thievery

we’ve been robbed.  several times actually.  the first was last year, after we’d just moved in.  the local ‘fool’, a woman living in the health center with her infant child, followed amanda into our yard demanding money.  when she was refused, she swiped amanda’s bathing suit off the line.  i saw the woman a few days later, wearing the bathing suit and pointed her out to the headmaster.  ‘let’s take her to the police,’ i said.  ‘but she is crazy.’  ‘so? we want the suit back.’  ‘i cannot accept that.’  ‘why not?’  ‘she is crazy.’  ‘so?’  ‘i cannot accept it.’  ‘well, i can.’  apparently, once a crazy lady has worn your bathing suit, you can’t wear it again.  i missed that one in the cultural guide.

so we lost the bathing suit battle, and the next bit of thievery happened several months later.  some of our clothespins disappeared.  clearly our fault for leaving them out.  we didn’t say anything.  it was probably kids.  life continued.

in august of this year, after a blissful year of nothing stolen, our guard was down and we trusted the community.  at the back of the house, where no one can see, is a small room with its own entrance separate from the rest of the house.  it’s meant for a security guard, which we don’t have, so we use it as a cooking room.  the kerosene stove is there and this way it doesn’t smell up the house.  one day we left the door open while at school teaching (as we regularly did, not sure why) and someone ran off with a 5 liter jug of kerosene.  this was the first thing of real value taken, but we felt we’d invited it by not closing the cooking-room door, so we didn’t report it.  a fissure appeared in our trust of the neighbors, but life goes on.

a month later, the rains came, and we left our buckets on the back porch under the gutter to catch the run-off (a regular habit, dating back to last year)  i went out to collect them and two were gone.  had we not learned our lesson?  don’t leave stuff outside.  how stupid can we be?  and yet, it’s our yard, our things.  is there not some well-known saying ‘thou shalt not steal’?  is it unreal to assume that in a catholic country such as this, most people might have heard of it?

feeling slightly violated, we licked our wounds and took care not to leave stuff out.  but as they say, third times a charm, or three strikes you’re out, or troubles always come in threes, or something like that.  and so it was that a few weeks later the buckets were out – and the pots too because we’d lost those other two buckets – catching rainwater to use for dishwashing and toilet-flushing.  i was in the house reading.  once the rain had stopped, i went out back to bring in the water and – low and behold – some had taken the pots (and amanda’s kneepads which were also outside).

this was too much.  must we have someone watching our house at all hours?  even when we’re home?  should we erect some monstrous brick wall with glass shards or barbed wire to isolate us from the community and scream go away?  did our neighbors not appreciate the work we were doing for the school, or that we shop locally, that we’ve tried to learn kinyarwanda, that we play with the local kids and chat with shopkeepers?  what had we done wrong that after two years someone would steal our cooking pots, pots that when we move out we’d have happily given away?  or is it a simple case of poverty inspiring greed?  or bending the rules out of necessity – the poor man who steals a loaf of bread to feed his children?

so i was angry.  hurt.  this time we decided to tell someone about the theft.  we spoke to our neighbor mugisha, the prefet de discipline at the school, and also had some students ask around in the neighborhood.  it turned out that we’d been hit by the local thief, a boy who’d been sent away for stealing before (from mugisha, from students, from other community members) and had just recently returned to musha.  mugisha went with amanda to speak to the boy’s father, who kindly offered to pay for the missing stuff (we appreciatively declined).  the boy was beaten.  the next day he stole a radio from the headmaster’s house.  after that, he was chased from town with the threat of juvenile prison if he returns.

in the end, i’m glad we told someone.  by identifying the thief as a repeat-offender, we no longer felt so stupid for leaving our things out, we no longer felt the sense of being a target as mazungus, we were able to shift the blame off the community as a whole and onto the shoulders of one kid-gone-wrong, and we could commiserate with other neighbors who’d also been robbed.  it brought us closer to the community in a way the barbed-wire fence idea never would have.

in rwanda, to accuse someone of being a thief is a serious accusation, akin to calling them a murderer.  i learned this the hard way.  i lent my stapler to my senior 6 accounting class and it disappeared.  this wasn’t the first of such incidents – a few of my class dictionaries were stolen, as were some of amanda’s class calculators.  students often report stolen notebooks (anyone caught is expelled) and things routinely go missing from the dormitories.  in my frustration at the stapler theft, i wrote a letter to the class demanding an apology and that they find the missing stapler.  my mistake was to say i had lost my trust for them and that ‘i would not teach thieves.’

they couldn’t find the stapler, so they pooled together money to buy a new one.  i said that wasn’t necessary and let the issue go.  but because they never wrote a formal apology (we had just studied letters of apology), i never formally forgave them.  class continued as normal, but something felt different.  there were fewer students in class, less of them doing homework or participating.  i found myself less motivated to teach students who weren’t motivated to learn, and it just snowballed.  i stupidly wrote it off to senioritis – last year a similar demotivation had occured amonst senior 6 students studying for national exams and focusing on ‘important’ courses, cutting their losses on english.

but a few weeks ago, i overheard (and later got a full recounting of) a conversation between amanda and one of my students (aime sincere, who is true to his name and speaks his mind), regarding theivery.  when i had said i would not teach theives, my students had taken it as an accusation that all of them were thieves and, as per their culture, been royally offended.  because i hadn’t realized and they hadn’t said anything, the cultural and lingual misunderstanding had hurt our relationship.  i felt terrible, immediately wrote an apology, and was forgiven my mistake.

thus ends this (extensively long) entry, the moral being that in both cases – the boy thief and the stolen stapler – much hurt and frustration would have been avoided by open discusssion of the problem.  amidst cultures colliding, a false assumption on either side – be it that the community sees our back porch as a free-for-all or that i think all my students are thieves – causes unforeseeable hurt and jeopardizes the friendships and integration for which we’ve worked so hard.

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~ by aliciawolcott on November 9, 2008.

One Response to “thievery”

  1. i love aime sincere. what a good kid.

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