Photo by Nick Ashdown

Petty Theft

The steady clicking of the overhead fan brought to mind an old film projector. But instead of a seedy movie house, the five of us were jammed into a small, poorly-ventilated office. Instead of a big screen, we were huddled around a tiny monitor. Instead of some classic film, I was watching myself, lurching down a hallway, movements jerky and off-kilter in the low-quality security footage. I disappear from the screen, and into my hotel room.

“That’s when I realized I’d been robbed,” I say, to no one in particular.

On screen, I burst out of the room and begin knocking on doors, gathering my friends to tell them what had happened. The security technician fiddles with the remote control and the screen switches to a grid of nine boxes. I watch my group parade from one box to the next, all the way down to the reception desk to report the crime.

The hotel manager took out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his neck and sat down with a look of disinterest. It was the afternoon following the robbery. The head of security watched the manager nervously. Another man, the night manager, looked almost as exhausted as I was and equally uncomfortable. I locked eyes with the security technician. He nodded, pressed a button, and the images began to run in reverse.


The road in front of the Urafiki Police Station is under permanent construction, making it necessary to negotiate heavily congested traffic and a narrow back road to reach the offices. The station occupies the ground floor of a three-story apartment building, and the residents above have strung out their laundry to dry in the dust-filled wind. It’s an open concept police station, spilling out into the yard. Suspects with their hands tied sit on benches out front. The lucky ones sit in the shade of a nearby tree. The one small jail at the station looks like something out of the Count of Monte Cristo, with half-naked prisoners sticking their arms out through the rusted bars. One of these prisoners greeted me with a “mambo mzungu” as I hopped out of the auto-rickshaw. “What’s up white man?”

I went to Urafiki first thing in the morning after the robbery. I’d asked to review the security footage first, but was told we had to wait for the technician to arrive, which wouldn’t be until later on that afternoon. I decided to head to the Police station to give my statement first. But I wasn’t the only mzungu there. A frail-looking blond woman was standing at the entrance to one of the interrogation rooms. She gave me a look hungry for support and solidarity.

“What happened to you?” she asked in accented English. Danish, maybe.

“I had my hotel room broken into. You?”

She and her friend were planning to go to Arusha that day, she told me, making their way north toward Ethiopia. They left their hotel at six in the morning, found a taxi and asked the driver to take them to the bus station. Instead, he stopped to pick up a couple friends who proceeded to rob them of everything they had. They even forced the women to give their PIN codes and took extra money out of an ATM.

“I think we lost around 3,000 euros each,” she said. “But that’s fine. I’m just glad that nothing worse happened, you know? I mean, they were three big guys and we… I’m just glad to be safe.”

It can always be worse.


Crime rates are skyrocketing in Tanzania, and it’s not just the foreigners who are baring the brunt of it. According to a recent survey conducted by Afrobarometer, Tanzania has overtaken South Africa for percentage of citizens who have experienced theft and violent crime (33 nations took part in the survey with certain countries like the Congo, Somalia and Libya notably absent). The study found that only 44 per cent of victims of crime reported them to the police. This could be a result of the fact that there are very few police stations in the country. But the low reporting is more likely caused by police apathy and corruption. Reportedly, some officers refuse to listen to those who want to report a crime. Other officers demand bribes in exchange for help.

The detective in charge of my case, Paul, was of the apathetic variety. He led me into one of the rooms. Two women in headscarves sat chatting in one corner. In the other, there was a young boy who looked as if he’d recently been in a fight or beaten. The boy was sitting on the ground, his arm handcuffed to a chair. Paul sighed as he sat down at the long table that took up most of the room and motioned for me to sit down as well. He  began slowly riffling through a folder of what appeared to be scrap paper. He eventually found the form he was looking for and set it on the table between us, diligently smoothing out every wrinkle. No hurry. No rush. We seemed about to start. But then someone outside the barred window had to be told something—an order or a joke, it was hard to tell. An old CB radio chattered away on the ledge in front of a barred window, the officers on the other end obviously saying something funny, based on the periodic laughter of those in the room, the handcuffed boy included.

Finally, we got started. I began by answering the ubiquitous list of questions that Tanzanians use to differentiate themselves. Family and given name, date and place of birth, current address, tribe, religion, nationality. Paul hovered over the space next to “tribe” for a while, before asking me what part of Canada I was from. I was marked down as being from the tribe of Ontario. More difficult was the section on religion. I don’t have one.

“No religion?” he said, looking confused. I repeated my answer. “Not Christian? Not Muslim? Nothing?” Nothing, I said. He sat back in his chair, shaking his head. He began fiddling with his pencil, like a student unsure of the answer on an important test. He had to put something in the empty space. I wasn’t being very helpful.

It was the truth. I’m an atheist. But I was raised Christian and that would’ve been an easy enough answer to give. I’m not sure why I was so stubborn. It may have been a reaction to the theft. A response to the violation that comes with having someone enter your personal space and take things that belong to you. In a sense, the thief took part of me, part of my personality, my outlook on the world. I’m generally a pretty optimistic, trusting, upbeat person. I’d woken that morning feeling paranoid, resentful and a little depressed. As outwardly positive as I tried to remain about the situation, I was feeling terrible and oddly hollow. I found myself clinging defiantly to what I had left of my old identity. I clung to my atheism.

(A week later, when I was on the other end of things, filling out one of these statements as a suspect being charged, rather than a victim, I compliantly answered Christian. But that’s another story.)

Paul yelled at another officer passing by the window and the two conferred for a while in Swahili. Finally, with great reluctance, he drew a line through the space next to religion, and we moved on to the statement:

I was in my hotel room until around 8 o’clock that evening. (I wrote something along these lines on a scrap piece of paper, which Paul then diligently copied into the proper form). That was the last time I’d used my computer. I then left it on the desk next to my bed to charge and went downstairs to have dinner. Afterwards, I returned to my room to grab some chairs and glasses, and my friends and I hung out on the balcony outside of my room for a few hours, playing card games and drinking Konyagi, a cheap Tanzanian gin. Around 11 or 12, we left to go to a local club. Both times, before leaving for dinner and before leaving for the club, I left my room key with the receptionist. We’d been instructed to do this all week, and it had become habit. I was back in my room by 3 am. That was when I discovered my computer was gone. Other things were missing as well. I gathered my friends, and reported the theft to the front desk. There was no sign of forced entry. The door was closed and locked when I left and when I returned. The windows were also closed.

Detective Paul then asked me to list everything that had been stolen, with the monetary value, in US dollars, listed alongside. He endeared himself to me somewhat by gasping each time I added a new item, and sighing as I estimated its value. Shaking his head and muttering, “Pole sana. Pole sana.” I’m so sorry for you.


Apple MacBook Pro, 15 inch — $2,000 USD

LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt Hard Drive — $250 USD

Apple iPhone 4S 60 Gig — $600 USD

200,000 Tanzanian Shillings Cash — $125 USD

$300 USD Cash

Electric Razor — $150 USD

Herschel Backpack — $80 USD


The amount of crime in Tanzania, and lack of trust in police and the justice system, leads to the brutal and often deadly phenomenon of mob justice. According to the Legal and Human Rights Centre, the country’s foremost defender of human rights, 597 people were killed by mobs since the beginning of the year. That’s about 100 people a month. At least half of these murders were connected to superstition, with people killing those suspected of being witches, some being buried alive. The majority of the remaining 300 murders were in in response to more tangible crimes. Suspected murderers are stoned to death by whole villages, suspected rapists are beaten. But some are killed for misdemeanors. One of the first news stories I remember reading upon arriving in Tanzania was of a pair of young men who were detained by police, accused of stealing in a market. A crowd formed and the police were quickly put in the awkward position of having to protect the suspected thieves from the citizens, rather than the other way around. In the end, the police were overpowered (although I doubt they put up much of a fight) and the two young men were lynched.

In a country where “justice” is meted out with such violent finality, one has to think twice before accusing anyone of a crime. This was what was going through my mind as I finished giving my statement to Detective Paul. Outside the door, I recognized two of the hotel maids, as well as the night receptionist—the one who I’d given my key to that night. Something told me that it had to have been an inside job. But I didn’t want to accuse any of those women. I wasn’t concerned about a vindictive mob, fatally avenging me and my lost possessions. But I was concerned about them losing their jobs and what that might mean for them. From what I had seen, all three women worked very hard in exchange for very little pay. How many mouths were they feeding with that paycheck? How much, if any, had they managed to save? How easy would it be to find another job? How long would they be able to last without one? Accusing any one of them of being involved with the theft wasn’t exactly a death sentence, but it had the potential to destroy their lives. I’d lost a little money and some old electronics that could be easily replaced. They would lose their livelihood. If the miserable look on the night receptionist’s face was any indication, she was losing her job regardless of whether I accused her or not. I felt conflicted. I’d been robbed and yet I also felt guilty. Look at all the misery I’ve caused.


I appeared again on the screen, moving in reverse, moonwalking down the hallway and back into my room. We’d rewound through the entire time that I’d been out at the club and found nothing. A few hotel guests had passed through the hallway on the way to their own rooms, but that was all. So how had the robbery taken place? Had they come through the window? Scaled the wall up to the second floor, and back down, without anyone noticing in the busy restaurant below? The hotel manager seemed notably less inquisitive. He shrugged his shoulders, apologized, and stood up to leave.

“Keep going,” I told the security technician. The last time I used my computer was before going out for dinner, at 8 o’clock. I hadn’t used it at all when I returned. The manager sat back down, while the tape began to rewind again.

I leaned in, hopeful, expectant—only vaguely aware of how much I was enjoying the process of playing detective. The excitement of living out a movie scene almost enough to make me forget how much I’d lost. Around 8:30, the night receptionist walked to the end of the hall, and then quickly left again. The security footage only caught the edge of my door, so it was impossible to tell whether she was visiting my room or the patio at the end of the hall. “Interesting,” I murmured. The security technician scribbled in his notepad. The manager yawned and sopped up more sweat with his handkerchief. We rewound a little more. At 8:17, we spotted the culprit.

At 8:13, a well-dressed young man entered the hallway, talking on a cell phone (presumably to a partner outside, watching me eat). He disappeared from the screen. Less than 4 minutes later, he appeared again, this time with my backpack slung cavalierly over one shoulder. “We’ve got him!” I yelled, slapping the technician on the back and looking back joyfully at everyone in the room. The others weren’t quite as excited, but deigned to get up from their chairs to inspect the footage. We went back to the beginning and watched it all again. He was too quick. Had to have a key. Had to have known what he was looking for. The technician paused the footage at the point when the suspect was closest to the camera. The lighting was bad. The footage grainy. The man was looking downwards as he spoke into his phone. “Who is it?” I asked the manager. He shrugged his shoulders, giving me a look that said it could be anyone.

“So what now?” I asked.

The technician said that he would show the footage to the police. “But…” he said, motioning toward the abstract image on the screen. Another shoulder shrug. He wasn’t optimistic.

The insidious hope that I’d allowed to build in me crumbled all at once, leaving me feeling worse than before. Nothing to do but leave, make my way back to the couch where I was crashing until an apartment became available. I left the office to a chorus of   “pole sana”s and made my way out to the busy street. Night was falling the way it does in Dar es Salaam, all at once, plunging the world into a sticky darkness. The auto-rickshaw driver I’d ridden with earlier that day recognized me and waved me over. He was friendly and talkative, joking around in his idiosyncratic English. We negotiated the price and I hopped in.

“Jina lako nani?” I said, using the little Swahili that I knew. “What’s your name?”

“Goodluck,” he replied. A common name, but one that struck me as potentially meaningful as we raced our way dangerously through traffic. Was it serendipity or irony?

It was, of course, the latter.

Nothing came of the police investigation, if there ever was one. And the hotel didn’t so much refuse to compensate me as wear me out with various distractions, excuses and promises of tomorrow. The theft wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to me during that first eventful month in Tanzania. But Goodluck and I made it home that night, after all the usual close calls that come with negotiating the hectic streets of Dar. So I suppose my luck hadn’t completely left me.

Things can always be worse.


Chris Oke is a poet and journalist. One of the founders of Errant, he lives and works in Dar es Salaam Tanzania.


Nick Ashdown is an international journalist and photographer, currently based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. For more of his photography click here. To read his writing click here.

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