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October 13, 2011 / Dan Whipple

Mwizi

Uhuru Highway traffic at midday

I was sitting in traffic, stopped on one of the busiest streets in Nairobi, Uhuru Highway just above University Roundabout on my way home from the gym, having buffed my body in the diaphoresian ecstasies of exertion and sauna. It was about 1:30 pm, the sun was shining, and I was catching maybe every fourth word on the Swahili radio station.

There was an loud bang against the passenger door of the car (not that you care, but it’s a 2004 Toyota RAV4). I looked over to see the head of a young African male disappearing from view below the passenger window. He was in the middle of the road, but this is not unusual. Many young men sell newspapers, maps of Kenya, posters of the ten commandments, sunglasses, jumper cables, posters of the parts of a diapered child’s body (shoulder, forehead, elbow, stomach, knee), all-purpose knifelike tools, bananas, hammers, paintings of elephants, machetes, Kenya flags, neckerchiefs in a Kenya flag motif, tomatoes, tiny motorcycles made out of wire, flowers, surge protectors, onions, windshield sun shades—you know, stuff—many young men walk down the dotted white lines during traffic jams selling stuff. I mean, who can say when the urge will strike to bone up on the ten commandments while you’re stuck in traffic?

My god, I thought, a vendor’s had a heart attack against my car door!

But no, he popped right back up, keeping his head turned away all the time. He’s stolen my rearview mirror. The bang was him torqueing his whole body weight against the mirror to dislodge it from its customary position on the car’s frame.

I watched him walk away, slowly at first then running when he’d put a couple of cars between us. What can I do? I wonder. I’m by myself. I want to chase him, but I can’t abandon the car. I don’t have a gun, so I can’t shoot him. There are dozens of people around, so if I shout, Stop! Thief! who’s gonna know which one is which? And then he’s gone. Just like that.

The tragic flaw in my character is that I can always see the other guy’s point of view. Somebody who’s stealing a rearview mirror in broad daylight must really, really need a Toyota RAV4 mirror.

But there are hazards in his chosen occupation. My Swahili teacher and friend Oloo says a friend of one of his students had his mirror stolen in a situation very similar to mine. But in this case, the robbery victim gave chase. Several bystanders joined him in pursuit. They caught the thief. The crowd wanted to kill him. The thief—mwizi in Swahili—pled that okay, he was guilty, but he had only stolen a rearview mirror. Hardly an offense calling for the death penalty. The crowd didn’t kill him, but they did give him a severe beating.

When I went to get my mirror replaced, I found out why people steal them. A new mirror costs $180, plus installation. In a nation where unemployment reaches 40 percent and the monthly wage can be as little as $80 when you do have a job, it’s well worth it to refurbish a stolen mirror and resell it, even if considerable damage is done to it in the yanking off.

The irony does not escape me that I bought a used mirror for about $100, probably one stolen from someone else’s RAV4. I am thereby encouraging the trade in stolen auto parts. Next time, if the guy will just tell me that he’s going to steal my mirror, I can give him, say, $40. He can avoid the risk of being beaten to death, and I’ll save $60. Everybody’s a winner.

Our new rearview mirror

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