By Mike Chambers
Nairobi is a busy town. Maybe not Beijing or New York, but it does get on a buzz on. Through roads jam up, pedestrians spill into the street and drivers get irritated. Vendors are becoming more common, pitching an astonishing range of low-end merchandise as you wait for a light. Big smiles a few inches from your window are an everyday kind of thing. Occasionally the smile is a cover for another game.
I was in the passenger seat of an unmarked taxi on a business trip from Tanzania to Nairobi a few years back. Samuel was a calm, competent type; he knew the town (not always the case with Nairobi taxi drivers) and never came up with any scams or extracurricular maneuvers. We were driving to an appointment on the south side of town, on a four-lane road with frequent lights. Traffic was heavy. We stopped at a red.
There was a sprinkling of vendors around and one approached my window - front left - the Kenyans drive British style. It was midday, the car had no air conditioning so the windows were open, all of them. Where there are lights or crossings there is usually a pack of pedestrians. Some are going somewhere, some are vendors and some could be thieves. So one tends to pretend to ignore them so as to reduce any implied interest.
On this occasion, the vendor held a small package in one hand and approached our car from the front with a calm, slightly keen, expression on his face. He came up to my window, put his right hand on the roof and bent over a bit to make eye contact. I was following the common defense; I avoided eye contact and looked forward in the hope that my body language would send him to the next car so I wouldn't have to argue that I didn't need the merchandise.
Then he made his move.
His hand and arm suddenly lunged into the car throwing his merchandise, which turned out to be an exercise book, onto my lap and yelling out aggressively. Samuel and I both turned our heads and leaned toward the intrusion. I brought my hands up from their neutral position in my lap into the space that had been breached between me, the dashboard and the open window.
But our salesman wasn't the point man – he was the diversion. As Samuel and I focused in on the front left, we let down our guard on the rest of the perimeter. My bags were on the rear right seat in the back of the car, right behind Samuel. The rear right window was open, providing easy access from the outside. I caught sight of movement in the back and swung around from defending my window to watch my briefcase disappear out the right rear.
So this was a classic Tap and Take. I had heard about it. A standard African street crime technique.
It would be no use reaching over into the back as the bag was gone. I rotated my attention back to the front left window and surprise, surprise, the “salesman” had disappeared too. I reached for the door handle and got out of the car just as the light changed and traffic started. It was a busy intersection with the traffic starting to move, the vendors moving away from the cars, and a full load of pedestrians crowding the sidewalk.
The vendor was nowhere to be seen but the briefcase thief was running and had just entered into the throng rounding the corner of the side street. I could pick him out easily by his urgent movements and the fact he was carrying my black briefcase. He was already in the crowd fifteen yards away and that would be difficult terrain on which to chase him down. Instead of trying to chase him down I took a step away from the car, raised my right arm and lashed it out like a whip pointing at the thief and yelled at the top of my voice. I do have a loud voice, which was inherited from my father who cultivated his on the parade ground between action in WWII. My yell caught everyone’s attention. For a second or two everyone at that intersection looked at me –the foreigner in the middle of the street acting how foreigners never act. And then I witnessed very something impressive.
As I said, everyone and I mean everyone, looked at me. I was pointing in a very accusatory way at a specific location in the crowd. All those people were about to swivel back around and look where I was pointing. When they saw the thief, with my briefcase and his get-away demeanor, I feared they would kill him. I had seen it in Kinshasa, I had seen it in Dar, and I had seen it in Arusha. I was pretty sure it was the same in Nairobi and no mercy would be shown. He would be dead in five minutes.
At that second, when everyone was looking at me, the thief's body language changed completely. Keeping his head up, he bent his knees and placed the bag on the ground. Then he straightened up and started walking at the same pedestrian rate as everyone else on that busy corner. And then he disappeared. The crowd swallowed him instantly. When people looked back from my performance to the spot I was indicating there was nothing suspicious to be seen. Nothing at all.
The incident was over. I kept my eye on the bag and jogged over to pick it up. Samuel pulled the car over while I returned with my retrieved business proposals, checkbooks, and personal info. I presume the thief and his accomplice also returned to their work looking for another opportunity. I went about my business more confident I could make my way through local custom without losing my way. . . or papers.
Mike Chambers recently returned to Canada after 30 years in East and Central Africa. He is now writing full time and fundraising for the Elephant Survival Organization UAV anti poaching surveillance service in Tanzanian parks and reserves. To learn more, visit http://michaelmargravechambers.blogspot.com/