Before coming to Uganda nearly three months ago, I had no intention of becoming a pirate.
I know pirates. Some good friends of mine are pirates. I am no pirate. Of that, I was sure. Now, nearly three months into our Ugandan adventure, I think I might be a pirate.
“But I don’t want to be a pirate.”
Those of you who are Seinfeld fans will immediately recognize the quote from the Puffy Shirt episode. But my desire not to be a pirate has nothing to do with a large white blouse with a ridiculous number of ruffles.
Let me start at the beginning. During my first visit to Uganda over two years ago, I was walking through a market area in Kampala with Pepperdine alumnus John Napier and some others. Someone approached us clandestinely and asked if we wanted to buy a movie. John brushed him off nicely, and we continued to walk.
“What kind of movies was he trying to sell us?” I inquired.
“You name it – they have old movies, classics, and movies still in the theater,” he explained. “They are all pirated, though. You cannot buy a legitimate movie in this whole country. They simply don’t sell them.”
Curious, I asked him if he was a pirate. He laughed and told me that he wrestled with what he would do early on, but had reached a compromise in his own mind after a few months in Uganda. He would buy the pirated movies, but resolved to legitimize his purchase when he got back to the United States by buying or renting the same movie when he got back. While it made sense to me, I must confess that the righteously indignant part of me winced a bit about what I perceived to be a healthy dose of rationalization. I would never be a pirate, I thought, but didn’t say.
Fast forward to three weeks ago. Joline and I went to see “Seeking Justice” at the local theatre (that’s how they spell it here). It was a Nicolas Cage flick that was short on plot, long on action. Afterward, we went to the grocery store to get some stuff before heading home. Attached to the grocery store is a video store. It doesn’t hurt to look, right? In the store were a couple thousand American and Indian movies in what were clearly photocopied DVD jackets. The disks themselves were blank DVDs with the name of the movie handwritten on them.
“Are these legitimate, legal movies?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” came Pinnochio’s reply.
On the counter was a three-ring binder with photocopied movie jackets in plastic page protectors. “You have these movies also?” I asked.
“Yes, but they are behind the counter in the drawer. You can look through the binder and tell me which ones you want,” said the man whose nose by now made Barry Manilow (or Squidward, for SpongeBob fans) look understated.
As I glanced through the binder, I noticed several movies that I really wanted to see, including Act of Valor. I also noticed that “Seeking Justice” was in there – the movie we had just seen.
“How much for the movies?” I inquired.
“Five Thouthand shillings,” came the reply (that’s how they say thousand).
Two bucks. My resolve began to weaken, but I caught myself and simply walked away.
One week later, temptation reappeared. I was at a gas station with my driver when some dude knocked on my window. I ignored him. Lots of people knock on my window in Kampala. They are usually kids with an outstretched arm, open hand, and a sad face. “Sello. Mzungu, you give me money,” they demand. It is really sad, but giving them money guarantees that they will remain on the streets begging. (I know that this sounds heartless, but I can assure you that we have thought through this thoroughly and are convinced that giving them money will ultimately harm more than help them and others in their position).
But this knock was from an adult, and he looked vaguely familiar. He held up about twenty movies, and yelled “You want good movie, Mzungu?” Was this the dude that approached me and Napier a couple years ago? Couldn’t be, could it? And yes, the top movie on the pile was . . . Act of Valor. Against my better judgment, I rolled down my window. He thrust the movies into my hands.
“How much for ‘Act of Valor?’”
“I give you discount price, Mzungu. Five thouthand.”
“How do I know that this is a good copy?”
He pointed to the cover where the words “Clear Copy” were printed on the front.
Seeing that I was contemplating the purchase, he dropped the latest “Mission Impossible” onto my lap and said, “you buy this one too and I give you special price – ten thouthand.”
“How is that a special price,” I laughed. “And this one doesn’t say ‘Clear Copy’ on the front. Is this a clear copy?”
“How do I know that?”
“You trust me, Mzungu.”
I almost cracked a rib laughing so hard, but ultimately the art of the deal got the better of me and I bought them both for eight thousand. Looking back now, I think that was my first toke from the crack pipe.
The next day, I purposely drove to a video store I had seen when I was looking for apartments for the Pepperdine students who are coming to Kampala for the summer. The store is on a narrow street in what is a poor excuse for a strip mall. There is parking on the side of the street where the shops are, but not on the other side of the street because the street is otherwise too narrow to allow for traffic. As I pulled into the only open space, a guy wearing a really baggy canvas orange vest (like the paperboys used to wear) approached me and told me that I would need to pay him to park there. On his vest was scrawled “Parking Patrol.” I had seen something similar before, and if it wasn’t legit, it was at least creative. I gave him one thousand shillings and asked for a receipt. After he gave me a puzzled look, I told him I was joking and walked into the store.
I will confess to feeling a little tentative and guilty (like the first time I entered a casino), but I entered the store nevertheless. I had the scent and I was on the prowl for a fix. The binder that this store had was twice as thick as the one in the grocery store. In the end, I selected ten movies. The cost – thirty thousand ($12).
When I went to pay, he waved me off and said, “you pay when you pick up the movies. They will be ready in an hour,” he said as he pointed toward his computer and stack of blank DVDs.
Subtle, I thought. He makes no pretense of being legitimate. My conscience tried to cry out, but I rammed a sock in its throat. “Shut it. We are in Uganda – we have no choice,” I told my sputtering inner voice.
When I came back to pick up the movies, there was nowhere to park on the side of the street where the stores were, but there was a row of cars parked on the other side of the street, and they were straddling the curb – two-thirds of the car was on the sidewalk, and one-third in the street. Monkey see, monkey do. Parking Patrol Paper Boy jogged up to me and I slipped him another thousand shillings. When I got back into the store, the previously blank DVDs were in clear plastic DVD wrappers with the names scribbled on them. As I paid, my conscience spit out the sock and started to cuss at me, but I punched him in the stomach and paid the nice entrepreneur behind the counter.
When I got back into the car, I turned the ignition. The engine turned over, but wouldn’t catch. I tried it again. And again. And again. “Told you, filthy sinner. God is punishing you,” blurted my conscience.
Hook, uppercut, sidekick. My conscience fell silent again.
I remembered that the car was very low on fuel, which is a constant in Uganda – no one fills up all the way with gas because they live from day to day and don’t want to get their tank syphoned by a thief. I wondered if the angle of my car, which was pretty heavily leaning because I was mostly up on the raised sidewalk, might be depriving the engine of fuel. So I summoned my inner Einstein and decided that since I was pointing downhill, I could put the car in neutral, take off the emergency brake, then start to roll forward. I had just enough room to steer into the street without hitting the car in front of me. So I did. Miscalculations abounded.
First, without the car actually on, I had no power steering. Had I not been eating steroids like Skittles, I wouldn’t have had the massive upper body strength necessary to crank the wheel enough to just barely miss the parked car in front of me.
Second, the downward gradient of the road was so slight that I quickly created a traffic jam behind me as I inched along futilely trying to start the car as I crawled forward. No dice.
Third, without the car actually on, I had no power brakes. As the downward gradient steepened (and just in time because the guy behind me nearly broke his wrist as he beat the crap out of his horn), I realized that I had no exit strategy. I guess I thought it was going to work. Cars to the left of me, cars to the right of me, honking cars behind me, intersection in front of me. I won’t even start to tell you what word was going through my mind. It rhymes with . . . well, you can guess.
As panic (and the steroids) kicked in, I was able to jam on the brake with both feet and drift into a driveway where there was a clearing near the bottom of the hill. And no, it didn’t occur to me until writing this that I could have put on the hand emergency brake.
After my blood pressure returned to a level that allowed me to dial a phone, I called my driver and told him that the car wouldn’t start. “No problem. Just push the lock and unlock button on the keychain a few times. It will then start.” (Since my original car was in the shop, this was a rental and he had forgotten to tell me about this quirk).
It started right away, and I made it home with the pirate booty. The kids were thrilled since most of the movies I got were for them, at least as far as you know.
So, am I a pirate? Perhaps, but I have decided to follow the Napier rule. We will destroy the movies before we come home. Any movie we bought here and watched once, we will rent at home (and not watch it). Any movie we watch more than once here, we will buy it when we get home. I encourage anyone who reads this to hold me accountable for this.
One of my friends jokes that her spiritual gift is justification. Perhaps it is contagious, matey.