Given the countries I’ve lived in over the past five years, my time abroad has been remarkably free of crime. Much of this can be attributed to an overabundance of caution that borders on paranoia and the rest to just dumb luck. Expats seem to be especially targeted in many incidents, as the expectation (not incorrect) is that foreigners tend to be much better off than the local people and often are more careless about how they protect that wealth. Given my inability to blend in with any crowd, this makes my unblemished record for protecting my valuables all the more miraculous.
Cameroon seems to be particularly eager to separate expats from their francs. Based on the stories I’ve heard from my fellow volunteers here, I would estimate roughly half to two-thirds have been victims of theft or attempted robbery. Thankfully, most of the incidents have been without violence, beyond the shock of suddenly losing one’s bag, camera or wallet. The majority of the losses come from the usual grab-and-go purse snatchings, but some stories seem straight from action films – robbers working in tandem on motorbikes, with one jumping off the back to grab a computer bag and mounting the moving bike again to zip off with their bounty before the target can react. Others, such as the taxi scam that I mentioned in my post last year, are complex enough to warrant a certain amount of perverse admiration, provided you’re not the mark, of course.
Much of the crime seems to be centred on the capital city of Yaounde, which makes sense, given the number of foreigners living and working there. My own city of Bamenda seems to have fewer cases, though the aforementioned taxi scam does seem to be something the city can proudly claim as its own invention, as I’ve only heard of it happening here. Regardless of the location, two times of the year have been repeatedly highlighted to me as the worst for theft: the beginning of the school season and Christmas. Parents desperate to cover school fees and materials for their kids will steal to get them what they need, conveniently skipping that day’s lesson on morality. And Christmas is known as the season of giving, whether the chump wants to or not.
My trip to Limbe was at the end of October, safely nestled between the two expected crime waves to give me the comfort that comes with kids already being In school and the yuletide robbers still to realize their need for some last-minute mugging. The plan for our travelling quartet of friends was to enjoy a relaxing long weekend in Limbe prior to the departure of one of our number to South Sudan with MSF. Limbe is a quiet seaside town popular among expats for its beaches and seafood. Getting there from Bamenda is no small trek – eight hours on average, on a bus that would test anyone’s determination to see the ocean. This particular trip turned out to be anything but average, with two flat tires and a driver who liked to support the local economies by stopping every half hour to buy vegetables. As a result, our journey ballooned into a ten-hour marathon that drained us of the initial merry mood that had boarded the bus with us that morning. Of greater concern was the fact that we lost the daylight on our way, meaning that we would land in Mutengene in darkness on a Saturday night, not a welcoming prospect.
Limbe and Mutengene are two towns joined at the hip that couldn’t be much more different. Cinderella had more in common with her stepsisters. But as a transfer point to get to Limbe, Mutengene is inescapable, so travellers approach it as the last obstacle between them and a cocktail on the beach. Since Limbe is such a haven for tourists, it is well-known among the locals that foreigners will be dropping in to Mutengene as well, like so many antelopes at the watering hole. And where there are antelopes, there are bound to be a few predators.
When we finally pulled in to the bus stop, it was well past eight o’clock and Saturday night was in full swing in Mutengene. As Elton sang, it is a night alright for fighting. And drinking. And checking out the new group of people arriving in town. We unglued our sweaty selves from our seats and stumbled off the bus on shaky legs that had fallen asleep hours ago. All of our bags had been carefully packed away on top of the bus and identifying them in the dark became quite a guessing game. As we stood there and waved off the numerous bags that likely weren’t ours, one fellow made the rounds, shaking hands with the passengers and greeting them. After twenty minutes, all of our bags were in hand, so we made our way to cross the street to catch another bus for the last leg to Limbe. I followed the others, adjusting my backpacks as I went. From behind me, I heard someone yell, “Excuse me, please!” and I turned around to find the same man who had greeted us earlier. I was about to ask what he wanted when he jammed his hand into the front pocket of my shirt and grabbed what was in it. Pausing a second to enjoy my shock, he smiled at me and then ran off into the crowd before I could do anything.Given what had just happened, I was remarkably unshaken and just shrugged it off. As I continued on to meet the others, I did a mental inventory of what was in that pocket. Travelling on a bus as cramped as we were, a shirt pocket is a valuable storage space, and through the day, I had carried my mobile phone, some cash and my bus ticket there at various times for easy access. But as we had approached Mutengene, I had put all of those things away in my backpack for fear of losing them. So, what had the thief managed to steal? The only thing I hadn’t bothered to put away – the crossword puzzle I had been working on during the trip. I laughed as I told the story to the others, as I could imagine the look on his face when he finally stopped running to check out his loot. And I wished him well with it, because it was one tough puzzle.