The Case of the Missing Computer
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
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Some one-on-one lessons are held in the MondoChallenge office in Pangani and some were scheduled to take place across the river in Bweni, at the 'Pangani Marine Centre'. Dismiss any visions you may have had of a bustling, high-tech marine biology research lab. The Pangani Marine Centre is a shed in the village that contains a blackboard and a mat. There is also a little room that stores a computer, donated to the community by a previous volunteer named Becky. The Marine Centre is run by a couple of local guys, Mwenyi and Matara
The family with whom Becky stayed while in Pangani are the Kassims. Mwanaidy is the lady of the house and her reputedly shady brother Mohammed seems to be the man of the house now that their father has passed on. As a condition of donating the computer Becky stipulated that, should the Marine Centre ever be deemed unsecure, Mwanaidy would take custody of the computer. Becky's intention, however, was that the computer would be for the use of the community as a whole.
One morning, Mr Iddy asks Jane and I to help him with an issue. The computer mouse has gone missing and Iddy believes that Mohammed has sold it. Furthermore, Iddy believes that Mohammed has plans to sell the entire computer.
Jane and I cross the river to Bweni to investigate. The computer, sans mouse, is sitting safely in the Marine Centre. With Mwenyi and Matara, we go to the Kassim house, where we are welcomed suspiciously.
"Sit," Mwanaidy instructs us while the seven other family members watch us, arms folded. "What do you need?"
"Ah, yes. It would seem that the mouse is missing from the community computer. Do you know what might have happened to it?" I ask.
"Right. Are you planning to sell the computer at any stage?"
A fairly lengthy discussion then breaks out in Swahili between the Kassim family and the Marine Centre chaps. We sit patiently for a while before Jane interrupts. "Look. We don't know who took the mouse. We are here because we need to be sure that no one is planning to sell the computer."
The discussion continues for a while without much progress. It becomes apparent that the Kassim family does not trust Mr Iddy any more than he trusts them. However, they give us their word that they will not sell the computer or any part of it.
The next Monday, I board the clunky old ferry for my 9am computer class. I am 20 minutes late myself (because the ferry captain took an extended break for breakfast) but I am not surprised that I am the only person at the Marine Centre. I am surprised, though, that when I unlock the outside door, the computer is missing.
I hurry back across to Pangani where Mr Iddy contacts the police. Investigations are made and Mr Iddy reports back to me.
"The outside door was not tampered with but the lock for the inside door to the room that houses the computer . . ." He pauses for dramatic effect, ". . . has been broken!" Cue dramatic music and quick shot of me gasping.
We conclude, Scooby-Doo style, that whoever stole the computer must have had a key for the outside door but not the inside door. Only one person matches that criteria - Mwenyi.
Mr Iddy takes this information to the police. They question Mwenyi but he denies any knowledge or involvement; indeed he seems rather shocked and upset that the computer had disappeared.
The next day, Mr Iddy is out of the office for some time. He returns breathless and full of news.
"The computer has been found!"
"Well that's good."
"Yes, they found it in Tanga. I don't know how but they did. The man who had it said that Mwenyi had tried to sell it to him for 300,000 shillings [about US$240]."
"Aha, so it was Mwenyi!"
"Yes, it would appear so. The police found 200,000 shillings in his pocket. It seems that there were five other people involved in the robbery and the money was to be split between them."
"Six people? That's a complex operation. What were they all doing?"
"I'm not sure. One guy to drive the boat across the river, one guy to keep watch, one to break the lock, one to drive to Tanga and, well I don't know what the others did."
"Hmm. How do we know all this?" I ask, intrigued.
"Oh, Mwenyi named them all and what they did."
So much for criminal solidarity. A thief and a rat.
"I assume they will all face charges," I say confidently.
"It is a tricky situation. The policeman said to me, 'Iddy, if you do not press charges and something happens in the future with these guys, we cannot help you.'"
"And if you do press charges, you will look like the bad guy in the village."
"Yes," he nods.
"Tricky situation. I think they should face some kind of punishment. You can't go around stealing computers willy-nilly and just get away with it. What kind of punishment would Mwenyi get?"
"Maybe two years in prison."
"Yikes, that's a lot. You know, Mr Iddy, I feel a little sorry for Mwenyi. He so desperately wants to go to Canada but he knows it is impossibly expensive for him to get there. Then he has this nice computer sitting in his care that he could sell for a year's wages. And he feels he can blame it on the Kassim family."
Again, this is the dilemma of the volunteer in Africa. We come in for our few-month mercy visit, giving local people a glimpse of what life is like in the first world. One volunteer dangles the carrot of a visit to Canada, the chance to escape Pangani and join in the North American money orgy, the chance to become a millionaire like all the people he sees on TV. Another volunteer is so rich that she can afford to buy a brand new computer and just give it away. What exactly is the message that this gives off? Is it that white people (for we are all lumped in together, just as Africans tend to be by many non-Africans) are generous and altruistic and genuinely want to help their fellow man? Or is it that we have too much money to spend in our own countries that we have to come down and wave it around in front of poor Africans? Are we creating a feeling of gratitude and accomplishment among the local people or a sense of dependence, entitlement and jealousy? I'm sure that all volunteers come with the best of intentions but what is the actual impression we are giving to those we come to help?
Mr Iddy asks me to come with him to the police station. My role is to explain how upset I am as a volunteer who has come to Pangani to help but has had my tol for this help stolen by some ne'er do well.
"It is so frustrating, officer," I sigh dramatically. "How can volunteers continue to come and work in an environment where the law is not respected? Today it is a stolen computer, tomorrow it may be my life or my wife's that is threatened. You must take action!" For this last sentence I add effect by pointing my finger at the bored-looking cop. Mr Iddy winks supportively but the cop just nods like a man who has no doubt fried bigger fish in his time.