Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa


Yesterday, I finally had my first run-in with a highwayman.  Well, that’s what I call them.  I suppose most people here call them petty thieves.

I was driving to Ultimate Frisbee at 6pm, as usual, but my route was different because we were playing at a different field than normal.  The fields were only 10 minutes away from my place and my path took me through the northern end of Hillbrow.  No big deal – I drive this way to work every day.

I had my window down about 2 inches with the music blaring – typical.  I was stopped at a busy intersection when a man came over, rested his hand on my open window and said something.  I couldn’t hear him because my music was so loud, but I assumed he was asking for change.  There are beggars at almost every major intersection here.

“No, sorry,” I glanced his way then looked ahead again.

He stood his ground and repeated himself.

I glared at him.  I didn’t the way he stood so close to my car, in my personal space.  I turned down the volume of my music and said, obviously annoyed, “What?

He seemed a bit thrown off by my attitude, but he repeated, “Give me your fucking phone!”

“Oh!” I was surprised.  I glanced around my car, but I always keep my stuff in the trunk.

“Oh… I don’t have my phone with me.”  In my shock, my tone was apologetic.  Now that I was looking at him, I realized he was better dressed than the typical beggar.  He was also leaning forward authoritatively, his hand in his pocket like he was pretending to conceal a gun.  But I wasn’t scared.  He was acting more like a guy bored with his job than someone who intended me harm.

“Ok.  Sharp.” He walked away.  His hands and body language showed that he didn’t have a weapon, after all.

(“Sharp” means “thumbs up.”  You use it in a sentence like “Thanks!  Bye!  Sharp sharp.”  So essentially he tried to mug me, then gave me the thumbs up when he failed.)

“Bye, man.” I responded automatically.

The light turned green and I drove away.

As I continued driving, I wondered what I should do.  Should I pull over and call the police?  But what were the street names of that intersection?  Furthermore, would the police care?  Would they get there fast enough to catch him before he stole a phone and left?  I didn’t have the number for the cops anyway.  Should I call someone else and tell them to call the police?  Who would know?  Who would know who wouldn’t give me a lecture on safety or that I haven’t already bothered with my problems?

In the end, I continued driving to Ultimate and didn’t tell anyone about what happened.  I was still processing it.  As you can probably guess, though, I didn’t play very well.

I felt a bit unsettled, to say the least.  I kept thinking about a news story from the previous week in which a man had his phone snatched out of his hand during afternoon traffic on the highway.  He got out of his car, leaving his wife in the passenger seat, and chased the thief.  The man was found later, stoned and beaten to death.

As I wrote above, I didn’t feel like my bandit was dangerous.  On the other hand, neither did the other man feel in unsafe and look what at happened to him.

In conclusion, I’ve decided to treat the incident like a mini-lesson.  Here are the take-away points in case any of you ever drive around Jozi:

1. Don’t open your windows, especially when driving through dodgy areas.
2. Keep the local police number in your phone.
3. Never get out of your vehicle.
4. Keep your stuff in your trunk.
5. Turn down the music.  I probably damage my ears every time I drive.

People have told me all these things before, but thought I’d reiterate them anyways.


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