How It Feels to Almost Be Robbed

By: Konstantinos Dafalias

As many of you know, I take public transportation in Nairobi, despite the warnings of many expats and the U.S. Embassy.  I prefer the buses, because they are more spacious, and in my mind, safer, but I ride on the matatus (minibuses) too.  I’ve been getting pretty confident in my public transport-riding ways, jetting around town by myself, even transferring at the big matatu stations downtown.  But then I caught two men trying to rob me on a matatu, which has been a good reminder to be aware and cautious, and to always keep some spare change in my pockets in case my wallet goes missing.

Here’s How It Happened:

I was on my way to the British international school, a short and easy ride from our house.  I got on a matutu at the bus stop, and as soon as the matatu was full, we drove off.  When the attendant asked each of us to pay our fare, the man sitting behind me pretended to drop his change in my seat.  He asked me to pick it up for him.  I couldn’t find his change, but he kept insisting that it had fallen on the floor of the bus.  I was getting increasingly frustrated because I couldn’t find the missing coin, and I didn’t think it was down there on the floor.  But I know that many Kenyans can’t afford to lose even 5 shillings, so I kept looking.  Then I looked up, and saw that the man sitting next to me was reaching into my purse and grabbing for my wallet.

The view from inside a matatu. By: snowflakegirl

Here’s How I Felt:

When I first saw the man’s hand in my purse, I was pissed off.  I yelled at him to get out of my purse and told both the men that I knew what they were up to.  This is a classic rob-someone-on-a-matatu trick and my friend Jacq had told me about it before.  Silly me for forgetting and trying to help someone reclaim their lost change.  Jacq says she never lets go of her bag, and tells people they can look for the money once she gets off the matatu.  It’s a good strategy for next time.

As soon as I called them out, the two men left me alone.  One of them even said, “we weren’t going to hurt you”.  I asked them to get away from me (there were empty seats on the matatu), but they didn’t move.  We rode on in silence, since I wasn’t at my stop yet, and apparently neither were they.  Let me tell you, it’s very strange to sit next to someone who just tried to rob you.  No one else on the matatu said anything.

We got to the British school, I got off the matatu and it continued on its merry way.

I was angry at these men for trying to take advantage of me, and for thinking I was a fool.  I was also angry at them for taking advantage of my willingness to help them look for their change.  I was angry at myself for not recognizing their scam earlier.  I was glad that none of my belongings had actually been taken.  And I was surprised that no one else on the bus said or did anything.

I talked about the almost robbery with my friend Sam over lunch.  He thought that maybe the attitude towards robbery here is that the responsibility falls on the more affluent person to protect their own self and belongings, not on the less affluent person to be moral and trustworthy.  It’s interesting to think about, and explains why once I caught the two men they simply left me alone and we rode on in silence.  It wasn’t about the wallet, it was about the perceived opportunity.

In case you’re wondering, I haven’t been on a matatu since the almost robbery.  I’m not against matatus now, I just happened to get a ride home from the British school with Sam and haven’t need to go anywhere since then.  My husband wants me to take taxis when I’m alone, but we’ll see.

What about you?  Have you ever been robbed?  Would you keep riding public transportation if you were in my position?

Photo by: Konstantinos Dafalias

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26 Responses to “How It Feels to Almost Be Robbed”

  1. Bobbie Ezzell says:

    I think your friend Sam is right in his assessment that it is seen as more the responsibility of the affluent to protect their belongings than a moral obligation to Not steal. That attitude goes hand in hand with poverty. The part that scares me is not that you were almost robbed, but that no one came to your assistance. It’s a frightening reminder of how truly alone you are. I promise you that even had they done you physical harm, no one would have helped you. Sadly, that sort of thing happens here also. Take the taxi.

  2. Gerry Wilson says:

    Consider carrying a cross-body bag with a secure closure (small as possible). That may very well be what you’re doing already, but if not, maybe you should. That might help you feel more secure AND would make it a lot harder for somebody to pickpocket you. Sorry that happened, but I’m glad it wasn’t worse! Take care.

    • Emily says:

      Yeah, that’s the kind of bag I have, and usually I even hold my hand over the zipper to make it harder to unzip. Plus, as I told my husband, the amount of money I carry in my purse is so small that even if it gets stolen it’s still less than I would have spent on taxi rides in the past few months.

  3. Julie says:

    Twice. Once a purse and once a handbag. I never carry valuables but apart from a bruised shoulder no harm done. It is an injury though, I am a nice person, why would anyone do that to meee?? Maybe not quite that, but worth being a bit philosophical.

    My own opinion? You could take the matatu a couple of times (be vigilant and wary) just so you don’t write yourself into the ‘I am now scared of the matatu so won’t go’ narrative. Or not, I have sat in buses with my fight or flight instincts at high alert and life is too short to sweat that much when I can afford a taxi. What you can say instead is that – You can go, but choose not to because you don’t want to, that’s all. It is tiring to keep up a level of vigilance, but such is the life of an outsider (aka expat) so you are entitled to chose your adventures to suit yourself. It’s nuance and seems nonsensical but is worth the effort.

    As time goes on you’ll have more iffy experiences (that’s life!). If you stop doing things you really want to do out of fear when you are still young then by the time you are forty five you will be too neurotic to leave the house.

    It is fascinating to read of your experiences in Kenya. Be vigilant, be safe and most of all enjoy your time there. And as I tell my teenagers, wisdom is not learning from your own mistakes, but learning from other peoples.

    • Emily says:

      So much good advice here, thanks for commenting!

      My plan is to take a matatu tomorrow, but with my husband (we have to go downtown anyway). And then I’ll wait and see how I feel next time I have to go out by myself.

  4. Abby says:

    Yikes. You’re brave to think about taking a matatu again! My family and I were just in Istanbul, and my dad almost got robbed on a crowded tram. He kept his back pocket buttoned over his wallet after that. I guess the lesson is to be ever-vigilant, like the other commenters have been saying, but it’s discouraging.

  5. Diana says:

    If this sort of thing were an Olympic Sport, Barcelona would win the Gold. I was robbed on my last weekend in the city and felt like I was had finally been initiated as a resident because all my friends had been. Terrible. Glad you’re ok.

    • Emily says:

      Haha, good analogy! I never knew Barcelona was such a robbery-inclined place (but then again, I’ve never been to Spain.) You have a good attitude about it though, and I’m glad you’re ok, too!

      • Amelie M says:

        Barcelona’s got some seediness to some of its ‘hoods. There’s an area just south of Las Ramblas, between the city center and the big hill just south of it, where punks like to roam. Ed and I went to a place for curryworst (a Barcelona specialty!…Not.) and left after dark. The small street was clogged with small groups of teenage boys and men standing in small groups talking. We walked past one group of kids and one 16-or-so year-old detached and started trying to kick Ed’s feet like a soccer ball and asking in crappy English if “you are Swedish?” The several grown men on the street watched, and said/did nothing to tell the kid off. The main street was luckily nearby, so we ran, hating ourselves for it, and being pissed off at Barcelona for betraying us.

        I hate the feeling that a culture you’ve previously loved has betrayed you. It disgusts me and makes me want to leave, or tell it to go sleep on the couch, or something. One bad cultural betrayal can ruin a city and its people for me for as long as it takes for ten really awesome cultural experiences to wash it away.

        I also replay the “what if I’d…” scenes in my head. What if I hadn’t made eye contact with the kid? What if I’d responded to his kicking by hooking his ankle and causing him to trip on himself and fall down? If this had happened to me in 6th grade on a playground in the US, chances are I would have taken the latter track, consequences bedarned. In a foreign land, though, you never know what sort of international chaos you might trigger by defending yourself, and the safest thing you think to do is to keep walking. I dunno.

        • Emily says:

          Yikes, glad you made it out unscathed, but sorry you had to make a run for it. (Also, love that this all occurred while you were out eating curryworst! In Barcelona, nonetheless!)

          You make a great point that it feels like a betrayal. You get used to a place and you expect it to “be” a certain way, and it’s disappointing when things don’t go according to plan. Talking to Sam actually helped me reframe my experience though, so I was really grateful to get his opinion.

          And I have taken matatus alone since then. So far, so good!

  6. Julia Tomiak says:

    Whew! Glad nothing worse happened. I like your plan to go with your husband- get back on the horse, as the expression goes. But I must admit I’d probably stick to taxis. The part of your post that struck me was how violated you felt because they abused your willingness to help them. It’s a difficult balance- wanting to help people yet still needing to protect yourself. And this happens anywhere. It’s tough to determine how to best help people without making myself too vulnerable. I don’t want to be foolish, but I don’t want to be jaded either. Good luck.

    • Emily says:

      You’re right, it’s hard to find the balance between trying to help someone out and protecting myself. In the U.S., I don’t have to think about this as much, but here everything is new and different, I’m always trying to walk the line between foolish and jaded.

  7. Janet Goode says:

    Emily, thanks for sharing your horrific experience. I am glad that you are unharmed. Your respondents have given food for thought and good advice. Chalk it up to a life experience that you learn from. Personally, I believe I would continue to take the Matatu if need be and to wear a cross body pocketbook.

    Now, I have been robbed twice – only it was in an apartment and my home. My home was robbed Christmas Eve while I was in Bangor. Maine (2010) for the holidays. I’ll not go into specifics now; however, as a result, I have a home security system! I felt so violated and angry.

    I loved your fiestiness with the culprits – “Go Girl”.

    • Emily says:

      The only time I’ve been robbed is in Bangor, too. This always makes my dad feel better when I travel because I can remind him that “home” can be just as risky as away.

  8. Maureen says:

    I got robbed the same way on a matatu to Westlands once. The interesting this is, I’m always alert in matatus but that day, I was tired, so I didn’t think much about picking the person’s change and his accomplice opened my bag and took my wallet. Nowadays, I always carry my matatu money in a side pocket in my bag or in my pockets. I never open my purse in a matatu because that’s how they know where your wallet is located in your purse. Never sit next to someone with a huge envelope in a matatu and also mind your cell phone as well and always hold your purse tight.

    • Emily says:

      Great advice, Maureen, thanks for sharing! I must say, it does make me feel better that this happens to Kenyans too.

  9. mamamzungu says:

    Holy crap! How awkward. “we weren’t going to hurt you”!?!? Some consolation that is. Your friend’s perspective is interesting though – that the onus of responsibility is on you. I guess there’s some truth to that in a country with extreme wealth disparities. I have an old post about the bizarre civility of Kenyan thieves when I kept hearing that thieves would car jack you and then drive you home or rob you but make sure you had enough money for bus fare. Strange stuff.

  10. Claudine says:

    Hi Emily!

    I’m trying to catch up on blogs. I’ve been neglecting my own for too long and apparently I’m still not in the blogging mood so I thought I catch up on the blogs I follow! :)

    I’m glad you’re ok after your incident! Being in a position like that is awful. I used to work at a car wash/gas station when I was younger. It was our family business. One night while my brother and I were closing up the outside register (which was in a small booth) we got held up at gunpoint. My back was turned when the guy said “Give me all your money and put it in a bag. And don’t look at me.” I thought it was one of our employees joking around. I turned to jokingly tell him to get back to work and found the business end of a 9mm pointed at me. I of course was the one counting out the register drawer so I was the target.

    From that point on everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Even when I play it back in my head. Although he said “don’t look at me” I remember not being able to tear my eyes from him. His face was covered by a scarf (it was January) up to the bridge of his nose. But it was his eyes that caught me. He didn’t say anything. He just stared back at me all the while pointing his gun. It was my brother that snapped me out of it.

    “Claudine, give him the money.” Was all he said. I blinked and turned toward the register. I pulled all the cash out and I just handed it to him. He grabbed it and ran. I didn’t remember that he asked for a bag until my brother mentioned it later.

    After that my brother told me to get on the floor of the booth and call 911. He disappeared in the dark after the guy to see if maybe he could get a look at the getaway car or plate number. A customer and his wife pulled up to get gas, as it was only 5 minutes until we closed. I told them what had happened and they stayed with me until the police came.

    The police told me that I did the right thing. The officer said if the guy was on anything he wouldn’t have thought twice about shooting me. And yes that just made me feel SO much better.

    I just remember shaking all the way home. Every time I hit the brake my leg felt like it was vibrating on the pedal. I felt violated and more scared than I had ever been in my life. If it had been any other job, I would have quit on the spot. It was an experience I never want to repeat and one I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

    Although your situation was less violent than mine it is nonetheless serious. Please watch yourself and take care. But don’t ever let fear stop you from living your life and helping others. :)

    • Emily says:

      Hi Claudine,

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Your story is so scary, but also a good reminder that scary things like this can happen anywhere, and it’s always good to be aware of your surroundings and have a plan. I’m glad you were ok (physically) and I hope it hasn’t left too many scars emotionally.

  11. Edna says:

    Wow, glad you made it out of that situation okay and with all your belongings! When I was 14 my purse was stolen while on vacation. I’d saved up birthday money, holiday money, tooth fairy money for YEARS for this trip — over $300, gone like that. The purse itself was found in a nearby bathroom and I was inconsolable for days. Since then I almost never let my belongings out of sight, no matter how uncomfortable or ridiculous I look. On overnight trains I sleep on top of my backpack, this morning at the hotel breakfast buffet I carried my computer in one hand and balanced my plate in the other. It’s not as intense as Claudine’s experience, but at age 14 it definitely left a mark and I never want to feel that way again!

    • Emily says:

      Aww, that’s awful! I’m so sorry that you’re young self lost all that hard-earned money. That would certainly make me extra cautious and careful too. Glad it’s never happened again though, and glad to hear I’m not the only one who looks a little ridiculous guarding her stuff. It’s worth it to not get robbed!

  12. Deb says:

    Emily, I’ve lived in Nairobi, Kenya for the past 11 years. Public transportation is my only form of moving about the city – matatus, buses, and motorbikes. Well… I also do a fair amount of walking and I have a bicycle, too.

    I’ve had that exact same technique used on me approximately 6 times in matatus. The thieves were only successful the first time (and unfortunately got a chunk of my money).

    As you know, it’s a very disconcerting experience. Maintaining a high level of vigilance is a necessity, as other people have stated.

    Couple of pointers -

    1) Besides the dropped coins, the would-be thieves also use another distracting technique: the guy behind taps you on the shoulder and tells you to put on your seatbelt.

    2) If you yell ‘thief’ it’s possible you’ll set into motion what’s called ‘mob justice’. The thieves could be badly beaten or even killed.

    My most recent experience with this was just a few weeks ago. After I thwarted their attempt and gave them both a very angry look, I wanted to say something to the conductor. But who knows… maybe he would have gotten a cut of their loot.

    When they realized I was on to them, they alighted. I had to climb off the matatu in order to let the one guy out. I had to really fight my impulse to slap the guy or to at least tell him he should be ashamed of himself.

    But alas, I did none of those three ideas – because I suspected total and complete apathy like you encountered from your fellow passengers.

    Anyway… all that to say… hang in there. And don’t give up on public transportation. It’s so incredibly cheap after all.

    • Emily says:

      Thanks for sharing your story. I’m so glad these things don’t just happen to me. Also, I have still been riding the matatus and buses, just more cautiously.

  13. [...] an American living in Nairobi. Her blog, which I first discovered when I read her post about almost being robbed on a bus, is an insightful peek at life in Kenya (a country I know very little about) as well [...]

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