Thursday, August 04, 2011

Letter From The Eastern Cape: A Missing Handbag & A Good Deed Gone Bad

It seemed simple enough, the boys had some very young puppies they were trying to sell by the side of a busy highway. I was worried because the puppies were exposed to searing sunlight and had no water. Cecil stopped the truck so I could speak to the boys and try to correct the situation. That entailed my returning to the truck twice for something to shield the puppies and some water. I suspected the puppies were stolen but was not willing to resolve the situation by buying all of them to get them out of the hands of the boys.

I did not realize that my small little brown shoulder bag had fallen out of the truck. We drove off and only discovered the loss 15 minutes later. We hurried back to the scene and found the boys and puppies gone.

The bag has two zippered compartments and a little pocket on the side. Inside it has slots for cards and cash. The leather strap disappeared years ago, so I now use a strong black webbing strap that is long enough for me to hang the bag across my chest, making it more difficult to pinch. As I recall I bought it at K-Mart in the States over 20 years ago.

My passport is my only valid form of ID right now so it was in the wallet (my application for permanent residency that would give me a South African ID has been in the works for over 15 months) along with my drivers license and bank cards. All those things that make our lives work. There was a bit of cash, but not a large sum, and my Blackberry.

This is a rural area. Chances are pretty good that people here don’t know the value of what was in that bag. They -- especially young boys -- would not know how to manipulate the information on the Blackberry -- my email and Facebook accounts to invade my life. But that assumption could not be guaranteed. The cards and my cell phone account could be frozen easily enough. The passport would be a headache because the nearest consulate is 400 miles away.

Cecil dropped me off at the house so I could begin the process of dismantling my survival system. I had photocopies of everything, which helps, but then there are those never ending recorded messages with options, long conversations with bank people, the people who don’t answer the phone at the cellular service office and the woman who gives me bad information over the phone at the consulate. I keep an extra cell phone with a pay-as-you-go SIM card for emergencies so I could still communicate. (The SIM card is the basis of our cellular system. It slips into a slot in the phone and carries all the phone's information.)

Finally, after about 3 hours I got the cards canceled, faxed the cellular folks to shut down my SIM card, and scratched my head about my passport, having been told I could only report it missing in person. I changed my email address and my Facebook password. I phoned my lawyer to see if we could find a tracing agent who could track the cell phone signal; I could tell it was still on by calling the number. I knew the window of opportunity would not be long, but we did not find someone who could do that. The police didn’t even know it was possible.

Cecil picked up our wonderful African neighbor and farm manager David and they went to the scene of the crime, found nothing, searched some of the nearby rural locations for the owners of the puppies with partial success, and then dealt with the police. The police could only report my bag lost instead of stolen.

I laid awake that night with the reality that with no credit card I could not buy an airline ticket, and without my passport or DL I could not get on a plane. I knew I could drive on the copy I have of the DL and an affidavit from police. But I did not relish the idea of that gruelling 9 hour drive to Durban to get a passport.

The next morning David and I returned to the police station so I could get an affidavit about the loss. We posted some signs offering a reward. We chatted with two men who tried to sell me something by the side of the road. Their eyes lit up about the reward and I figured that the information would now spread very quickly over the “bush telegraph” that still exists in rural African communities. It has been true that rural communities have their own ways of correcting problems.

Over the weekend I shopped to replace my bag and contemplated all the nuances of this situation -- how dependent we are on these items, how vulnerable we are because they are so difficult to protect. For all the times I have carried that bag with the strap securely positioned across my chest and back, even while driving, hidden it from view, kept my passport hidden in a zippered compartment, kept color copies of everything hidden at home or in my computer, kept credit cards to a minimum, it was the one out- of-the-norm situation that resulted in the loss. I made note of that.

Monday morning we heard from the two Wannabe Detectives. They had recovered my documents and knew where to find the phone. David and I met them at the police station and there was great excitement when I paid the reward offered for the documents. I even got my favorite little bag back. They then drove with David and me to the house where the puppies had come from. A youth joined us in the car, he could direct police to the location of the boy who took the phone home with him, to Mgwali, a location more than 50 miles away on unpaved roads in a very remote region. He -- I call him Bad Boy -- was a relative from Mgwali who had been visiting a local family here. He had scuppered away with the phone, but he had left the bag and documents behind.

The Youth who joined us was a quiet, serious boy. I did not fully understand the nuances involved, but I did understand that he was not involved with the puppy issue or the theft.

We stopped by another police station to get the police to go after the Bad Boy, but they told us Mgwali is in another jurisdiction even farther away. The Wannabe Detectives, very pleased with the cash in their pockets, hopped out at a tavern and said they would wait for us there. David, the Youth and I drove to Mgwali and made the decision to search without the police. We ended up at the very well maintained village home of an elderly man who explained that Bad Boy is a grandson who was orphaned and is now with him, and he’s a handful. He was very sorry, but Bad Boy had just taken off down the road. The Youth and some other boys looked for him for an hour. Finally, accepting that Bad Boy didn’t want to give up the phone, we decided to return home and wait for the family to contact me.

The Wannabe Detectives were three sheets to the wind when we met again and were very happy when I gave them a partial reward that had been offered for the phone. We left them at the tavern. David and I took the Youth back to his home. I asked David if I should give the remaining reward to the Youth, he agreed. It was after we dropped him off that I got the worst of the news. The Bad Boys had stolen the puppies from the Youth. When they took off with my wallet, they left the puppies there by the road, and they wandered off and died. So it seems that my attempt to do a good deed not only resulted in a great deal of trouble for me, Cecil and David, it also resulted in the miserable death of those puppies, and that it was the Youth who took the biggest hit of all.

I can only hope that the hand that took those puppies out of this life came quickly and was a loving and gentle one.

Over the next two days we made phone calls to Bad Boy’s grandfather to see if he had managed to recover the phone. Bad Boy claimed he has never seen the phone in question. So David and I went to the police station to file a claim of theft instead of loss. This would enable the police to be the ones to pressure the boy into returning the phone. It’s not so much the value of the phone, but the process of making Bad Boy understand that this is not acceptable and will get him into trouble.

This police station is a tiny post in a tiny community. It’s not a busy place. But the police put up a great deal of resistance to opening a case for theft and pursuing the lost phone. David and I had to argue with three officers up the chain of command for over an hour to get them to do so. The highest ranking officer hinted that if the detectives should return the phone a gratuity would be in order.

David and I located the Youth and I gave him a bit more money since I had come to understand his situation in this drama. I have heard no more word about the Blackberry and consider it lost forever.

Susan Winters Cook is a photojournalist and humanitarian who has lived in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa since 1997. She previously was a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Daily News, where I was her editor when she made several trips to South Africa to chronicle the enormous changes in that country after Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

Cook's profile of a regional African National Congress leader's struggle to survive transitional political violence won the prestigious 1994 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.
From 1997 to 2003, Cook produced an AIDS education periodical for the province, has produced documentaries for the provincial premier, and most recently produced a documentary about a Cape Town squatter community building its own housing.

Cook lives with her husband, anthropologist Cecil Cook, on a farm where she raises emus.

All photographs copyright Susan Winters Cook


daf said...

Keep up the GOOD work ...

Allan Lloyd said...

Or maybe she raises ostriches?

Shaun Mullen said...


Allan Lloyd said...

Really? In a country full of ostriches? Talk about coals to Newcastle. Grovelling apologies for my presumptuousness.