20 January 2013

Tanzania: The Day I Outsmarted a Thief


THE year was 1984 and the month was June. I was in Lagos to attend a twoweek seminar that had brought together men and women who had children's affairs very close to their hearts.

I was standing on a high balcony at the Mahamba Hotel gazing at the goings-on in the harbour nearby. It was a cool afternoon. The sea vessels that kept bobbing up and down in the rough sea didn't really interest me. I had seen hundreds of such vessels in Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and many other parts of the world.

It was the thief who nearly stole my suitcase who bothered my mind. My journey to Lagos had been smooth, save for the long queues at the Murtala Mohammed Airport and the worry notorious thieves instilled in me at the airport. I had boarded a large plane in Nairobi for my journey to Lagos via Johannesburg in South Africa.

The stopover in Johannesburg for routine refueling didn't delight me at all. It was clearly indicated in my passport that I was prohibited from setting foot in North Korea, Israel and South Africa. Off course, I knew that immigration officials would not inspect passports in the plane.

I also knew that since there was no need to change planes transit passengers would be required to remain seated in their cabins during the 45-minute refueling job. These were the dark days in South Africa. ANC combatants were busy fighting the apartheid regime on all fronts. I undid my seat belts as I watched the airport's ground crew wheeling luggage towards the plane's cargo hold.

It was the Blacks who were doing the most laborious work. Whites stood around shouting instructions. Fresh supplies were shunted into the plane carted by stewards. I finally heaved a sigh of relief when the pilot announced that departure was imminent. It was nose-up ten minutes later.

I peered through the window and saw the land of "smart Boers" and "miserable Blacks" recede into the distance. I saw Black villages and White farms. South Africa! We penetrated a thick mantle of cloud cover as the plane gained altitude. Soon, we were 45,000 feet above sea level.

We unfastened the seat belts as advised. Once again, I heaved a sigh of relief. I dislike plane take-offs and landings. Most plane accidents happen at this time. Two wonderful young women served what looked like rich meals for lunch. I accepted an appetizing T-bone steak and rice.

I washed it down with a Namibian beer. I didn't want to touch anything South African. The sugar sachets and the soft drinks were South African. I kept a discreet distance from anything South African. The jumbo jet tore the skies at the speed of lightning. I took a long nap.

When you are in a plane nothing becomes friendlier than a nap. Of course, I had tried to read a crime novel but my mind kept darting back to mundane matters. We finally arrived in Lagos. The queues for immigration formalities, customs checks and the Police Desk were long and progress was painfully slow. I had been told that the building was always swarming with thieves and conmen.

The "smarties" target passports and hard currency. I held my passport firmly in my right hand and vowed not to speak to characters that look suspicious. I had hidden my sterling pounds and US dollars in the high boots I was wearing. I had tucked the money deep inside the socks. A thief would have to kill me to get the money. I was in the traditional Kaunda suit but inside my pair of trousers was a pair of shorts.

I had hidden my Traveller's Cheques in the shorts' hip pocket. Anyone who would wish to grab the TCs would have to undress me first. This would invite a vicious fight - which I vowed to win. Well, nothing sinister happened to me at the airport. After clearing the usual formalities I walked out of the building and ran into a man who had been sent to receive me. We had never met before so he carried a small placard that called out my name - Paulo.

The young man, whose names I no longer care to remember, took me to a small hotel where the seminar organizers had booked a beautiful room for me. However, the man told me to pay for the taxi trip from the airport to the hotel. "No problem," I said, producing several hundred naira. It is in this small hotel I encountered my first "theft shock." I had placed my suitcase on the bed and gone into the bathroom when it occurred.

A large man used a copy key to unlock my door as I entered the bathroom. Of course, I would not have gone into the bathroom with my suitcase. But I had my passport, all the money and my handsome Rolex. So the man sneaked into my room and snatched the suitcase. But as fate would have it, I came back for some medicated soap.

I entered the room in time to see the main door close and the suitcase missing. The thief had caught me in an awkward position. I was in a bathroom towel. However, I swung the main door open in time to see the thief turn left on the corridor. I dashed after him and saw him take another turn.

I caught up with him as he reached the reception desk on his way out. You can imagine what I nearly did to him. Although the towel I was in dropped somewhere on the corridor, I did not abandon the chase. I was in the skimpiest of clothes when I arrived at the reception desk.

I grabbed the man with all my might and brought him down with a slide tackle. He fell miserably on his back hitting the hard floor with a thud. He released his grip on the suitcase. I could have flattened his nose with a hard punch but I didn't wish to complicate the situation. I grabbed my suitcase and walked away mouthing obscenities.

The beauty queens at the reception desk were appalled. I hurried back to the bathroom where I had left all my money, my passport and my expensive Rolex. The items were there waiting for me. I didn't give a damn what happened to the man following the incident.

However, I learned later that the man vanished in a backstreet. Thieves, conmen and hoodlums should steer clear of me and my property. I carry a punch that thunders - something a shade smarter than the kick of a zebra. If you think a former altar boy cannot punch, you are wrong.

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