Robbed in Dar

Words by Simeon Gready - November 2014

You always look back on an incident in which you were robbed with a sense of ‘if only.’ If only we’d done this differently; if only we’d seen the signs; if only we were late, or early; or, in this case, if only we’d chosen a different bloody taxi.

I’ve had plenty of time to mull over that fateful night in Dar es Salaam. Trapped in the back of a taxi down some dark dusty side road, Benny chucked onto my lap in the middle of the backseat and Adi squeezed into the corner on my left, four other men in the car, their faces in our faces, shouting, swearing, screaming in Swahili, hands rummaging, quickly, panicked, through our bags, groping at our pockets, the humid air smelling of musty sweat and the claustrophobic desperation needing, praying, to get outside of those four doors. I’ve had plenty of time to think ‘if only…’

If only we weren’t exhausted, hungry and not of sane and logic mind after our train journey…

Now, there’s not much we could have done about our state. We had just stumbled off the TAZARA train, completing an epic but uncompromising 25-hour journey from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. It was about 10pm at night, and we hadn’t slept properly, if at all, we hadn’t eaten properly, if at all, and our ability to think clearly and with reason was not at its peak. Understandably, I think.

If only we’d gone with the guy who offered us a taxi as soon as we stepped off the train...

So far on our trip, coming up from Cape Town via public transport, taxis were the one guarantee in our lives. They are everywhere, and, especially if you’re coming off a bus or a train, the taxi drivers would eye out white tourists and pounce like a predator tracking its prey, no consideration for space and an almost forceful air of expectation. Given this reasoning, we knew there’d be a hundred more offers for taxis outside the train station. So, to this guy, who ran up to me as soon as I stepped onto the station platform, we said “thanks but no thanks” and chose to find a taxi in the station parking lot. Thing is, even if we had taken this guy’s offer of a taxi, there is no way of knowing if he was running a legitimate service in any case.

If only there were more tourists on the train that could have taken the taxi that we ended up taking instead of us…

This might be a slightly selfish wish. Actually, it’s definitely a selfish wish. The honest truth is that the guys that robbed us were clearly targeting tourists, perhaps even targeting the TAZARA because they knew the journey was so long and so arduous that the victim would be powerless to stop or avoid the operation. If there were other tourists that walked out into the station parking lot before us, maybe they would have taken the bad taxi instead of us and we’d have avoided the whole situation altogether. I told you it was a selfish wish. Again, though, there is no way of telling how many little operations were running – hell, maybe there was an unspoken agreement between all the taxi drivers to target the tourists such that we would have been robbed no matter which taxi we caught.

If only we’d done our research…

This is a difficult one. In an ideal world, you can research the city you are going to and you can pore over maps to see where you need to go when you arrive there and how much you should expect to pay to get wherever you need to go. For us, though, I feel that this was slightly unrealistic: we travelled through many cities and towns, information was never fully up to date, maps always look completely different to the real thing, especially at night, and we were travelling through so many countries at such a pace that it became hugely difficult to adapt to a new currency and figure out its worth every few days. As such, and given the fact that Dar es Salaam is a big place, we only knew the name of the hostel where we planned to stay: we didn’t know how to get there from the train station and we didn’t know how much we should be paying to get there. We’d only heard that it was ‘relatively close.’

If only we hadn’t haggled down to an obviously ridiculous price…

So, here’s what happened: we walked out the train station, and were immediately and predictably hounded by calls of ‘taxi, taxi,’ ‘where are you going,’ etc. We picked out a guy to the left, and told him the name of the hostel. He immediately quoted us 25,000 Tanzanian Shillings (TS – about R160 or $14), which we thought was over the top. We haggled a bit, before another guy, much younger and stockier, popped his head in and said “I’ll take you for TS15,000 (about R90 or $8).” The original guy said “no, no, this guy is not a real taxi driver, I’ll take you for TS20,000.” We thought this ‘not a real taxi driver’ line was a trick to make us go with the original guy, so we stubbornly refused him and started following the younger guy who’d offered us TS15,000.

If only we’d seen the signs!

Firstly, we should have listened to the ‘he’s not a real taxi driver’ line. Secondly, as we were walking to the taxi, our new taxi driver, the younger, stockier guy, didn’t seem to know where he was going. He walked into the parking lot, stopped, looked around a bit, obviously confused, before seeming to realise where he needed to go. That should have started the alarm bells. Then, on his way to the taxi, with us shuffling behind, another man walked across him and appeared to give him something. That definitely should have started the alarm bells. The taxi was an old, dirty model (in our defence, it had the official blue state line and taxi sign that signifies a legitimate taxi), and the one backdoor didn’t open. We got in, and the ‘taxi driver’ couldn’t find his way out of the parking lot. Thinking back, I have no idea why the alarm bells weren’t ringing by this point. We drove for a bit, my attempts at conversation falling flat because of his inability/refusal to speak English, before turning down a dark road with no street lights. At this point, he said “we’re just taking a quick short cut.” Doh. Benny, in the front seat, suddenly clicked, saying “oh no need, no need,” but by this point it was too late. The taxi stopped, other cars appeared out of thin air, and suddenly men surrounded the car.

The process of getting robbed can often pass in quite a blur. There was lots of angry shouting and swearing, though the men first informed us that they are the ‘Tanzanian Mafia,’ and that they didn’t want to hurt us. They forcibly ripped our bags open – phones, cameras, ipods, cash, watches, all taken, along with bankcards to which they demanded PIN codes. The taxi driver, still silent in the front, drove around a bit while it was happening, all down dark alleyways and side roads. After what seemed like a good ten or twenty minutes (it was probably less) in which they interrogated us and demanded more despite our remonstrations that they had already taken everything, they let us out and opened the boot so we could get our big backpacks.

Despite the incident, we were lucky in many respects. Our lives were never really in danger, and they had no weapons of any sort. They were looking for things that they could sell for a quick gain – they left our passports and other important documentation that would have really left us in a rut. They managed to miss Benny’s main camera bag, thankfully, with all his expensive Canon’s, my MacBook and his iPad. We weren’t hurt in any way, apart from our pride.

After they’d let us out, while warning us not to tell anyone, and sped off, we faced the problem of not knowing where the hell in Dar es Salaam we were and having to catch (and trust) another taxi to finally get to a hostel. In fairness, we thought that if the same thing happened again with another taxi, we could just happily inform them that we’d already been robbed that night and that we had nothing left.

Thankfully, we managed to find an honest taxi driver who took us past an ATM so we could draw more money with our spare bankcards (I’d given them a fake PIN for my original) and took us to a hotel. We saw the police the next morning, who took our claims seriously but weren’t really of all that much help.

The only thing I knew was that I was very keen to move on, very quickly, from Dar es Salaam. Benny and Adi went on to Zanzibar, while I choose to keep moving North, first to Moshi, in Northern Tanzania, before heading up to Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and finally Egypt, all via public transport. The robbery was a speed bump, for sure, but luckily ended up being nothing more that. This was an anecdote to tell as part of a bigger story about a trip through a heaving, beautiful, and desperate continent, and there were more anecdotes to come.