Theft is always a concern when traveling, perhaps not so much for those who stay in fine hotels and go on group tours, but definitely for us, with our backpacks and tiny tent.
Amsterdam, the first city we visited, is notorious. Someone tried to pry open the door of our station wagon right in the campground, but must have been interrupted. (If you read about the car, you might remember that even a suitcase key could unlock the door!) We met a young couple from Italy whose fancy motorcycle and gear had been stolen the first time they parked it in Amsterdam.
We were careful and lucky. We had no problems with theft in Europe. We wondered about Africa.
Theft is taboo and rather rare in Muslim countries because the penalty is loss of a hand. But further south, it is a major problem. In Bangui, Central African Republic, we were advised to remove all jewelry and lock it in the truck, which was always under guard. Another Exodus truck had a thief in Bangui jump up and grab a daypack while the truck was moving through traffic. He disappeared into the crowd instantly.
January 8, 1988
Our first day in Bangui, Dennis and I bought a can of corned beef and some candy. We sat down on an elevated sidewalk to eat the meat. No one was nearby, but when we stood up to leave, the candy was gone! Dennis had put it right next to his leg and we didn’t remember seeing anyone in the vicinity.
Eventually, we recalled that a man had walked by, said hello, and asked for the time. We were distracted for just a moment. An accomplice must have slipped in from behind and stolen the bag of candy.
At the campground in Bangui, there were always children peering over the walls and through the cracks, waiting for us to leave something unguarded. A plastic barrel for soaking vegetables disappeared from the truck at a filling station in broad daylight!
I locked up my jewelry, including a gold wristwatch that had been a gift from Dennis. We kept a very close watch on his wallet.
We needed to get more visa pages for our passports, and were frustrated in our attempts to find the American Embassy. When I asked at a filling station, a young man said he’d show us the way. "No," we said, "we don't want a guide. Just show us the direction." He continued leading us and refused to leave. We followed reluctantly. Soon I saw an American flag flying, and I thanked him. But, as was usual with "guides", he demanded money. Dennis pulled out some change, but he refused it. He wanted more. "Too bad," we said. "We told you before we did not want a guide."
He was angry and followed us. We hurried and ducked into the American Embassy. We heard him shouting and guessed (correctly) that he'd tried to follow us inside. When our business was concluded, we exited the Embassy, and, not seeing him, walked back toward the city center.
Suddenly, he came running up behind us. His hands and knees were bloody and his foot was deeply cut. He was crying and talking rapidly in French, obviously blaming us for his condition. "Pourquoi, pourquoi Madam?" he asked. We didn't know why, and we didn't want him following us, so we went back to the Embassy to find a translator.
"That man is a thief," we were told. "He wanted to steal your money. When you came into the Embassy, he tried to follow you and did not obey when commanded by the guard to stop. The guards pushed him out and he fell, injuring himself as you see. We will detain him here while you leave. This is not your responsibility."
Nevertheless, we were shaken by the experience.
January 15, 1988
Zaire was the worst country for theft. Shoes disappeared from under tents while people were sleeping inside. A can of butter and a shovel "evaporated" during a meal. Towels and shirts were pulled off the "dark side" of the truck as we sat at the campfire, and a daypack, complete with Walkman, was missing after breakfast. One tent was cut at a remote campsite and a sleeping bag removed as we ate dinner. There were crowds of onlookers everywhere in Africa, but here they were not all just interested observers.
We stopped storing anything on the side shelves of the truck except plastic water jugs. As we passed vehicles on narrow roads, hands would sometimes dart over and try to grab even those!
At Lisala, our first stop on the Zaire River, we camped in the yard of a low-class hotel. We had guards on the truck, and the hotel had an armed guard. Dennis and I went to bed about 10:00. Others from the group were still talking around the campfire, 15 feet or so from our tent.
I was dozing and Dennis was resting when he heard a rustling at the foot of the tent. As he sat up to look, a knife blade pierced the tent fabric.
"Hey!" shouted Dennis. The blade disappeared instantly and the thief was gone. Although Dennis' cry attracted the attention of the group by the fire, they saw no one.
The hotel's armed guard was fast asleep in his chair.
February 17, 1988
I kept my gold watch, a gift from Dennis that I'd removed in Bangui, in a small purse containing my toothbrush and toiletries. It was locked in the truck and went with me at night into the tent.
At Lake Naivasha, I had my things in a pile outside because the truck was being cleaned and I wouldn't be able to get in for an hour or so. Dennis was on the cooking team, so I erected the tent alone. No one was around but our group, or so I thought. Someone must have been around. I discovered the little purse gone the next morning. It was the last week of our trip with Exodus. We had almost made it without a major loss.
To Dennis' credit, only once did someone manage to get a hand into his pocket, in Mombasa. Dennis was fast enough to prevent the theft. He spun around, but the thief had already disappeared.
White tourists tend to be the preferred victims of theft in Africa, perhaps because of our relative wealth. Kids would dig up our trash pits looking for "treasures" such as bottles or cans even before we drove out of sight in the morning. But there may be other reasons tourists are targeted. According to Africa on a Shoestring, our travel guidebook, "Thieves caught red-handed are usually mobbed, most often killed—so when you shout 'Thief', be ready to intervene once you've retrieved your belongings." One traveler maintained that the reason whites are most often victimized is that blacks, when asked by the mob if they want the thief killed, will say yes. Whites usually say no, being happy enough just to recover their stolen possessions.
Go on to Visiting a Village on the Zaire River
Source: www.SusanCAnthony.com, ©Susan C. Anthony