14 April 2009

thoughts from a mugging

So I have bad news and good news. The bad news is that on my last night in Cameroon we got mugged in Douala, and I lost my camera and with it all of my pictures from the last three weeks. The good news is that Kate and I are both safe and sound, and the muggers didn't even make off with all that much loot from me.

For the morbidly curious, here's how it went down. On Saturday night I took Kate out for a celebratory thanks-for-being-my-tour-guide dinner at one of the nicer restaurants on Boulevard de la Liberté, one of Douala's main drags. Ironically, during the course of dinner we looked over and reminisced on the 200+ pictures that I had on my camera; Kate hadn't taken any pictures on hers up to that point. The restaurant was only a few blocks from where we were staying, so although it was late, we bypassed the taxis waiting out front. We were probably more than halfway home when, on one of the quieter stretches of the sidewalk, a tall and built man in sunglasses charged toward me saying "give me money" in English. I had encountered similar approaches before -- panhandlers are aggressive in Douala -- so I didn't immediately think much of it, though the man's physical presence and smart dress should have been a tipoff. He grabbed my arm and wouldn't let go, repeating his demand, while we just kept walking forward and firmly refusing. Then at least two other goons appeared from the woodwork and started grabbing me too. They didn't bother with Kate, probably because she obviously had nothing on her. Shit, I thought, this is for real. I handed the first guy my wallet as another relieved me of my watch and my camera. (Longtime readers: I'm also sad to report this was the Mongolian wallet that I won at a conference in Manila and that was later lost and returned to me by an honest cabbie.) I struggled to get out into the street as Kate pleaded "c'est tout" (that's everything), but they continued restraining me, ripping my shirt in the process. In fact I had a money belt tucked far down in my shorts, which contained my passport and a larger wad of cash than the pittance I had in my wallet. I think that one of the muggers knew or at least suspected that I had more. By then a taxi driver had seen what was going on and stopped in the street; Kate opened the door and I tore myself away from the muggers and got inside. We returned to our room for the night, shaken but unharmed.

Things certainly could have gone worse, and part of the reason they didn't was that I was prepared for the possibility of being mugged, notwithstanding our bad decision to forego the first opportunity for a taxi ride. Peace Corps volunteers are technically not supposed to go to Douala, and those who have seem to have gotten mugged with a regularity that would be comical if it wasn't so sad. I've never heard of such incidents turning violent, but they do contribute to the city's poor reputation. I should have left the camera in the room, but I was smart enough to take my driver's license out of my wallet, knowing that it would be one of the more disruptive and annoying things to have to replace. When traveling in sketchy areas I carry a wallet even when I have a money belt as a matter of policy, in order to have something to give a potential mugger.

I came away from the incident vowing that "I got mugged" would never be the first sentence or even part of the first paragraph when I tell people about my time in Africa. I had been hoping to finish the trip with a clean bill of health and safety -- perhaps to affirm my competence as a traveler, to help change people's ideas about Africa, to prove something to my parents, who knows -- and I did make it 98% of the way through without incident. It sucks to lose my pictures and a little bit of my pride, but above all I'm grateful that Kate and I came away unscathed, and I have a newfound appreciation for places where I can walk around at night without fear.

I also want to emphasize that, other than the assholes we had the misfortune of meeting on Blvd. de la Liberté, everyone else we met in Douala was welcoming, kind, and helpful. We left Limbe with the intention of arriving in Douala before nightfall, but it was already dark when we arrived in the neighborhood where we were staying, and we had some trouble finding the guesthouse. Two white people, obviously lost, with big backpacks, in downtown Douala-- not a good scenario. Yet the folks we met on the street went out of their way to help us; one woman who knew of our guesthouse walked with us until we found our destination. Many of them were clearly educated professionals. Douala's place in Cameroon is a bit like New York's in America; it's not the political capital but it is the economic powerhouse, the place you go to make something of yourself if you're strong enough not to get your ass kicked by it. The mugging makes me sad for the vast majority of decent peole in Douala more than for myself.

1 comment:

Kara said...

SHAWN - Thank God you and your friend are safe! However, I think now that you are, your mother is going to kill you...