Of Phone Thieves, and the Student who kept a Pet Snake

If you are reading this and you have ever had your phone stolen, grabbed even, in this (used-to-be) city in the sun, then you are either smiling to yourself or holding your chin. A phone is not an easy thing to lose, never has been. The Kenyan phone thief is proof that Darwin was right. First, let us agree that there are no absolutes in science, there are no facts, and there is no proof. Everything depends…

Everyone has a story about Nairobi phone thieves and how they decentralized their craft to the county level long before the new Constitution came to be. There are different classes of thugs, there’s the snatcher who sees an opportunity and goes for it. There’s the traditional pickpocket who will enter and exit your pocket before you have a chance to scream. There’s also the ‘threatener’ who will pin you to a wall or kidnap you on the street. A classmate of mine was once robbed thus, outside an ATM when three guys set upon him and held him as if they knew him. To everyone else, it was just Lucky Pierre (a gay threesome+one) or old buddies catching up. Inside, the scared youth was being ‘politely’ asked to empty his pockets. Ladies are most likely to lose their phones because they rarely ever keep them on their person. Its expected, given that sundresses and tights rarely have pockets. I think they should wear tight jeans more, but the tautness is bound to damage the phone. Or like a certain lady, quickly switch the phone to silent mode and hide it in the bra when carjackers take control of a bus on Ngong Road (The Lord help you if someone decides to call then, and the vibrations start to tickle your nipples).

The first time I ever witnessed a phone stolen was more than a decade ago when thugs broke into our house and carried away our black and white TV (in a sadistic tone, thank God!). The only phone in the house at the time belonged to my eldest sister, I cannot even remember the model but I am sure it was a Nokia (could have been one of those huge Motorolas, but I’ll stick to the Nokia). There’s sort of a sad story behind how the phone itself was stolen because it had been well hidden as the thugs, young men carrying machetes and the stems of coffee bushes (don’t ask), tried to gain access to the house.

Let me tell you the story…

Now, like all good Kenyans who have grown up in their shags, your neighbor is most likely your relative, either your uncle, grandmother (males tend to die early), cousin or….you get the drift. Thugs don’t normally attack a single homestead because its shags and neighbors actually help each other. In Nairobi and its outskirts, you can’t just answer to a scream because you might walk into an erotic scene, where a screamer+sweater+shifter+sigher+groaner (I’ll tell you about the shifter, later) might be expressing her (or his) pleasure. This was the ‘90s and thugs still had the mind to know that what was needed was a smokescreen, a way to keep our neighbors distracted as they ransacked our house. They did it in an ingenious way I must say, breaking into the cow shed of my farmer uncle (guy has never had a herd below ten cows) and releasing the cows at 3 am in the morning. Naturally, my uncle and his family had to wake up and chase the cows back into the shed and then spend a few minutes repairing the gate.

Meanwhile, on the other side…

Thugs had already gained access into the house and were bullying my eldest sister and my father for money. When they had carried off what they could get and were possibly ready to run, a shrill! Guess what, my cousin, who was just done helping her father chase the cows back into the shed, was calling my sister to tell her that there were thieves around ( a little too late? You be the judge). I call it a shrill because ringtones back then were actually rings and not music. You can write the story from here, how the thugs suddenly beamed at the realization that they had just hit jackpot…

Where was I in the whole tale? I was still in my bed, top bunk, and frozen solid against the wall. One of my other sisters was under her bed, pissing on herself (sad, but the memory has always been hilarious!).

My friend had a phone snatched in Ngara a few weeks ago by one of those thugs who snatch your phone and then run like hell. I say “had’ it stolen because the phone was barely three weeks old. I have a rule about any new phone I purchase, okay, its not exactly a rule but a form of paranoia. I tend to think that everyone wants to steal it, well, because its new, and for the first one month guard it like a baby before I start dropping it all over and throwing it at people I do not like (okay, that last part was an overreaction, happened once…I missed.). A few years ago, I met a high school friend of mine and as we exchanged stories of this Nairobi and the hustle, he told me how his phone had been stolen at Accra Road as he surfed the internet. It was sort of silly, which is why the story has stuck in my mind all these years. He was sitting right behind the driver’s seat, with the window wide open. Outside, a phone-snatcher (they do not qualify as thieves, we should arrest them and send them to 100m competitions) saw a window of opportunity (literally) and went for it (again, literally). What he had not accounted for was the fact that the phone, being the first electronic my good friend here had bought himself with his first salary as an insurance agent, was held tighter than it had first appeared. So he made for it…

In a reflex action, our protagonist in this story tightened his grip on his now aging phone (I should tell you it was a flap, so the next part makes sense). The phone-snatcher outside grabbed and pulled, only the cover came off and he ran with it, he had to run anyway. It gets even more hilarious…the phone snatcher went and stood on the other side of the street, realizing his mistake. In the car, our now shaken protagonist looked at the phone in his hand, still logged on to Facebook, albeit now naked (The phone, not the girl on FB). They had a brief staring game, him in the matatu, the snatcher on the other side, each daring the other to make move. They laughed…as in, both of them broke into laughter, possibly out of some form of skewed respect for each other.

You sort of feel it for the snatcher in this case because he had made a move and lost but that will end when I tell you how I lost my first slide phone. I was once attacked by two guys in Juja as I walked to the stage at 11 p.m (clearly, I had made a string of bad decisions that night). Okay, technically I walked into an attack, my own. It made sense to feel safe because the two guys were standing next to the only lit building on the street, a place called Muchatha (am sure anyone who knows Juja is laughing at me right now, even they would not walk there at 8pm, cut me some slack, I did not know at the time). When they moved in towards me, I froze, I have always been intrigued by the psychology of a thief and I know when running is a bad idea, and also, I froze. Right there, in my tracks, one foot infront of the other, as the two buggers moved in towards me. One grabbed my sweater from the front and the other from the back. The silly part is that the one infront kept his left hand behind all through the two minute ordeal, swearing he had a gun. I say its silly because he was right-handed (which is why he held me with his right hand) and anyone with a gun tends to use the hand he is most comfortable with. Also, anyone who is armed would be quick to brandish it, to quicken the process. The guy behind was much shorter, light-skinned and wearing a red sweater. He missed a thumb on his right-hand (I could feel by the way he held me that he grabbed me with four fingers, not because he wanted to do the thumbs-up sign but because a finger was missing). This was later confirmed when I reported the incident at the local police station, the shorter thumb less guy had, supposedly, just been released from prison, so much for rehabilitation…(or the police agreed with my Sherlock Holmes assessment just for the hell of it)

Okay, rule number one when your chances are grim and you do not have the balls to try karate moves you have seen in Chinese flicks, co-operate. I stood there, removed my wallet and held it out to the guy infront and calmly asked him to leave my documents intact ( I say calmly because I have a delayed reaction to adrenaline, the gravity of my situation hit me later-literally). He grabbed it, frisked through it and took the only KShs 1000 I had in there at the time and threw my wallet back at me. Meanwhile, the other guy grabbed my college bag which had been hanging on my side; he felt inside and unzipped it in excitement. Let me spoil the story for you, other than my charger and books, the only other thing in there was an orange (do not even ask, I myself cannot remember whether I ate it later). Where was my phone the whole time? I have this theory; it comes from the fact that the majority of the population is right-handed and therefore, by extension, so is the larger percentage of criminals. If you check your pockets right now, you most likely have little, if anything at all, in the left back pocket (only right-handed people, for left-handed people, the reverse applies. The wallet is almost always on the right, because it would be awkward to remove it from the left. So when thieves are frisking you, they tend to ignore the left back pocket because theirs is empty and an innate feeling tells them yours is too. So that’s where my phone was at the time. It actually worked, they frisked all my other pockets, including my breast pocket, and left that one. However (Always a twist in the story, life is cruel like that), there was one small technicality I had not accounted for, my college bag which was hanging slightly below waist level on my left side…DO you see where this is going? As the small thumbless guy was feeling the orange in my bag, some part of his hand, possibly the stub that used to be a finger, accidentally felt the phone and he was hit by the realization that it had been there all along….To cut the long story short, a few seconds later I had been punched on the temple and I was standing there, momentarily screaming like a girl as my attackers did a Usain Bolt towards a nearby slum (you get why Muchatha was a bad idea now).

So yes, that was the first and last time I was ever robbed. It made me paranoid, and has saved me countless times because I am suspicious of everybody and everything that moves in the dark, especially if its standing harmlessly under the only light on the footpath.

Smart phones are not smart enough to guard themselves from phone theft but if you are vigilant enough, then you do not have to lose your contacts (a Phone you can get anywhere, its awkward having to ask people for their numbers again). Back them up or write them down so you can quickly refer to them if you lose your phone. Install anti-theft software into your phone and set it up because it’s useless to install it and expect it to set itself. Notify your selected contacts as to the particular contents of the message they will get if the phone is ever stolen or someone changes the sim-card.

Or try an age-old trick, get a pet snake. This one goes back to my father’s years in UoN. He told me the story last year when a friend of his from NY contacted me thinking I was my father (I can understand the confusion, given that we have the same two last names switched). Supposedly this ‘mzungu’ was his best mate back in the day in campus (immediately after independence, I think) and his pet was, because cats and hamsters are for sissies, a python! Imagine that, your best mate has a python for a pet, what does that say about you? Here I was thinking I was the weird one of the family…The python escaped from its cage once and his hostel mates seized the opportunity and set upon it (UoN guys, violence and venting are not unique to you, they are in your genes, also, the spirit of a python roams in your hostels). The story ends there, right? Actually, it does not, the very next day, McCoughley (I am not sure I wrote that right) and my father headed to the Snake Park (or animal orphanage, I cannot remember which one) to buy a new python for him to domesticate…Birds of a feather don’t necessarily flock together when there’s a python involved, do they?

PS: I am already past my 2200 word limit for this post so the story about the ‘shifter’ will have to wait. Meanwhile, you can imagine what one would have to do to be dubbed ‘a shifter’ or ‘mover’ in erotic terms (think in the lines of a screamer and all).

Owaahh