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Fritz Barnes

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To Catch a Thief In Africa
by Fritz Barnes   

Last edited: Tuesday, April 23, 2002
Posted: Tuesday, April 23, 2002

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Literally, Catching a Thief in Nairobi...

It was the night before my team and I were to leave Kenya, after a six-week visit. We had split into two groups of three, some of us needing to finish buying gifts for friends back at home, and others just wanting to go back to the guesthouse and relax.

My friends and I had just boarded a rush-hour city bus in Kenya's capital city, Nairobi. Standing in the crowded aisle, I tightly gripped the handrails above me. All three of us, exhausted, spoke little, each lost in private thoughts of our impending return to the states, processing the mixed emotions ....

My younger friend spoke first. "You should shut that." She gestured towards my camera bag, swinging freely from my shoulder.

I looked down and was struck first by confusion, then disbelief. I had been extremely careful all summer long with that bag. I had kept it zipped closed and had never left it unattended, even for a few seconds. But there it was, hanging by my side, with zipper wide open.

It was a typical camera bag, with several zippers on the top, one of which revealed the main compartment. This compartment was divided into three vertical sections. My camera would be in the middle; on one side would be my telephoto lens, and on the other side, a wide angle lens and several miscellaneous pieces of equipment.

Seeing the bag wide open, my hand shot immediately into the center section, and I froze. I withdrew the empty hand and reached into the side section to verify that the telephoto lens was there...and there was nothing.

Desperation set in immediately; the equipment was worth perhaps $400 and there was no way I would be able to replace it.

Somehow, I gathered my thoughts...we had only been on the bus for five minutes. We had not made any stops since we boarded. I was standing with my back toward to front of the bus. Perhaps only five rows of seats, and 8 or 10 people, stood between me and the bus's only exit.

One of those people, I felt certain, had just stolen my camera.

A surge of adrenline helped me to quickly forget my natural self-consciousness, as well as all pretense of sound judgement. Suddenly fearless, I turned toward the front of the bus and began shouting.

"Someone stole my camera! Someone stole my camera!"

Moving quickly toward the door-less exit, I looked in the hands and laps of those seated, and the hands of those standing.

Rudely pushing my way toward that exit, I realized two things. First, there was a man in front of me, also making his way toward the exit. And second, the bus was slowing down. Whether that was a response to the commotion, or a regular stop, I do not know. But I quickly grasped the reality that the man in front of me was moving toward the doorway, and was about to get off of the bus. Grabbing his shoulder, I pulled him back, and saw that in his hand, he was holding my camera...

He continued toward the door. The bus had slowed considerably, and despite my hand being again on his shoulder, a futile attempt to keep him on the bus, he jumped.

The combination of the bus's motion, my grasp on his shoulder, and his alcohol-impaired balancing system was enough to cause him to fall to the pavement. I immediately jumped off after him, still shouting, and as he rolled on the macadam, my camera also bounced across the wide sidewalk.

He stood. I stepped over to him quickly and grabbed his lapel, still shouting, and he surprisingly made no attempt to run.

"He stole my camera! This man stole my camera!" Then, looking down, I saw something in the front of his pants. Without a hint of shame or hesitation, I reached into his pants and pulled out my telephoto lens. I held it triumphantly, high in the air, and proclaimed to the gathering crowd, "AND MY LENS! This man stole my camera and my lens!"

For most of the crowd that had quickly encircled us, who had never held a camera in their lives, those words had little meaning. But they did understand that the man was a thief.

"Rough him up!" they exhorted me. "Rough him up!"

Despite my brief and uncharacteristic bravado, I had no desire to physically hurt this pathetic thief. Furthermore, my sudden sense of mercy was heightened by his pacivity.

A Kenyan businessman stepped out from the crowd, and told me he had called the police. He then led us both to a stairwell of some sort, a place where we could wait for their arrival.

Several minutes later, the police officers who had arrived were taking this crime very seriously. They frisked the man, searching, I thought, for weapons that he might be carrying.

They found no weapons. What they did find sent a fresh surge of adrenaline through my body, many times as dramatic as the initial discovery of the missing camera. My legs shook...

In the officer's hand, folded neatly in a cheap vinyl cover, was a small book of traveler's checks.

As the leader of this team, I was also the treasurer. Though we were only hours from the end of our trip, we had budgeted generously and traveled conservatively. The value of that booklet of checks was considerable. I did a quick mental calculation, and answered the question posed by the policeman's wide eyes.

Realizing that this man had stolen more than the average Kenyan could earn in a life-time, he wheeled around and slapped the man so hard that he fell to the pavement...

From there, we were taken to the police station, where I struggled to answer all of the questions being asked of me, by people who did not have the education or the life experiences to readily undestand my answers. They told me I would have to come to the man's trial and testify. I told them I could not. They indicated that they would need to hold my camera as evidence, and again, I gave an answer they did not want to hear. I was leaving in the morning, and I would take my camera with me...


I later learned that the man's refusal to flee was based on self-preservation. The same crowd that wanted me to "rough him up," would probably have killed him. "Mob justice," they called it.

I also figured out later what had happened. Boarding the bus, surrounded by the rush-hour crowd, I was jostled from behind, to distract me from sensing the fact that my bag was being unzipped.

The money, taken from the side pouch of my camera bag, was all recovered, approximately $4,000 (in 1983 U.S. dollars) in traveler's checks.

The damage to the camera was minor, and I still use it today, almost 18 years later.

Reader Reviews for "To Catch a Thief In Africa"

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Reviewed by Angela Rhodes 2/22/2005
This is an interesting read. I'm sure many people who have traveled in the third world can relate. My thief was a little girl with enormous brown eyes and tattered clothes. She was operating under the guidance of her mother. I felt her tiny hand slip inside my bag, groping for anything of value. I caught her wrist and said in my best voice of authority, "Stop!" She did, and they got off at the next stop without any of my belongings. I remember thinking, "What kind of life will this girl have?" One, I am certain, very different from my own.
Reviewed by Lynn Fulton (Reader) 7/31/2003
I enjoyed reading this--a very interesting article!
Reviewed by Claywoman 6/29/2002
What a terrifying experience for you. I wonder whatever happened to the thief? You told a good story here and one some of us can learn from for when we travel...
Reviewed by E T Waldron 4/26/2002
I enjoyed this story Fritz...well written too...glad you recovered your losses...thanks for comments on was a challenge,to write about a safari and sorry to say I've never been to Africa, but always wanted to go and had done some research into a trip....;-).
Reviewed by Wendi Cali 4/25/2002
Interesting article on several counts - first, I find the difference in cultures to be amazing. "Mob Justice" isn't something that would ever be accepted here in the States. Secondly, I was impressed with your fearless and quick reaction to what was going on. The one "shortcoming" I found is that while you stated being there with a group and as part of a team, you never indicated what type of team or how that team earned its way to Africa. I was also curious how your friends reacted to the whole situation - were they surprised at your reaction? Did they accompany you to the police station? Well written piece and very interesting subject matter.
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