There’s a moment, when you’re being robbed, when you still have hold of what is yours, and then, in a blurry flash, it slips out of your grasp, and you watch as the all the things that enable you to function, work, communicate, are taken further and further away until they are gone.
I had just left Epi d’Or cafe, an expat watering hole as cool and lovely as a garden, where I’d met a friend for lunch. She’d offered me a lift home, but I said no thanks. I’d walk. I packed up my bag—it held my computer, wallet, phone, a digital recorder and some papers and notebooks—paid the bill and set out.
Ten minutes into my walk and I was wishing I’d taken the ride—my bag felt like an anchor on my shoulder, and I’d forgotten to apply sunscreen. The road was quiet, and with each step I heard the crunch and crackle of dirt, rock and broken glass beneath my flip flops. I passed a man standing idly beside some concrete blocks. Crows squawked and scavenged among a pile of trash. Beneath the shade of a tree, a woman lifted her baby on her back.
Then a car is beside me, so close that the passenger door brushes against my skirt. A violent jerk and I’m on the ground. I look up. A man with sunglasses is staring back at me, expressionless. Then I get it: he has my bag in his hand. He is trying to steal my things. I clutch the strap fiercely. The car accelerates, dragging me along the road until I let go and watch them speed away.
Coughing, choking…dripping snot and tears…blood on my hands and face. Passerbys gather around awkwardly. Pole, they say. Pole sana. Poor girl. We are sorry for you. I feel seasick…my head is full of water…like everything is dissolving.
My first thought is: I have nothing. What am I going to do?
You must go to the police, someone tells me. I’d just finished canceling my credit cards and visiting the doctor, and all I wanted to do was sleep. But she was right. I had information: a witness took down the license plate number and make and model.
So a friend drove me to the Oyster Bay police station, across the road from the U.S. Embassy—the one they built after the original was bombed in 1998. It is a fortified compound of Soviet-style gray buildings (USAID is housed there too), with carefully mowed lawns, security guards and electrified wiring along the perimeter. Across Old Bagamoyo Road, the police station is crumbling and shabby, with a small dirt parking lot and scores of people milling about while boys play football on a field opposite the entrance.
I limped up to the outdoor counter where a uniformed man was writing in a ledger. He gave me a sideways glance and grinned while I told him what happened. I didn’t understand why he was smiling.
He called another officer over to write the incident report. “What did you lose?” the young man asked. He regarded my friend and I with mild annoyance.
“A computer,” I said.
C-o-m-p-u-t-e-r he wrote.
In between each question, he would pause to scratch his chin or flip through the newspaper. Someone would yell to him and he would wave hello and have a chat. I felt helpless, about to explode.
“The computer is how much?” he asked.
“One thousand five hundred U.S. dollars.”
O-n-e t-h-o-u-s-a-n-d f-i-v-e- h-u-n-d-r-e-d he wrote.
We went through each stolen item—the whole thing took about an hour—and he took a scrap of newspaper and carefully added up the total.
“One thousand eight hundred,” he said. His eyes were vacant.
Yes, I said, yes: I lost almost two thousand dollars, have a sprained ankle and some cuts and you don’t even give a damn.
Every year there are wildfires in California, where I grew up. One year they burned some expensive homes in the swanky neighborhoods in the hills around Los Angeles. No one was hurt but several homes were destroyed. Friends and I joked about it—those poor rich people, we would say. Geez, one of their mansions burned down. What a pity.
Of course we weren’t happy it had happened, but it was hard to feel sorry for them when they had so much, including, we assumed, insurance. We laughed because we thought: it’s an awful thing but they will be fine.
Everyone I talk to has an explanation.
—Crime is getting worse here, I tell you, a Tanzanian woman says. Worse, by the week. Be careful. Don’t walk outside. Try not to carry any bags.
—Well, these are poor people you know, someone else says, and poor people are sometimes driven to do this sort of thing.
—Poor? But they had a car! says another.
—Right, don’t be fooled. This is a business. There are networks; it’s organized. Kids in the compounds, some grow up and go into crime, others don’t. Who knows why?
—It is because there are no jobs in Dar es Salaam that young men turn to crime, says another. The donors should quit with their capacity building nonsense and build roads so there will be investment. If there are jobs this kind of thing will not happen!
—But the donors tried infrastructure and it didn’t work. Money was lost, things were not maintained. The problem is corruption. And the police? They are just as corrupt as everyone else.
—But the police are paid nothing, what do you expect? They probably don’t even make $2,000 in a year—what you lost in one day.
—You should feel lucky, it could have been worse. At least the police wrote up a report—you’re in Dar, so that’s not bad. And you weren’t hurt badly. It could have been so much worse….
There are a hundred ways to wonder at circumstance.
The morning after the robbery, I walk down a dirt road towards a taxi stand. I’m carrying only a notebook with a little cash in it, which I keep clutched in my hands beneath a scarf. My arms are crossed as I walk, like a locked gate.
There are, as usual, people hanging around on the side of the road, chatting with street side vendors, walking along on their way somewhere, or just sitting, letting the morning pass. To me, it all looks like danger. But these people didn’t steal from you, I remind myself. They are not going to steal from you. I keep walking.
Then I hear footsteps behind me and I turn in a panic to see three men walking towards me quickly—at least it seemed quickly. I feel terrible, guilty, as I cross to the other side of the street and watch them as they pass. Tears well up in my eyes—and I feel angry. And afraid.