Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The bizarre civility of Kenyan thieves

Despite my recent viewing of the grim after affects of mob justice and the fact that our house is guarded 24 hours a day, Western Kenya is hardly the least safe place I’ve lived.  West Philadelphia or Washington DC probably top that list, and I certainly walked with a lot more trepidation on those streets than I ever do here.  

Busia is a still a smallish town and while there is theft, it’s rarely violent.  And the mob justice attests to the protective intolerance to theft among the population.  Who’d dare to publicly rob you when a cry of “mwizi” (thief) will incite an angry mob against them?  So, people may have items stolen from their homes, but you generally feel safe walking down the street. 

That said, the bigger cities in Kenya, Nairobi (or Nairobbery as it’s sometimes known) in particular, are notoriously dangerous.  Walk down the wrong street and you can pretty much guarantee an incident.  Some of our field officers recently did some surveying work in Nairobi and even the people visited encouraged the surveyors to leave the neighborhood before 4 PM lest they risk being attacked. 

Their driver was not so lucky.  He took a wrong turn while waiting for his team to return and wound up with a gun in his face and lighter about 8,000 Ksh ($100) and a laptop. 
Recalling this incident to me he said, “But god is good because they left me with my phone and 150 Ksh.”  This is not because they didn’t find the phone and the 150 Ksh; the purposely left them for him so that he would have a way to get help and respectfully called him "mzee" throughout the robbery.  

Since this incident, I’ve heard several other stories about the bizarre civility of Kenyan thieves.  A woman who was carjacked and held hostage until she emptied her bank account but later called on cell phone to make sure she got home all right.  A fellow mugged on the street but given bus fare to get home.  Others robbed but left with a phone to call for help.

What’s going on here?  A few anecdotes don’t a social trend make, but you rarely hear about this kind of civility among robbers in the US.  The idea back home is to terrorize the victim enough so that they fear going to the police, not to call them elder and look after their welfare.   

I have a few inchoate theories about what’s going on here: Maybe since there’s so little trust in the police to get the job done (among good guys and bad guys), there’s no real incentive to discourage a victim for seeking justice through intimidation.  

Or maybe the level of poverty here drives people to crime who aren’t so naturally inclined towards it. So, in a society with a 5 % unemployment rate only the true miscreants are driven to crime, but a society in which a full 50% are unemployed pulls in a lot more people – not just the sociopaths – to a life of crime that they would otherwise avoid.  Maybe those guys are nicer criminals?

There are probably other factors at play here that a criminologist or other social scientist might be able to illuminate.  I’m just going to take a small measure of comfort in the possibility of a courteous “thank you come again” mugging should I have to endure one. 


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