There’s recently been an increase in crime here.
This used to be one of the safest cities in Africa. Perhaps it still is. However, various factors are leading to the breakdown of old certainties. Let us first look at the nature of crime here, then examine underlying causes.
But wait – should we not first consider why this place was so orderly to begin with? Because that demands some explanation. This is Africa, after all. So let’s start there.
I am not a criminologist so I don’t really understand the details, but religion certainly plays a major role. The people here are about evenly split between Christians and Muslims, and are very devout. Many pray daily, with white robed old ladies floating down the unsealed roads at dawn like ghosts from a better time as they make their way to their local Orthodox church. Religion seems to act as an ordering principle that keeps people in line.
Further, the people here consider themselves superior to their neighbours due to their closer connection to the European colonizers, and affect many of their customs as a show of civilization and to stick it to [hated neighbouring country]. Old people take great pride in their civic responsibilities, and if they catch a young lad pinching something they will beat him with their canes. This is something you will not see so much over the border.
I saw the same in Taiwan, where people will deliberately do the opposite of what the mainlanders do in order to positively differentiate themselves, i.e. refrain from spitting, speak in a moderate tone of voice, and admire Japan.
A very significant detail is that this is a small city and everybody knows everybody, and their business. It is populated mostly by old families. Cities tend to get more crime when many migrants leave their traditional, sometimes tribal frameworks and mix together without the policing of their kin elders. Port Moresby is a good example of this and I imagine many African cities are the same.
Surely there are other factors, however I am not familiar enough with this place to see what they are. But I think the close bonds of religion, extended family and traditional society all play their role.
It seems that this civic pride dates back to at least European colonial days. Perhaps it goes back further – I don’t know. Even during the war of independence, the city was often rocked by assassinations of enemy officials but rarely by garden-variety burglaries or muggings.
Today the latter two are commonplace. Burglars target any unsecured buildings, including those they have to climb up into via some daunting route. People walking alone late at night run the risk of getting mugged, something that was once unheard of.
The most hazardous time to be about is between midnight and six a.m. on a Friday or Saturday night. The bars close at twelve and their drunken contents spew out onto the street. A large pack of local louts will often attack a lone foreign fellow if they can find one, and it will never be a one-on-one encounter conducted according to Queensberry rules.
This seems to be an international standard and one I find baffling. A lone African will never bother me, even if he is much larger and fitter than I am (and that would be pretty much all of them). Two Africans will leave me alone. A group of three may become bolder, perhaps call something out, but are still unlikely to cause any real trouble. I know to avoid a drunken group of four or more.
It is important to note that this is very much a principle that only applies to the wee hours: in daylight everyone is polite. I’ve yet to have any major run-ins but that is because I am a retiring type and keep to myself, even to a fault.
These bogans also hassle unaccompanied women, and girls sneaking home late from their boyfriend’s house may be raped. Foreign women have also been targeted when trying to save on a cab fare.
Of significant concern is a recent spate of home invasions specifically targeting foreigners. Mostly this is because we are seen as the only ones around who have any money. In addition, at least two of these incidents seem to have been attempted rapes.
Gangs stake out vulnerable houses and break in between two and four a.m. They often hold a knife to the throat of the victim and demand money and valuables. So far no one has been killed or seriously injured.
Our building is on a main road but is hopelessly insecure. I had already noted how easy it would be to get into my bedroom window if I ever locked myself out. We’ve asked to put up some barbed wire on the unprotected side but as it took eight months to get my tap fixed I’m not holding my breath.
I thought about keeping a cricket bat by my bed but sports equipment is bloody expensive here. I’m keeping an eye out for a nice piece of metal or plank of wood among the rubble of this decaying city, but such materials are in high demand for other purposes and are soon picked up. I did keep a large frying pan by my bed for a while but this became inconvenient as I need it in the kitchen to cook eggs.
So I keep the window shut and locked even on warm nights. If someone breaks in I’ll hear it, wake up and engage in some good, old-fashioned fisticuffs. To be honest, some days I come home from work so pissed off that I hope some fool breaks in because I’m in a mood to crack a skull. But so far, no luck.
As an odd appendage to this story, I must add that though every family is required to have an AK-47 at home in case of re-invasion by [hated neighbouring country], these have not been used in any of the crimes described. Why not? I don’t know. Perhaps because of the abysmal quality of the Chinese ammunition they are issued.
Other, minor crimes are also increasing. Pickpockets cut open bags on crowded buses and line taxis. Bicycle theft is on the rise. There was even a car stolen, which is incredible because there are only a couple of dozen good cars in the city and I know all the owners – what on earth did they do with it once they had it?
Things get pinched at work, too. Anything valuable left in an unlocked place, even out of sight in a drawer, will go missing if we have tradesmen or other outsiders coming and going. I’m terrified of forgetting to bring home my phone or Kindle and losing it – I cannot live without these things.
So what’s causing this? What has changed?
The obvious cause is the economy, or lack thereof. But this situation is interesting. Since the second war all relations have been cut off with [hated neighbouring country], which was once the main trading partner. This has been the case for about twenty years, and the economy has been stagnant throughout this period. But the uptick in crime is more recent.
The economy has gradually worsened with each new insanity brain-farted by our venerable administration. The last one was really bad, with a third of all businesses in the country being shut down for alleged tax evasion. This effectively put a third of the country out of work. People’s belts were already tight, but this has made many desperate. For some, daring to break into a house and face whatever unpredictable dangers await inside is a tempting bet compared to daring to go without eating.
Growing poverty seems to be increasing the general rancor of the people. There is an increase in big pub brawls, though it seems that some of these are deliberately sparked by those trying to sneak out amid the chaos and avoid paying their bill. Classic!
People are probably drinking more. At least alcohol is still cheap. A lot of unemployed people perhaps have little else with which to distract themselves.
And there is another factor, one that has been creeping up for many years and appears to be reaching breaking point. The government enslaves much of the population in its open-ended national service scheme. After military training, some young people are sent to guard the borders (from escapees), some are forced onto state farms, some build roads or terrace hillsides and a luckier, more educated few end up in banks, schools or government offices. They might be there a year, or they might be there for ten years. Who knows. Wages are nominal and there is no way they can support a family while still enlisted.
In addition, even those who are released are not always allowed to get a real job until they are totally released, which means another piece of paperwork that the government feels no urgency in handing out. So a large proportion of the population, especially the young, are either enslaved or in a state of perpetual limbo.
There are three main ways out. The first is to whine incessantly. This sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Probably most often it doesn’t, but if you don’t whine you’ll stand no chance at all. Hence, there is a lot of whining.
The second, available only to women, is to get pregnant. And the third is to sneak out of the country. So a very large number of people do these two, the former acting to increase the population and the latter to reduce it. It seems that the net effect is towards reduction, with the population sinking from around six million in 1990 to perhaps two million today.
Given that many babies are born only as a means of escape, they are not necessarily raised responsibly and their parents often skip the country for economic reasons. Sometimes they send money back, sometimes they don’t. I know kids who’ve been abandoned by their parents, then abandoned by their adoptive uncles and aunties who have also fled, and are now living with their grandparents and probably hoping not to be abandoned for a third time. What this does to a young child psychologically is heartbreaking.
All this is finally starting to take its toll on the social fabric. The younger generation, whether still here or escaped abroad, are less law abiding and civil than their elders, with each successive generation seeming to become a little worse. And why should we expect anything else? To be treated with such indifference and cruelty by their betters, what possible buy-in do they have in their society? It is surprising that they are not a good sight nastier than they are. What a horrendous culture, where the old enslave the young. The only comparable case I’ve ever heard of is those Mormons who still practice polygamy and therefore try to expel most of their own boys upon maturity for mathematical reasons.
And there is a final factor that needs to be considered. As in North Korea, where those descended from soldiers on the right side of the war get special privileges in their bizarre caste system, so too do the children of fighters in this country get special treatment. Police are scared to stand up against their heroic parents, so they tend to release them without charge if they get caught stealing bikes, throwing rocks at people or other such mischief. This has the obvious result of intensifying their misbehaviour. They are still young. In future years this is going to be a much greater problem than is currently the case.
I do not know a single person, local or foreign, who is optimistic about the country’s future. Things look like stagnating or getting worse over the next decade, and after that, who knows? In any case, I’ll watch my back and make my exit when the time comes. Not for me the pointless art of telling others how they ought to run their affairs.