What does it mean when someone steals from you? What does the act of thievery say about a person, or even the community in which that act takes place? Recently, I’ve been the target of more theft than I’d like. Some petty, some more serious but each has affected me, surprisingly, almost inversely to the monetary value of the loss, which is why I’d like to address the theme.
Our story starts about a month ago while I was in Yaoundé doing some work in the Peace Corps office. Over the weekend, a couple volunteer friends and I went out to a nightclub. Absent-mindedly, I had left my 16 GB USB key (incidentally, containing all of my Peace Corps photos, work documents and other electronic valuables) in my purse. Not surprisingly, it was quietly removed from said purse without my noticing. Until the next morning.
I was a little upset, but mostly, I knew that I really only had myself to blame. Living in New York City for four years has taught me that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, especially in big, anonymous cities. If you want to keep your belongings, well, hold on tight. I came away from this incident relatively unscathed emotionally, feeling not anger at some anonymous thief, but rather irritation at myself for my carelessness. When a kind stranger came across my USB key and contacted me to return it, I was even happily surprised at the goodness that can and does exist in the world. I felt like justice exists. I know that any time I’ve come across someone else’s lost belonging, I’ve always made a real effort to return them and felt very good doing so. The world, I felt, was paying me back for my past good deeds.
Incident number two was yesterday. Every morning, I check on my plants in my garden. For whatever reason, I draw a small measure of joy from seeing the plants that I’ve nurtured and sweated over thrive and even produce fruit. Because of my daily checks, I know my plants’ progress like I would my own children. When I went to bed Thursday, I had four different eggplants growing at various stages of development. When I went to check my eggplants yesterday morning, the best one of the four had been neatly snipped off the plant. Not taking into account the fact that this is my food, my sustenance, or even the fact that eggplants are hardly even known au village (I get blank stares when I mention them… who would even know what to do with it?), I found this much more upsetting than the whole USB key incident.
Why? Because it means that someone left the road which abuts my house (already a rather isolated and not exactly busy thoroughfare), walked behind my house, up a hill, past my outhouse, into my garden, with something sharp in hand to cut the eggplant off (premeditation… the first time I tried to cut off an eggplant, I had to go back to my house and get scissors) and took my not-even-fully-grown eggplant right out of my backyard. Never mind that the market value of this eggplant was probably no more than 20 cents, its intangible value to me was much greater. It hurts to know that the guy who says hi everyday as I pass his boutique could be smiling to my face and stealing behind my back, right in my own backyard. Or my neighbors. Or one of the innumerable children who scream out “Re-beck-KAH!” any time I pass.
The last incident, also yesterday, has hurt the most, though. I don’t say so lightly. I went up to the sous-prefecture to talk to my parents on the phone yesterday afternoon. The sous-prefecture is up on a hill, and consequently has much better cell phone reception. Because it’s up on a hill, it’s also practically deserted save for the sous-préfét and his assistant who live up on the hill, next to the sous-prefecture. When I left at 4:30 PM, I was distracted, and I left my wallet there on accident. When I realized my mistake at around 8:15 PM, I went right back to retrieve it. Navigating the darkness with a flimsy flashlight, my heart fluttered lightly when the dim beam revealed that the wallet was exactly where I’d left it. However, my heart sank into my stomach when, upon examining its contents, I found all of my money and a small leather coin purse missing.
The monetary contents were about 8500 CFA – about $18.48 – and thankfully my identity cards and credit cards were still there (!). But. My identity cards were there. The thief knew that this wallet belonged to me. You know, me – “Re-beck-KAH!” After all, I’m one of three white people who live in this village – and the other two are a 40-something man and 70-something nun. Hard to go unnoticed or unknown. I’ve estimated before that probably 99 percent of this village knows my name, and I probably know about two percent’s name. Whoever rifled through my wallet came across my identity cards and, knowing exactly whom they were stealing from, went right ahead and took my money.
It bears comparing the eggplant theft with the wallet theft, because one could argue that the eggplant thief also know whom s/he was stealing from. However, the eggplants are a slightly different case – they’re outside and already vulnerable to ravenous animals and other nuisances simply by design. I’m not ignorant to the possibility that the thief was four-legged (though I am doubtful). Not much I can do to reduce that risk. With my wallet, it was a moment of weakness, of forgetfulness, clearly a mistake (who leaves money and valuables just sitting out for anyone to have a gander?), and most of all, a chance for someone to come knocking on my door and earn my undying and eternal gratitude. Indeed, in a small town where everyone knows everyone and everyone DEFINITELY knows the white girl, that’s the decent thing to do. Instead, our thief here said, “fuck that,” took the money, and ran. It not only feels like being kicked while you’re down, but the act feels intentionally directed at me. It sucks, and it hurt me a lot.
The real bummer here is not the mere loss of money but the loss of faith in my community. Before this incident, Ngambé Tikar was to me, a small village, comprised mainly of well-meaning, hard-working, honest folk who have been dealt a short stick in life in so many ways. I felt safe, welcomed and fully a member of this place, and I was happy to “suffer” with everyone else if my efforts could help right some of the wrongs caused by powers bigger than me and bigger than Ngambé Tikar itself. On était ensemble. For the mere price of $18.48, however, our thief has bought Ngambé Tikar a big fat question mark in my mind. Now, among Ngambé Tikar’s short list of good qualities, can I really count kindness, honesty, and goodwill? I don’t know anymore.
Was it worth $18.48? Just what is the value of a dollar? And how much does integrity cost?