A Brush with the African Police Part I

I’d spent ten idyllic days in on Zanzibar’s western coast. And I mean idyllic – lush vegetation, white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, fantastic diving and no communication with the outside world.  I’d spent the entire time swinging lazily in hammocks, lying under palm trees, taking early morning walks by the Indian Ocean and eating fresh fish each evening (caught just hours ago by the locals).  Kenwa Rocks had been a perfect choice for kicking back – two restaurants, a few thatched bungalows, no loud bars and drunken tourists…the experience had left me feeling like a new woman.

But all good things must come to an end.  Heading back to the mainland, to journey up to the Serengeti, I’d arrived back in Stonestown, Zanzibar’s colourful capital.  Late that evening, I’d checked into a quiet, unassuming guesthouse not far from the centre.  Since I’d already booked my overnight boat ticket back to Dar al Salaam the following evening, I knew that tomorrow I had a full free day in the city.  I planned on taking some photographs, picking up a few essential toiletries and just losing myself in the backstreets.

In my bedroom the next morning, post-breakfast, I took out just enough cash from my moneybelt to see me through the day.  (I’d already paidextra for a late check out so, technically, I didn’t need to return until 6pm).  Then, as I always did, I took the belt and placed it under a heap of clothes, at the bottom of my backpack.

When you travelled in places like Africa, you had three choices – entrust your passport, cash and traveler’s cheques to the management, carry them with you at all times or lock them in your room. Over the years, I’d chosen to go with the latter approach.  I’d heard too many stories of valuables “disappearing” or wallets being returned conspicuously lighter than when they had been deposited.  And East Africa was notorious for street robberies.  I’d already met a guy who’d had a knife put to his throat at a fish market, and another who’d been held up in a Nairobi shopping mall by a gang with machine guns.  OK, I was taking a chance but, compared to my alternatives, this seemed to me the least risky option.

I wandered aimlessly and happily in Stonestown for several hours but by 2pm was exhausted from the heat, and decided to return to my room for an afternoon nap. Inside, about to flop on the bed, I decided – like the true neurotic I was – to check my ticket one last time, to ensure the boat was really leaving at 7pm.  Unzipping my backpack, I put my hand deep into the bottom, feeling for the moneybelt.  I felt nothing.  I felt again, then threw out all the clothes that I’d piled on top of it.  I saw nothing.  I stared, helplessly, at the empty pack, as if willing it to re-materialise would be sufficient.  Nothing.

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Don’t panic” I told myself.  A few more seconds passed.  I could feel my heart racing, and my throat drying up.  And then reality kicked in.  Oh god, I thought, it’s actually gone.  Bolting out the door, I crashed down the front stairs two at a time.
“Help” I screamed.  “I’ve been robbed.  Call the police.  My passport’s gone.  And my money too.  Help.  Call the police.”

The guest house appeared deserted, save for the old guy on the front desk.  He stared at me, silently and almost impassively as I continued to scream hysterically.  Another woman appeared but, like him, she said nothing.  In desperation, I finally ran out the front door into the street, grabbing the arm of a passer-by,  As I was explaining to him my plight, out strode the manager of the place, a furious look on his face.
“Madam, I tell you this is nothing to do with us.” he berated me.  “Lower your voice please.  If your belongings are gone, only you are to blame.  Do not spread false rumours about us.”

The American looked at him, in semi-disbelief, then turned to me.
“Well, all I know is your stuff is gone and they’re not interested.   You’re not gonna get much help from those guys. You gotta file a report with the cops.   Come on.  I’ll go with you.”  I stood there, dazed, as I watched the manager stride back inside.  The American took my arm and I followed him helplessly.

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The police station wasn’t far, a dilapidated building, with a dirty floor and cracks running through the ceiling.  Shabby walls, with peeling paint, above me an old ceiling fan creaked, slowly circulating hot air throughout the room.  En route, the American had explained to me, apologetically, that he couldn’t stay – he had a flight in 90 minutes to the mainland, and a connection to Nairobi and then onto Boston.  Should he call a friend? I explained to him that I was travelling solo.  Should he call the British Consulate, from his hotel, and tell them to come down?  Yes, I told him, gratefully.  He wished me luck, gave me his card and told me to get in touch anon, to let me know what happened.  And walked out the door.

Oh god, I thought.  I’m completely alone, on an exotic island, in a lawless country, without a passport or cash.  The two Americans I’d been diving with had returned to Louisiana two days ago.  The brother and sister I’d eaten dinner with every night had sailed off to Pemba (an adjacent island) that last night.  And the Israeli paratrooper I’d been hanging out with had left that morning for the south of the island, on his bike,, in hot pursuit of a leggy, Finnish blonde.  (Where’s an Israeli paratrooper when you need one?)

I stepped up to the desk.  “I need to file a stolen property report please.”  (Keep your voice calm and polite, I told myself…)
The sergeant behind surveyed me in a semi-bored fashion then slowly, oh so slowly, pulled out from under the desk some papers.
“Take a seat whilst I find a pen” he practically yawned, before disappearing into another room.

As I sat on the hard wooden bench, sticky and dehydrated from the heat and hot air blowing my way, I forced myself to face the unfortunate facts.  However it had happened, I was in trouble.  Zanzibar was semi-autonomous from Tanzania.  There was no way – even if I could borrow the money for another boat ticket – that the authorities would let me leave without my passport.  And all I had on me now was close to $20.  Even worse, someone up at the beach resort had mentionedin passing that the British Consulate in Stonestown didn’t issue travel documentation – all requests had to be sent to Dar al Salaam.  African bureaucracy meant that I could easily be trapped here for days. 

Trying to be rational about it, I figured that my parents would freak out, big time, and being the considerate daughter I was, I’d save them the sleepless night and call up my best friend in London.  If he wired me money, that could tide me over.   And thank god I’d had the good sense to scan a copy of my passport into my email account – that would speed things up a bit.  Still, whatever way you looked at it, it was a blow…I was now at the mercy of forces way beyond my control.
I glanced up.  A young guy, in black trousers and a short white-sleeved shirt was standing over me.  He looked sharp and street-wise, and I wasn’t that surprised when he announced himself to be a detective specially assigned to deal with tourist problems.  In good English, he explained he’d need my help, in order to take a detailed report of the day’s events.

“We take these kinds of incidents very seriously madam” he assured me, as I scribbled down every last detail.  Finally, as I signed at the bottom, he added that the guest house owner was a few moments away, ready to assist in whatever capacity he could.  I resisted the temptation to argue.  I was pretty sure it had been an inside job – someone employed there had taken my key, let themselves in and rifled through my belongings.  But I knew I couldn’t prove it, and I had no intention of accusing anyone without evidence – I was very alone, and far, far, far from home.

The guest house manager strolled through the door, careful not to make eye contact with me. A long conversation in Swahili with the detective ensued.  I figured interrupting and asking for a translation was pointless.  I looked at my watch.  It was now long after 4pm.  My boat was sailing out of the dock in three hours…without me.
“Come madam,” the detective said, as if reading my mind.  “Now we will all go together back to the guest house to search your room thoroughly.”  Not knowing what else to do, I agreed.  At least back at my room I could pack the rest of my things and flee the joint.  After what had happened, I wasn’t staying there another night.  I’d make a plan, for sure – perhaps find an internet café and send an urgent mail to London, or find a phone to call the British Consulate myself. Wherever I ended up spending the night, it needed to be far from where I’d probably been relieved of my valuables.

We reached the guest house.  By now, there were a few people around (maybe one of them would lend a few bucks).  Trapsing up the stairs, I carefully unlocked the door, the detective and owner right behind me.  In all three of us went.  And there, on the bed, was my backpack, clothes strewn around it, right where I remembered leaving it.
“Please show us, madam, where the missing property was left” the detective ordered me and, obediently, I opened the zip.

There, plain as daylight, was my moneybelt.

And as I looked at the two men standing beside me, and saw them look knowingly at each other, suddenly I knew I’d been had.  And that my troubles had just begun...

(to be continued...)