Tanzanian Encounters
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An encounter with a thief
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30 August 2006, Dar es Salaam

It happened in a flash. Mishaps often do. They are over before we fully register what’s going on. They seem “unpreventable” and I believe they mostly are. Except for people endowed with exceptional reflexes.

Two youngish men approached my brother, Amar, and I, from behind. We were walking down a dark and lonely road, a rather nice stretch in daylight that runs by the sea, in downtown Dar es Salaam, not very far from where we live.

This road had been marked as a no-no by knowing wazungus (foreigners) and cautious neighbours soon after my arrival here. I have often taken pre-dusk walks in the general area, leaving everything at home, except a tiny amount of money and the house keys.

Since the last few months I had become enamoured with the 9th floor bar in expensive hotel on the sea face. It had lovely views of the ocean, the harbor and the South shore of Dar, which houses some nice beaches. For a mere 2 or 3000TSh (less then US $2), one could sit gazing, sipping a soft drink or mocktail, munching the on-the-house garlic-bagels and bonus – being served by a young, good-looking waiter!

I had started going there with family members (my mom was visiting from India, later joined by my brother) and had become increasingly lax about security concerns. On that fateful day, I had gone there directly from work with my back pack which contained a nice new wallet (though not much cash), prescription glasses, house keys, calculator, a small “survival” notebook with my house address and my Canadian banking information (though in a kind of code) and other sundry items.

As the two men reached us, Amar, who’s well built and strong, sensed danger and swung his heavy backpack at one of them. The man fled. Meanwhile, the other guy grabbed my pack, which was dangling loosely from my arm. I tried to keep a hold on it but failed. The man ran off with it to the other side of the road and went in through a crude hole in a metal fence, into some bushes. Beyond the bushes lay the seashore. Beyond the fence, there was a basic eatery on the left and a small building of some kind on the right.

Amar was incensed and started to curse the thief. We crossed the road as he asked me what was in my bag. My mind was a perfect blank and minutes passed before I started to recall the contents.

Meanwhile, a passerby who had witnessed the incident told us that the man was probably a junkie and must be buying dope from dealers right by the building, even as we spoke. He suggested going after them with the police.

We stood indecisively by the ragged hole in the fence. Amar tried to get in. I was very conscious of the fact that Amar’s backpack held his passport and return ticket to India, which he had got confirmed earlier that day.

“Where’s the police station?” we asked the local man.
“Come with me,” he said.

We retraced our steps part of the way towards the Kilimanjaro Kempenski Hotel, where we had sat talking just minutes ago. He led us to a marine guard station. However, the armed marine guard at the place was understandably reluctant to come along; there was no one else at the station right then.

The local man told us where the police station was. It was along the same seaside road, a five-minute drive from where we were. We went back to the Kempenski Hotel and took a cab. Taking a cab from Kempenski is what we should have done in the first place!

The police station was small, dingy and minimally equipped. For instance, it lacked a phone! There was one person there, already registering a case. We waited our turn for about 10 minutes. Then a sweet-faced policeman with a smiling countenance registered our case in Kiswahili.

He asked me for my religion and ethnic group which threw me off a bit, but interestingly not my citizenship! Perhaps he assumed I was Indo-Tanzanian? He said that going back to the seashore then was impossible and that if we returned the next morning, it could be done.

By this time I was slowly beginning to accept that I was probably never going to see my bag again. As we started walking back home from the police station, for a curious and all too brief moment, I experienced a sort of lightness of being. I was without a prized possession; the loss was certainly going to be a hassle. It would mean changing the house lock, getting new prescription glasses, and so on. Yet there was that fleeting sense of freedom. Freedom from what? Materialism? Attachment?!

I thought of the delightful movie I had seen called “Enlightenment Guaranteed”. Two German brothers land up in Tokyo. One of them is going on a meditation retreat, the other, very sorry for himself, is tagging along, having just been jilted by his wife. Soon after arrival, they go out and cannot find their hotel again! Then they lose their credit card to a bank machine… So there they are, marooned in an alien city, sans language, seemingly having lost everything… and on their path to “enlightenment”.

One thing I knew: I wanted to return to the “scene of the crime”, ideally that very night. I discussed this with Amar. My rationale was that if the thieves were junkies and in a hurry, they might have taken the most useful things from my bag like the money, glasses, phone, and thrown away the notebook or even the backpack. Amar felt that even if this had happened, we would not find anything in the dark.

All this time my mother and Marc-Antoine had been at home. There had been no way to call them. When we got home, I left Amar to tell the tale while I dashed into the washroom and then got myself something to eat. By then I felt drained, but still managed to persuade Amar and Marc-Antoine to come with me to the seashore. We took a cab, “armed” with torches, an umbrella and a “fortified” backpack.

I had the strongest urge to go back, though it was not something I could explain rationally. I pretty much knew that the pack was gone forever; but I simply had to “see.”

And see we did. We stopped the cab near the hole in the fence and went through it. On the other side were a garbage-littered beach and a squatter colony. There must have been approximately 30 people, scattered here and there, mostly men, some sleeping amid the bushes, one had covered himself with cardboard, while others were sitting around. A couple of the men seemed a bit drunk.

They were quite open to us going into the area and looking around after we had explained what had happened, mostly in English. Towards the end of our search, which unearthed nothing, we met a couple of men who were rather belligerent. Well, we were tramping around on their home ground after all.

The brief encounter with this squatter colony really helped me “get over” the loss of the bag. These people were so marginalized; they had nothing, at least materially, so how could I get worked up over a loss which is finally of little financial consequence to me? (I was propped up, in typical middle-class fashion, by health insurance and my generous family members.) One “real” loss would have been my cell phone. (My first was stolen anyhow.) But I discovered the next day that I had forgotten it at work!

Who can really blame these people for drug dealing, if that’s what they do? Their options are probably very limited.

Neither could I bear a grudge against the “junkies.” I had witnessed down-and-out junkies, in filthy rags, close at hand, as a journalist in Bombay, in the mid-1980s, high on Brown Sugar, lying by the roadside, completely in its grip. One can hardly hold junkies responsible for their behaviour, which is not to say that people should not be protected, or protect themselves, from being robbed by them!

When I lived close to downtown Vancouver, junkie town indeed, I had been struck by the general acceptance of the Vancouverites when junkies broke into their cars, and even their homes, to grab what they could. The approach of some of my pals had been to leave their cars unlocked! I had been appalled then, thinking, “they should protect their possessions better”. Now I feel I have a better understanding of their behaviour.

Since the theft had occurred at 7.30 pm, there had hardly been any people around. This was a blessing too, as I am told that when crowds manage to catch a thief here, they beat him to pulp and at times to death. That would not have helped the junkie any. He needs detoxification and rehabilitation; not a tooth-for-a-tooth kind of punishment. It was also a good thing that we had not gone there with the police. The people there might have been harassed. In any case the police must know about the existence of this colony.

Amar had talked about how the Bombay police use “sources” to pick up regular, petty thieves and often reclaim robbed property. “If they want, the police here can catch these thieves,” he had said.

If I had been robbed at knifepoint, as a black, Tanzanian, woman colleague and a white, woman, mzungu (foreigner) friend have been, my reaction might have been quite different. Tanzanians overall are not aggressive at all, even though a lot of thefts take place in Dar. I had believed that I was invulnerable. I had mostly taken precautions. When I let my guard down, I had paid for it. Now I know I must be vigilant and walk around with minimal possessions, after dark.

I am always awe struck by the fact that millions of people, here and else where, are leading the most materially deprived lives imaginable. Yet these people are very decent. They simply do not steal or commit violent acts.

I recall walking around street people, sleeping on the pavements, on my way to a suburban railway station in Mumbai, two decades ago. I was well dressed and had some money in my purse. I wondered then why one of them didn’t just rise up, strike me, grab my purse and run.

I don’t believe it is just the fear of reprisal that keeps these people in check. I believe it is their basic humanity, still present despite all the hardships they are undergoing.