01 August 2010

thievery in tanzania

Last weekend I made my first trip to Dar es Salaam's sprawling Kariakoo market, the largest in Tanzania. For block after block, merchants line the streets selling fruit and vegetables, cheap Chinese-made manufactured goods, kitchen utensils of dubious quality, suitcases, shoes, underwear, and all other necessities of life. A surprising, perhaps disconcerting, number specialize in long-bladed knives, which are usually presented in a haphazard pile on a mat by the side of the road. Kariakoo's crowded streets and passageways make it a perfect environment for pickpockets, so I came prepared. I left all plastic cards at home, stashed my phone at the bottom of my backpack (which was secured to my torso with a sternum strap), and brought a modest sum of cash under my clothes in a money belt, with less than $10 worth of Tanzanian shillings left in my wallet.

It didn't take long for my presence to be noticed. Within minutes of stepping off the daladala, and still on the outskirts of Kariakoo, I felt my leg briefly make contact with another pedestrian as we walked past each other in opposite directions. He called out for my attention and pointed to his leg, and I immediately thought, with some annoyance, that I was in for some bullshit claim that I had hurt him. As I watched with bafflement, he proceeded to scuff his foot on the ground, as if to suggest that I had just stepped in something and needed to wipe my foot off. I knew I hadn't stepped in anything, and it flashed through my mind that this was probably some bogus helpfulness intended to serve as a distraction--enhanced by the kinetic distraction of scuffing imaginary dog crap from my shoe. While this was happening, I sensed someone else at close range in my peripheral vision and felt something brush my right leg. Instinctively I clamped my hand over my right pocket and my wallet inside, and I whirled around in the direction of the second guy. As they both melted into the crowd, I hustled on my way, my wallet still safely inside my pocket. The whole thing probably went down in about two or three seconds.

The rest of my visit to Kariakoo passed without incident, and I returned home with all of my money, having been neither successfully robbed nor enticed to buy anything. Although the apparent pickpocketing attempt was unsuccessful, and although the sum of money I stood to lose was trivial, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth, and I made little effort to interact with anyone at the market.

Tanzania's U.S. government-assigned crime rating is "critical." I've been told by a knowledgeable person that the "critical" rating usually belongs to countries where gangs of armed bandits roam the streets with impunity. As my dear readers should know by now, Tanzania has no such gangs of armed bandits; in fact, violent crime against foreigners is extremely rare. But petty theft against Westerners is so overwhelmingly common here that, according to whatever grim calculus our government uses to decide these things, it adds up to roughly the equivalent of armed bandits in the streets. I see two related reasons for this, the first an indisputable fact and the second a little more speculative: (1) Tanzania is very poor, with a per capita GDP of just $1,416 per year. (2) Tanzania, I suspect, has more mainstream tourist appeal than most similarly impoverished countries. Few countries in Tanzania's income bracket can boast a roster of attractions comparable to the Serengeti, Mount Kilimanjaro, and Zanzibar, which draw backpacking college students and rich celebrities and everyone in between. Egypt is one African country with more blockbuster attractions than Tanzania, and it has staggering numbers of tourists to match, but the average Egyptian is over four times wealthier than the average Tanzanian. So I would hypothesize that it's the combination of severe poverty and abundant opportunities for theft that contribute to Tanzania's crime problem.

The other oddity about crime in Tanzania is that those who make their living from petty theft do so at great physical risk. For reasons I don't know and wouldn't care to guess, Tanzania has developed a culture of vigilante justice against thieves. If someone is caught in the act, witnesses will often yell out "mwizi!" (thief) and a crowd will converge to beat the criminal to a pulp. There is a story in circulation on the Peninsula about an American man who was tackled by a mugger while jogging and relieved of his wedding band. (As is almost always the case in these incidents, like the attempted carjacking I mentioned in the nightswimming post, he was acting against official advice by running alone in an area known to be unsafe.) When he recovered from the initial shock, he started to chase the assailant, drawing the attention of onlookers. The thief was beaten within an inch of his life and then hauled off to jail. The story goes that the American felt so bad for the thief that he located the jail and bailed him out.

The whole thing raises some interesting ethical quandaries. I could imagine presenting this scenario to an ethics class. The thief has full knowledge of the risks, and he initiates the first act of violence, if only violence against property. The victim of the theft could recover her property by making a ruckus, which will result in a high probability of serious physical violence against the thief and, let's say, some small but non-negligible probability of death. The victim knows she would be seriously inconvenienced, but not irreparably harmed, by the loss of her assets. The thief could be a polished professional or some guy desperate to feed his kids, the victim doesn't know. What, if any, ethical obligations does the victim have toward the thief? Discuss.


And what better blog post could I choose than this one to announce that my parents are coming to Tanzania! The clock is running down on my internship, and I have two weeks of fun planned for afterward. For week 1 I will be joined by the lovely Kate, of Cameroon Peace Corps fame, and for week 2 Mom and Dad will join the traveling posse. As usual, you can expect a preview before the trip, followed by little to no posting during my actual travels, followed by lots of pent-up posts afterward. As Kate would say, yewaaaaaa!


Stella said...

Sounds like you're having an awesome time overall, rafiki! (Though I'm sorry about the possible attempted pickpoketing--hopefully a chipsi mayai afterwards made it feel all better inside?) Have a great time with the family! Are you going to do any Ngorongoro safariing or Kili-climbing?

Shawn said...

Asante kwa kauli yako, dada Stella! Hatutapanda Kili, lakini the intinerary is ambitious nonetheless: Dar-Usambara trek-Tanga-Pemba-Unguja-Lake Manyara-Serengeti-Ngorongoro-Arusha-Dar! Habari ya kazi yako chuoni kikuu cha cambridge?

Auntie said...

I think I'd like to take the little shit that swiped my XM radio transmitter from my car and send him to Tanzania for a beating. That'll teach him.

Seriously, though, your expeditions are facinating. But the pickpocket deal, Shawn, seems like a story already told??? Good thing you know their "M.O."