In “Robbered,” I described how my friend Ally was robbed back in June while walking through Arusha in the middle of the day. (click here to read about that) Anna and I speculated about why foreigners seem to be robbery victims less often than Tanzanians.
But about a week ago, Anna was robbed, too. Fortunately, it was not violent and she was not hurt. She was driving her car through a busy part of downtown Arusha. She had the doors locked and the windows rolled up and her purse on the passenger seat. Her Tanzanian boyfriend and Tisa frequently lecture us about protecting ourselves from robbers, so we’re both conscious of the threat.
She was stuck in very slow traffic, inching along a busy road. A man on a bicycle passed her car and pointed at the front tire on the driver’s side, as if something were wrong. She stayed inside the car, thinking it could be a setup for a robbery. As she progressed down the street, another man, and then two women all pointed at her tire. Then somebody banged on the roof. So, by this point, she was thinking she must have a flat because several people had tried to stop her. She stopped the car, unlocked the doors, and stepped out to check her tire. Nothing was wrong. She got back in the car, preparing to drive on.
A woman came from across the street and said, “Where’s your pouch?”
Anna answered, “Right here,” and reached for her purse. The purse was gone. The woman had seen a man riding away on a bicycle moments before.
So, a group of people had lined up along the road, repeatedly gesturing to her that she had a flat tire. When she eventually unlocked the door and exited on the driver’s side, looking down at the tire, a man quickly and quietly opened the passenger side door, grabbed her purse, and rode off on his bike.
She lost the leather purse, bought on a trip to Morocco. She lost quite a bit of cash and her British passport too. The passport was just about to expire, so she would have replaced it soon, anyway, and she has no trips planned in the near future. Her phone and her house keys were not in the purse. She’s the most upset about losing the purse from Morocco, which she loved, and probably can’t replace. We did speculate that it’ll probably show up for sale at some second-hand market somewhere in Arusha and that maybe she could find it and buy it back.
She called me right after it happened and asked me what she should do. My thought on that was: I always ask Anna what to do, and if she doesn’t know what to do, I surely don’t know what to do. So, against all my feminist instincts, I called my boyfriend and asked him what Anna should do. Meanwhile, Anna called her boyfriend. Both Tanzanian boyfriends advised that she go to the central police station to report the robbery. They couldn’t be expected to try to recover her things or catch the robbers, but they would issue a report that she could use in replacing her passport. At the police station, they wanted 500 T shillings (about five cents) to pay for the report form. She kept telling them all of her money had just been stolen and she didn’t have 500 T shillings, but they insisted. Eventually, a kind-hearted policeman gave her 500 T shillings and she got her report.
When she told her coworkers about it, she found out one of them had been robbed in the same way in the same place. Apparently, it’s the latest robbery technique. It would be nice if the police would station some of their traffic police right there so the robbers at least would have to move. For a few hours after it happened, Anna kept saying she felt stupid. But apparently, other people have fallen for it, too. I know I would have reacted exactly as she did. Ignore the first guy because he might be a robber. Second and third guys, hmmm, maybe I have a flat tire. And then, when women pointed at my tire, I’d have thought they weren’t robbers because they were women. Which is especially stupid for me, since a woman tried to steal my backpack one afternoon in Arusha. (click here to read about that)
I’ve had a couple of brushes with this type of robbery myself. The first week I had my car, I drove it downtown in the same area on a Sunday afternoon. The police pulled me over for a routine check of insurance stickers on the windshield. I had the doors locked, but the windows down with my purse sitting on the passenger seat. As I was parked at the curb waiting for an opening to pull back into traffic, a nice Tanzanian man passing on the sidewalk told me that I should roll up my windows because it would be so easy for a thief to reach inside and snag my purse. I was grateful to him, because that particular risk hadn’t yet occurred to me. Now I place my purse on the passenger side floor or under my seat. I roll up the windows about halfway, but I have to get the air conditioning fixed before I can totally close myself in!
The night after Anna was robbed, I drove home after dark. I was waiting at a red light in a part of town known for robbers. I had my purse under my seat, the doors locked, and the windows rolled up about 2/3 to the top. A young man walked up to the passenger side window, looked into the car, said, “Hello!” loudly, and passed on. He was probably looking to see if he could steal anything. I don’t think he could have fit his arm through the window to take my purse if it’d been on the seat, but you never know. I immediately closed the window all the way. It was too hot, but I was already sweating, so might as well be safe! And then I drove on to hit a cow….(Click here to read about that.)
A couple of things about this incident struck me. First, thank God that Anna was not hurt. If you are going to be robbed, sneaky is better than confrontation.
And in the aftermath, several of Anna’s Tanzanian friends called to offer her money, although many of them couldn’t afford it. And several of them sent credits to her phone in case she ran out when she had no money to buy more, but would need to use her phone. The offers of money were enlightening to me, because I am still struggling with the custom here of asking friends for money. I, like most wazungu, am asked frequently. Sometimes I give, sometimes I don’t. This custom is such a mismatch between Tanzanian and American culture. Even if it’s a friend asking me, I always struggle with the feeling that they’re overstepping a boundary and that maybe I’m being used. So the offers from Anna’s Tanzanian friends help me to better understand the reciprocal nature of the custom. I feel better knowing that the help comes back around.