Thursday, July 31, 2008

A nightmare in Gondar

Peter's already alluded to the existence of a story behind our staying in Gondar for nearly a week (it felt much longer). Indeed while Gondar has much to recommend it (e.g., fine churches, rugged landscape, an impressive castle), I can't image many travellers voluntarily choosing to spend such a period of time there.

The basic fact is this: while riding my motorcycle on the busy 10 kms of road from Gondar to Az├ęzo, I collided with a small child. Such an event is every overlander's nightmare and, for reasons that will become clear, the depth of the trouble is greatly magnified by the punitive and irrational nature of Ehtiopian traffic laws.

It was just before 9am and we (finally) departing Gondar in a convoy of five KLRs (!!!), having spent the previous day with Tom, Tyson and Yeremy at Six's first repairing and then haggling, with some urgency. Everything felt great: the temperature was cool, there was beautiful sunshine, the road ahead is every motorcyclist's dream and we were making an early start that ought to have put us within striking distance of Addis and therefore nearly back on schedule. All of a sudden, I nearly ran squarely into a pack of mules that came quickly out onto the road, seemingly from nowhere. Slightly separated from the lead pack, I reminded myself to take it slow on these unpredictable roads with their multi-dimensional challenges.

I pulled the bike into the centre of the road, as Peter says 'the safest place to ride a motorcycle', and checked my speed at about 50kms. All of a sudden, out of my left peripheral, I saw a streak. That was all the warning I got. There was really no time to react beyond a slight shift to the right in a vain attempt to swerve and sudden application of the brakes. The crunch was sickening and I knew immediately what had happened. After stopping the bike on the side of the road, I looked back and saw a small boy lying motionless near the left verge of the road. I feared the worst. Physically, I could barely bring myself to approach the scene.

Luckily the blow had been glancing rather than direct, since the boy had been running diagonally (with his back to oncoming traffic) instead of directly across the road. Clearly he had run out, most likely to catch his friends on the other side, without looking. Perhaps he believed the way was clear after watching the first pack of three bikes pass. In any case, I can say with a clear conscience that I am not even guilty of letting my attention drift; there was nothing I could have done to avert this collision.

The boy, Gashaw, 12, had broken tibia and fibula in his right leg and had taken a worrisome bump on the head. (As we left town his condition and prognosis had improved significantly; the hospital was preparing to discharge him completely to his family's care.) Immediately after the accident, someone from the gathering crowd urged me to put him on my bike and take him to the hospital. This seemed both impractical and dangerous, but before I could react, a man quickly gathered Gashaw's lifeless form, jumped into a crowded minibus, which then raced from the scene. The crowd then insisted that I wait for the police; a seemingly sensible course of action which we accepted (by this time the other riders had returned to the scene). I was encouraged by the occasional translation of witness accounts which invariably corresponded with my own experience; the accident was caused by the boy's carelessness.

In retrospect, waiting for the police was the right decision, even if it was not the wise course of action. While I have broken some laws and regulations in my life (e.g., speeding), I do respect the law and the police, but in this case the police were clearly working against my interests and the law was stacked against me. But even if leaving the scene of the accident could have saved me and my friends some grief, ethics demanded that we confirm the status of the boy's health.

Once the police arrived, in effect, the next phase of the proceedings began: the legal wrangling and financial haggling. Here's the rub: it turns out that Ethiopia has an administratively simple but outrageously unfair law that makes any vehicular accident involving a pedestrian the sole fault of the driver. Not only does this strain reason and 'justice' by any definition, but it flies in the face of the reality of Ethiopian streets where pedestrian do the stupidest things with abandon and regularity. One can't help but wonder if the street life in that country might be just a bit more orderly if this law were amended.

The bottom line is that I was civilly and, potentially, criminally liable for Gashaw's injuries. A government official told me that if Gashaw were to die, the sentence would be an automatic 17 year sentence. That was indeed a cold shower. But criminal charges seemed unlikely given two facts. First and most importantly, Gashaw's injuries did not seem 'grave' (that is the translation of the legal term most folks were throwing around). It was here that Yeremy and Tyson, medical students back in Canada, came to my rescue. They visited Gashaw in hospital on two occasions, speaking with the doctors and family, getting the latest prognosis, assessing the quality of the care and even leaving some of their personal stock of painkillers. They reported steady improvements and, most importantly, that the head injury did not appear serious or permanent in any respect. Irrespective of the remoteness of criminal charges, the term 'prison' slowly started to rear its head more frequently in discussions between the police and the flaky lawyer I engaged (he subsequently left me in the lurch).

The civil liability was more tricky and ultimately proved tortuous. I still find it hard to believe that I was held liable for an accident caused exclusively by someone else. In any event, the civil liability was a matter to resolve with the family or, if we failed to reach an agreement, in the courts. A court resolution would have meant the end of the trip and a lengthy stay in Ethiopia; neither of which were realistic options. Settling with the family was the only realistic option. Let the haggling begin.

These were not truly negotiations in the classical sense of two parties sharing and withholding information, seeking to swap items in a manner that creates value for both sides. This was haggling in its most basic sense. In fact, we didn't even need a translator or a common language. All we really needed was some time, a slip of paper and a pen with which to write our latest offer and counteroffer. The first demand was for slight north of US$10,000. We failed to reach a settlement that day.

Throughout that first day and the one that followed, my position was considerably weakened by the gleeful meddling of the Gondar police, who frankly seemed to revel in the whole sordid spectacle. The police played their role of slowly sawing away just above my knees by a) holding my bike as a 'prisoner', b) similarly holding my passport and driver's license, and c) ever increasing the frequency of prison talk in the presence of the family.

The only thing we could do shift the balance was to introduce some community pressure into the equation. In this regard, as with many others (e.g., when the bailiff finally arrived to enact the police chief's order to lock me in the slammer, Peter was there to insist that they first call our embassy in Addis and to escort me off the premises amidst much yelling and some clutching at my sleeves), Peter was super helpful. He tracked down a British woman called Kate who was married to a resident of Gondar and was also an active member of the community. She suggested getting some of the 'elders' involvement. She also suggested that a truly reasonable settlement might be about US$100-200. (Apparently a Canadian couple several years back had paid an amount equivalent to US$4,000 at today's exchange rate after the accidentally death of a child.) While her analysis of the 'reasonable' amount was slightly off – she discounted that we couldn't credibly argue that we were willing to try our chances in court because of the opportunity cost of time – her advice to seek some informal counsel ultimately advanced the negotiations considerably.

Ultimately, I hesitantly and unhappily paid the grandfather about C$1,700. Gashaw's medical expenses were expected to be less than $100. The payment felt unjust, injurious and distasteful in that I was supporting those who would seek to profit from the injuries of their loved ones. Perhaps this is small-minded of me, but even after some deep reflection I cannot see another alternative. Beyond the basic facts of the case, my impressions are coloured by several important events from the negotiations: the grandfather refused to shake my hand after I bade him 'salaam' the day after the accident; the opening demand of $10,000; the look of glee and greed on the faces of the family members as they counted their windfall as the police looked on 'neutrally'.

We were glad to leave Ethiopia. We had the impression that the children of Ehiopia, with their sticks and stones aimed at our helmets, shared this sentiment.


Renee said...

Oh my, I'm on an email list of your Mom's and we were all in prayer for you in the time of silence.

Regarding the amount of money -- realize that this occurance was this family's one chance at wealth -- you are unimaginably wealthy in comparison, and their willingness to see how far it could go is understandable in the context of their poverty and your wealth.

Tuckshow said...

That's it. Etheopia is now officially on my shit list. Sorry to hear Sam that you guys had to deal with such an horrid event. There is character building and then there is utter madness. Glad to hear it all worked out in the end and your a free man. Be safe.

Mopic said...

Hahaha...that's Ethiopia! I spent a bit of time there in 2000/2001.

Glad it all worked out (more or less) ok.

I was actually just about to start reading "The Long Way Round" by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, and I would likewise like to hear more about your travels.



Marnie & Paul said...

Dear Sam;

Thank goodness you had your own fine mind and a strong team to help you through this incredibly difficult scenario.

I can't imagine how you must have felt with the prospect of a 17 year prison sentence hanging over your head.

Your blog is an amazingly powerful & moving commentary on what you have just been through.

Continue to enjoy what we now understand is a very happy time in SA and have a safe journey home.

Marnie & Paul

PS Being able to leave that very unsettling situation with a payment of $1,700 seems to us like you won the lottery. What relief you must have felt.

megan said...

I was involved in an accident with a child and my car a few years ago- like your experience it was a case of the child not looking and running straight out. Although it wasn't my fault, and the parents were fine it was an awful experience and one I wouldn't want to repeat especially in a foreign country. I feel for you, and hope you're ok.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with one reader's comment that "was family's one chance at wealth". I have travelled from Cairo to Cape as well and surrounded by people in a sea of poverty. However I was always taken aback by the generosity of these people even in the worst of circumstances. Except in Ethiopia. I still don't understand it, but Ethiopians were uniformly greedy and every opportunity was about taking advantange of foreigners. I hate to stereotype but my sentiments were echoced among several other travellers. I would love to understand what makes Ethiopians unique in this sense.

Great blog.

SAB said...

I have travelled throughout most of Ethiopia and I have to say I have mixed feeling - on the one hand the people (especially in the country side) are the most caring and friendly people I have ever met, but on the other hand it seems some (especialy where there are lots of tourists and aid workers) can be very manipulative and seemed to view me only as a walking money machine. It is a country that has had a brutal history and only recently came out from under the Derg regime where every man had a machine gun to defend his family. So I guess the situation is a mix of history and culture and unfortunate influence from developed countries.
-keep on riding my friend

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