I would like to thank the commander of the Mozambican police who taught me the meaning of a new phrase “Vou te chamboquear!

He taught me yesterday at 11am in the burning sun on the side of the road, here on the opposite side of Maputo’s international airport

It all started when we were stopped by the police in our tuk-tuk at an all too routine traffic control stop, returning from a morning of distributing Mozambique’s free newspaper in the outlying neighborhood of Benfica. The other distributors had already gotten off, in their neighborhoods and it was just Driver and I returning to the city center.

Driver, who had complained about a heavy morning rain in his neighborhood of Matola, had the bad luck of pulling out soggy documents from the two layers of plastic in which they were “protected” inside the flimsy glovebox.

I saw the eyes of the policewoman bulge like a cartoon character with that “gotcha!” no trace of good humor, no attempt to understand. She started in right away commenting about his “irresponsibility” and saying that the documents would not be valid.

Driver was under the observation of this policewomen and then another policeman – with the normal AK-47 of the “grayshirts” (the common police) – and I saw the eyes of Driver do a doubletake with the arrival of the second weapon.

I remember thinking, so it’s not just us foreigners who are uncomfortable with them?

I prepared myself to stay there maningue (a long time) while Driver, sweating was trying to extract the documents without turning them into useless pulp. His nervousness was not helping at all.

I asked to help, suggesting that we tear the plastic. With much care and patience, we were able to separate the sheets one by one. In the sun it was only a question of minutes before the would be totally dry.

In the meantime, Driver had left the tuk-uk and the policemen and policewomen were verbally abusing him, suggesting that he was irresponsible, and that it was a “lack of respect” to present soggy documents. Saying that only an idiot would leave home and accompanied (pointing to me) without having everything in order. They were getting visibly irritated that the paper was salvaged and was drying quickly.

Driver was maintaining his calm in spite of the insults he suffered. But when he showed the documents (already dry enough) they started to attack him from a new angle. They saw a date on the back (date of their notarization – they were official copies) and said the date indicated that the documents had expired.

The moment Driver was trying to explain what is notarization, and explain that the date indicated the moment they were made official, not the moment they expired, a commander arrived, a man with a mustache and large silver bracelet.

He started to threaten in earnest. The word “handcuffs” provoked an immediate reaction from Driver along the lines of “I am not a thief!” – and things took a turn for the worse.

In the meantime, I had reached our boss on the mobile, and it was at this precise unfortunate moment that he insisted we try and pass the mobile to the commander to explain our documents.

The commander started to shout “He is YOUR boss. He is not MY boss!” The shouting was strong enough that Driver retreated back to the tuk-tuk. (I was still sitting in the backseat.) After, the commander started saying stuff that I think bring shame to us all.

Quoting word for word:

Você alguma vez sofreu? Have you ever suffered?

Alguma vez SO-freu?! Every SUF-fered?!

Alguma vez sofreu represália? Have you ever suffered reprisals?

Vou te chamboquear! Vou te chamboquear! I am going to thrash you! I am going to thrash you!

The last phrase he repeated. Intentionally. It was not something that came out in the heat of the moment. He repeated it, with pleasure, on the street in broad daylight.

Only after was it explained to me what a chamboko was, origin of the word chamboquear, which is unique to Mozambican Portuguese. (Sjambok is the Afrikaans word for a stiff whip or lash, made often from rhinocerous hide. It was used by the apartheid state.)

But it was hardly necessary to know which tool of violence he was referring to. The message was clear – it would have been clear to an alien from outer space.

Luckily, the commander seemed satisfied to dispense these very credible threats. He went off, to stop other motorists, leaving us with his subordinates.

After some minutes, the only traffic cop arrived, one with an official vest. He explained that there is indeed an issue with photocopies, even if they are notarized and he was unaware of any higher-level conversations on the topic. For them, we were at fault. In a reasonable and calm tone of voice he explained this. Then he criticized Driver for “not knowing how to talk to the police”.

We stayed there, preparing to leave the tuk-tuk to be impounded, as they had suggested should happen (before the threats of torture). Our colleagues were on their way to get us.

All of a sudden we sensed that all of the grayshirts were hopping into their troop carrier truck, they were leaving! The traffic cop as well. Probably they were too lazy to deal with our tuk-tuk in the midday sun. Probably as the humiliation was already complete, they were satisfied.

On our return, the words of the commander echoed in my head. Driver was also visibly disturbed.

I imagined the words echoing in his head for weeks and weeks after. I imagined how he would tell this to his wife, to his friends.

I imagined all of the “normal” nightmares people have everyday here.

Now in the security of my house, I imagine those who face the chamboko of the police here. It sends chills.