here in my little town.  I doubt they could do it in Ouaga either.  Could YOU recognize these men?

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