Getting Robbed in the Third World

Naturally, most posts about my time in Tanzania have been intriguing and warming. Sometimes, though, intrigue takes on the darker side of the things. And like any place, there are negative aspects of living in Tanzania–and they ought be known as should be the positive for a better understanding of life here; and, by comparison, life where you are; and then, life in general.

And let’s not beat around the African bush. This is the third world. A place of quiet, laid-back rural villages, but also of urban slum, the street poor, and a subculture of “income generation” which demands their customers pay big and receive nothing but heartache in return.

This last week, I’ve seen an unfortunate amount of this heartache.

***

“Something bad happened,” Zhou Riu said to me the afternoon of August 15th in the hallway outside our shared hostel room. The athletic, 27-year-old from China with a thick head of straight, black hair said this with more emotion on his face than I had seen from him in the last 48+ hours of occasional and pleasant conversation. We had just breakfasted that morning, talking over our bread and complementary egg about travel destinations and home countries. He even taught me a few more words in Chinese.

My first thought after he said these words was that our shared room at the YWCA hostel in Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, was broken into. My fear of being robbed had been heightened since losing my cell phone to a thief not even one week earlier and also by speaking with the receptionist here who made it clear that we ought not walk outside with our valuables if we could help it.

She emphasized her point by pointed to a sign that hung in the entry:

However, our room wasn’t broken into. I was out of harm’s way.

But Zhou wasn’t.

“I was robbed.” he continued by saying just outside our door. Then he explained what happened.

That morning, just after our breakfast, in fact, Zhou was out walking along an open grass field near a golf course along the Indian Ocean coast. Near embassy row, and not suspecting anything would be a threat here, three men “come out of nowhere” he said.

They had knives pointed at him–two at his back, one at his throat.

As they jumped him, a car pulled up. The men had no problem guiding Zhou down into the back seat. And they all rode off.

“I had twelve hundred US dollars,” he said interrupting his story.

Maintaining a troubled, confused look down away from me, a grimace holding back emotion that wanted to escape, he then added, “And my camera was a Canon 6D. It was worth 3000 dollars. It had 3000 pictures on it.”

Finally after a beat, he capped it off with, “This country is really shit.”

Though visibly shaken, I was actually surprised he wasn’t more so. I think I would be despondent–or furious. Probably back and forth between the two.

Zhou resigned with, “Oh well, at least I am alive.”

He continued to explain what happened.

They rode in the car for twenty minutes. Zhou said he spent this time negotiating. “I said to them, ‘Take the money. I have twelve hundred dollars. But can I have my phone and camera?”

A man of “about 50″ was the “leader” of the group, said Zhou. This man sat in the passenger’s seat and agreed to allow Zhou to keep his phone and camera. But the driver of the vehicle, he was “sneaky,” said Zhou, and added that the driver must have kept his camera before they stopped to let Zhou out.

When they did so, a man in the backseat with Zhou maintained a knife at Zhou’s back while telling him to leave the car with instructions not to turn around once he gets out. This was to prevent identification of the vehicle.

Zhou did as he was told. And as the car sped off, he stood there in an unknown part of the large, sprawling city with a bag much lighter than it had been just several minutes before.

He found his way to a hotel catering mainly to Chinese guests. They contacted Zhou’s home bank, and he was able to get some money sent over to Dar es Salaam.In the year 1866 Arab leaders titled this city as such because they felt inspired to create a city that would live up to its name which translates into  ”a home of peace.”

***

A story is a powerful tool for illustrating a topic. At the same time, any such incident can happen practically anywhere–Zhou’s home China, my home U.S.A.

The kicker is how common this is here. It’s not so common that people don’t want to visit, nor too common that I was afraid to leave with my valuables or expected to have their ownership challenged. But it is common enough for our hostel to display that sign, and common enough for a depressingly long list of victims I’ve spoke to since arriving to Tanzania seven months ago.

Three incidences in my home city, Iringa, happened in one spot: a lookout point at the city’s edge atop a huge boulder for wonderful horizon views of the landscape. Each of these three hiking groups had a machete-wielding robber take their belongings. Once was a group of five Koreans, another time it was two European women, and then a group of eight young Englishmen and women.

Each reported the incident to police.

A 20-year-old American woman in Iringa had her belongings taken at rock point. The thief threatening to bash in her skull, she gave him her phone, she said as she emotionally recalled the incident.

Two teacher-training workers–a 30-something Englishwoman and Filipino man–living in a home in Iringa had their place looted and ransacked while they were out on a overnight trip working in another part of the country.

The most egregious story I’ve heard was about two German women coming here for a volunteer trip. They walked out of the international airport in Dar es Salaam and got into a taxi. He didn’t take them to their requested destination, though, but to a secluding location. It’s a convenient robbery when a victim gets off the plane with everything they have all packed away nicely for someone to steal. But, boy, that’s an ice-cold take. These girls were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs, had to find a way to call home, and then had some money sent over to get on the next plane back to Germany.All the money and planning and anticipation of their trip–and then the shock of having this happen.

Welcome to Tanzania.

There are too many other stories to note of pickpockets and other sneaky takeaways on buses and other hotspots in the country. For these examples, though, it is noteworthy that locals seem to be as victimized as foreigners, myself hearing stories and once seeing a Tanzanian businessman man lose his briefcase to another rider getting off the bus, walking up the aisle to disembark, and grabbing the man’s briefcase from right above his head in the upper compartment before exiting with the stolen goods right in front of us all. Later the man asked where his briefcase was and another rider had to tell him they saw someone else grab it and leave at an earlier stop.

The worst case of Tanzanian-on-Tanzanian theft? My own village about eight years back having their brand new water well pump stolen in the night. They had to use the river again until another pump was installed and a security wall erected.

***

It’s easy to be critical of the thieves as they make life awful for their victims.

Many observers dig a little deeper and see how the conditions they are in promote this behavior. Can’t argue with that.

But I also like to point out that the chicken and the egg debate goes both ways. Obviously, it hurts tourism and the prosperity of the country as a whole when crime keeps people away. But what’s more, most of the victims in the stories mentioned above came here as volunteers, not just spending tourism dollars in the country, but offering their time and labor at no charge to the country to make it a better place. And, some actually pay a few thousand dollars to a company to place them in an opportunity to volunteer. Voluntourism.

As a unit, then, the nation attracts people willing to help a country in need, and then perpetuates that need by violating those coming to help. Not to mention, it’s pretty hard to develop when access to healthy water is taken away by fellow Tanzanians.

And the issue is bigger than robbers.

From what I’ve heard from probably half a dozen victims, police will take a police report (for a fee for each item stolen), but don’t expect them to do anything. This isn’t for lack of knowhow. Indeed, the police may very well know who took your belongings–as one instance of off-the-books side police work revealed. The key is: will you pay the officers to speak to the thieves (they often know each other) to find out who took your items?

***

There is a lot more to share on this topic of crime and justice–neighborhood vigilante mobs, what jails are like, villages that function successfully pretty much under anarchy. I’ll do so for the book about my time here.

For now, this post was just a few brushstrokes painting the picture of life here. The image may not seem too uplifting, but let me end by saying that people are working hard to improve things. I was approached by an officer while jogging in Dar es Salaam last week. He told me to look out for criminal traps and steps I can take to prevent being a victim.

I believe increased pressure will be put on the police, politicians, criminals, and the general populous, and a purge of this activity will undergo just as we try to demand better of people in our societies.

And finally, in the spirit of learning by comparison, maybe you can feel a little more gratitude for the system in which you find yourself as you read this.

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2 Responses to “Getting Robbed in the Third World”

  1. Bev Klein says:

    Unbelievable. Thanks for the “wake-up” notice, not that I will ever be travelng abroad. One isn’t safe anywhere. I was robbed in Bemidji.

  2. Vikki says:

    Sad but true. An accurate portrayal, beautifully written, and looking forward to reading about the rest of the themes you’ve mentioned.

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