A crash of thunder startles everyone assembled in the wet, dingy room and unconsciously they move closer to each other, seeking comfort. The sound of thunder dies and the overcrowded Central Police Station in Moshi, Tanzania, ill-prepared to accommodate any more visitors or inmates falls silent. The smell of bodies, sweat and fear mixed with anxiety and anticipation engulfs the room. Light. There is no light here. An overbearing sense of claustrophobia seeps out of the walls and into the air. People breathe into each other.
A small clatter rises somewhere near the holding area, a voice of authority rises above the muted whispers and barks out orders in Swahili.
Whispers die. The only sound is that of a heavy bolt falling in place. Someone has been admitted into the holding cell.
That someone will no more be called by his name. He will become a number.
There is very no light in this cell. I stare at her through the iron bars. She looks tired but angry. There is no remorse in her eyes. She is tired. I know she is. I am tired too, like her and Siraji and the two other porters in our small team. But why is she angry? Her smile is gone. Why does she look at me like that? Like I am a stranger? She is the only mzungu here and people are staring at her.
My name is Lucas Mtui and I have spent the last five days with her. I am not a stranger to her. I am an assistant guide of the Kilimanjaro National Park (KINAPA), but after this I am not sure if I will be, because she has taken away my name and given me a number. She says I am a thief.
But my name is Lucas and I am not a thief.
There is no space inside the cell. There are too many people but it is a lonely place. I cannot breathe. I want to sleep. I want to see my little girls in the village. They will be expecting me soon but how can I reach them, tell them I am held in a prison cell and I don’t know why?
What did I ever do to her? She says I am a thief, but what did I steal? Money, she says, three hundred dollars – but I did not. I am a good Christian man. I carried her when she was tired. That day when we left Horombo Hut and it started to rain she wanted to give up, but I didn’t let her. She shared her popcorn and Milo and eggs and asked about my daughters. Five days of assisting her on Mt Kilimanjaro and we had become friends. I was with her in her moment of great victory. She was so happy there, at the top of the mountain, tired but happy. That made me happy too. She said I was the reason she made it to the top of Uhuru Peak. I was so pleased to hear that. Yet, she put me behind bars. Does she believe that I have taken her money?
Will she come back for me? Will she leave me here to stand trial for something I did not do?
Angie, come close to the prison walls, come see what you are doing to me…
I am tired. I want to be out of this depressing place but the sub-inspector wants to speak with me. Lucas is behind bars. People have doubled in numbers and the police station is even more frightening and claustrophobic. I cannot breathe. I don’t want to be here. People look at me suspiciously and even angrily. The stale smell of alcohol, sweat, urine and grime permeates through the prison bars and wafts into the reception.
The inspector continues to shout out orders but his manner changes when he addresses me. I am a mzungu, a tourist, so I will be given the preference over everyone else here and being a woman doubles that privilege.
I am offered a chair.
Siraji is standing by my side, bursting to speak. His presence is reassuring.
The inspector clears his throat and begins politely.
“Madam, are you sure it was that man?”
“Now, you tell me everything.” He settles back into his chair and listens closely.
I begin my story, leaving nothing out. As I say it, I am losing conviction in the story and in myself.
“You see, Lucas had my bag all the time. But when he returned it to me this morning at Marangu Gate, the lock was broken. I looked for the money and it was gone.”
“You don’t suspect anyone else? Not this man? Why?”
“Oh no, Siraji was with me all the time. He is my guide and he suggested we should report this theft. No, I don’t think he had the chance.”
Is the officer trying to tell me something? Does Lucas deserve the benefit of doubt?
“Only he had the opportunity. The lock is broken. It wasn’t when we started. And the money is gone too.”
I am repeating this more to myself, than to him. I am less sure now.
Is it really Lucas? It could have been anyone – Siraji or the two porters whose names I don’t remember. Siraji? But no. He is my guide. He at once suspected Lucas but not the porters. There must something in that? It has to be Lucas.
And Lucas was in charge of my bag since the beginning of our climb.
It has to be Lucas.
The inspector looks convinced with my logic. He looks at Siraji suspiciously, then smiles meaningfully at me and comes to a conclusion.
“You take that man’s bag with you and look inside it thoroughly. You might even find your money there. You can come back later and we will make the case.”
That is all there is to it. I can return to my hotel and search Lucas’s backpack in leisure. I am tired. I want to sleep. The sense of triumph of having scaled Africa’s highest peak has evaporated, leaving only a sense of loss and betrayal. I now have the task of proving Lucas a thief.
Why did Lucas do this to me? I can live with the loss of three hundred dollars, but the timing is all wrong. I cannot taste victory because of his betrayal.
Victory and betrayal – can they coexist?
Siraji carries Lucas’s wet backpack easily. We decide to walk back to the hotel. It is still raining. Unseasonal rains, Siraji says. “It does not rain so much in March. This year is different.”
The street is noisy and water ponds are everywhere. The last five days of climbing have been hard, although fruitful, but I do not feel anything. I am tired and I want to sleep.
“We will make him admit his crime,” Siraji assures me. “You take your time and look in his bag. He did not have the opportunity to move the money, so it will be inside.”
When we reach the hotel it is still raining. In the eerie lobby of Hotel Kindoroko decorated with fake animal heads, I am received ceremoniously for having scaled Mt Kilimanjaro. Siraji animatedly explains what followed and their expressions quickly change to sympathy. I wish Siraji would stop. I tell him the loss of money is not life-altering but he is unstoppable.
What I don’t know is that to the Tanzanians, this is a matter of honour. Jenna, the receptionist, pats my back for reporting Lucas, a mere porter who gives them decent folks a bad name.
Thus Lucas becomes a thief without standing trial.
Siraji drops the suspect backpack on the floor in my room and says in tones of finality.
“You can keep it as long as you want. We can even go to the station tomorrow if you are tired today. Now you sleep.”
It is comforting to know I can have custody of it till Lucas admits to the crime. In Tanzania, when a mzungu files a complaint, action is quick and often partial.
Siraji’s departure creates a huge vacuum. I feel alone and suddenly I don’t I want to cry. I wish the rains would go away and the sun would come up. I wish I was on Uhuru Peak with Siraji and Lucas at my side. I wish for sleep to engulf me. I am tired. The rains symbolize betrayal. My faith -bubble has popped. Will I ever be able to think of summitting Mt Kilimanjaro without thinking of Lucas?
Lucas definitely had the opportunity, but did he have the motive? He was a porter – a mere nobody, but did that make him a thief? I am not sure. I want to forget it all.
I want coffee…sun…and…
I fall into a dreamless sleep. When I wake up I am more coherent.
What is that backpack doing there?
Then it comes back to me in a rush. Lucas. Jail. Police station. Money.
How long has it been lying there? I look at my watch. I have slept for three hours. It is nearly four p.m.
I ring for coffee and begin my inspection of the backpack. I hate doing this, but it must be done. Will I find the money? Do I care really about finding the money? No. But I am curious now. I throw the contents on the floor. The backpack, once blue is damp and threadbare. Lucas will need a new one if he has to continue his job.
Everything a climber needs is in there although damp and tattered, damp because on our way back we had run into rain showers and Lucas did not have a rain cover. All the layers of fleece and wool required at the altitude of 5895m AMSL was damp. So were the gloves, socks and underwear. Half empty jars of jam and sauces and sachets of milk powder was at the bottom. I remember giving it to him, along with dates and dry fruits I’d brought along for the climb – for his daughters. I had meant to follow this up with a generous tip, but fate had intervened.
There is no sign of money. But in one of the pockets I find a Swiss Army knife.
My Swiss Army knife.
So it is Lucas after all. He pinched my Victorinox Swiss Army knife and the money. I sit there dumbstruck. So, I have embraced a thief.
Lucas – you, with the kindest eyes that always smiled, why? Was it all a façade?
“I cannot go on,” I had l told Lucas when we had left Horombo Hut at 3800mAMSL. “I want to sleep. I am tired. I don’t think I can go on.”
“Ah ah ah, but you will make it, sure. Only two more days and you can be proud. You are doing very good. I can carry you too, I am strong.”
Later at Gilman’s Point, I had said the same thing. “Lucas, I am going back. I am tired and I want to sleep,” and Lucas had, through layers of fleece, thermals and wool had flexed a mock muscle and said he would carry me on his back to the top if need be. It was he who took the last picture of Siraji holding me before my camera died. It was Lucas who has guided my numb hands towards the board barely visible through the blizzard at the top of Africa. I had touched the peak of Uhuru through his gloved hands.
“I told you, you will do it,” he had said when we trudged back downhill in silence. He had faith in me. He danced with me in the snow at Kibo Hut, where the ranger had joined in, after first chiding me that I was the reason for unseasonal snow. We had stood united in the face of extremities.
And yet he had stolen from me.
I play with the knife absently. Everything feels unfamiliar -the hotel, my bed, my emotions and even this knife. My outlook of Tanzania has changed. It feels friendless and forlorn. Tanzania is a poor country and poverty in turn led Lucas to theft and thereby betrayal of trust. I dislike Tanzania. I want to leave. I no more feel compassionate towards people I have met here, even Jenna or Siraji.
To find my knife in Lucas’s backpack drives home the point of betrayal.
That word. Betrayal. It keeps playing on my mind.
The knife in my hand doesn’t feel familiar. I had been so proud of it and carried it everywhere now I can’t recognize it. Is it really my knife? I am no expert at handling Swiss knives, but this knife feels different. It has the tweezers, yes, the toothpick, the bottle opener and the blade – but it also has scissors and a corkscrew. Did my knife have all these?
I can’t be sure of that.
But I am sure that finding this knife nails Lucas to the crime and absolves Siraji. If Lucas had the opportunity to steal my knife, money was a bonus.
I will prove to the inspector how wrong he was to suspect Siraji, because he was trying to plant suspicion in my mind. I am sure of that. Did the inspector really care who stole the money? Was he perhaps just doing his job of suspecting everyone? How can I forget that Siraji was the one to suggest filing a complaint against Lucas?
I would never have had the courage to walk into a police station in an unknown country and charge a local of theft. It had been very honorable of Siraji to stand by me. He was a good guide and briefly we had even become lovers. Had the inspector suspected?
I throw the knife on the floor. “A thief. A petty, petty thief.”
It is cold but I need a shower. I want to wash off the fatigue. Siraji will arrive any time now. I hope he has had some rest too. We must return Lucas’s backpack to sub-inspector and formally charge him. I dread the thought but it must be done. I am glad Siraji will support me through this.
Can I make my charges stick despite not finding the money? Yes, I can. I am after all mzungu and it is my word against his. I am the aggrieved party. The authorities are free to deal with Lucas in any way they want or trace where the money went – I don’t want it. Or the knife.
Lucas will certainly lose his KINAPA license. Serves him right.
The warm shower does little to wash off Tanzania’s betrayal.
It is time to get dressed. I look for a pair of pants in my backpack. It is the only pair I have and I must be careful not to get mud on it. The streets will be muddy and there is an added risk of being splashed by passing cars and daladalas. I must be careful.
I wish the damned rains would stop.
I find my pants easily. As I dig them out, my fingers brush against something hard and cylindrical. I feel it carefully. Stick of lip balm? Lipstick? No. This is too big. A torch? Too small. Pants forgotten, I pull the hard, cylindrical object out of the backpack and gasp.
It is my red Victorinox Swiss Army knife – one without the scissors and the corkscrew.
It is still raining when we arrive at the police station. It looks sinister and unforgiving. The last few hours have changed its appearance. The smell of human bodies is stronger now. The faceless sea of black people whisper animatedly to each other, the frustrated few try to jump the line while others try to grab the attention of anyone in a uniform who would care to listen. What are they doing here? Can’t they just go home?
The faceless sea of black people seeking justice parts automatically to let me pass.
“Mzungu,” I hear them say in disgust. The rest of the words are alien to me but I am sure they don’t mean well. I don’t care anymore.
I am well within my right to walk straight up to the officer in charge. I am entitled to mzungu rights bestowed on me by the very country that betrayed me. Siraji is close on my heels. He is not happy with my decision but is gracious enough to say nothing.
The same officer is on duty. He is smiling. He offers me a chair.
From where I sit, I can see the cell where Lucas is. Can he see me too?
I suffer bleakness in the cell. I am afraid. I want to see the colour of my children’s dreams. I want the warmth of home. Oh, she is back. Angie is back. I can see her now. She doesn’t look angry anymore. What is she saying to the inspector? She looks determined. I have never seen her like that. I want to go home. I am tired. I am hungry. I want to see my family. I have no money to pay bribes. Who will bail me out of here? Who will help me?
“Jambo. How are you?”
“Hello Inspector. Please let him go. Let Lucas go. I am not pressing any charges.”
“Did you find the money?” he presses on cheerfully, although his smile doesn’t reach his eyes. They are hard, tired and suspicious and yet he is smiling. Siraji shifts uncomfortably behind me but says nothing. The inspector addresses him sharply. I don’t wish to know what he is saying. Siraji continues to remain silent. I cannot see his face but I sense his growing discomfort.
“Sure?” He is addressing me again.
“Yes. No, I didn’t find the money but that is alright. Let him go. He must be tired and hungry.”
“You are a mzungu. Our guest,” he begins half-heartedly but there is relief in his voice. Lucas’s release would mean one less case to deal with. “You spend a lot of money to come to my country. We will make him admit it, if you wish.”
“Admit? Admit to what? It doesn’t make sense, does it? But I really do not want the money. Let him go.”
How do I tell him that a red Swiss army knife at the bottom of my backpack proves Lucas’s innocence? My admitting this will implicate Siraji and I want this unfortunate business to end. Now.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Let him go. Where must I sign?”
“There is no need. Do you want to see him?”
She is walking towards me. I see her clearly now. She is not smiling. Why is she not smiling? What will happen to me now? The inspector is pulling out a key. Has she come for me? Oh god, I hope she has come for me. Maybe I can go home now. But why is she looking serious? What has Siraji told her about me? But I have done nothing wrong. I want to go home.
Black faces appear behind the bars, all similar in appearance and expressions. The smell of urine is strong. It is hot here, so why am I shivering? Oh dear God, this place stinks. Something is very wrong here – what is it, the atmosphere? Yes, the atmosphere is all wrong. It is eerie. It is as though fear, desperation and evil have precipitated into a shroud that is covering all of us. Air. I need air. And light. I am scared.
And just like that, he appears. Like a ghost out of the darkness, but separated by thick bars which he is gripping tightly. And he is smiling. Why is he smiling? I see his bleached white teeth and shockingly pink gums before I see his eyes.
In them is hope. And forgiveness.
Angie, how can I ever hate you? You are after all my accuser and my savior. But who betrayed whom? I knew you would come. I now have a name. My name is Lucas Mtui and I am not a thief.