Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Robbery – Your Ticket to Nowhere

Yesterday had to be one of the most dramatic afternoons in my life thus far. The day started out like any other Thursday. I went to work at my community-based organization in the morning and came home around 1 pm for a lunch break. When I was preparing to leave to teach my English class at 2 pm, two teenage boys showed up to ask if they could borrow my guitar. A few weeks ago, one of my favorite students, a well-mannered 13-year-old boy named Shelton introduced me to his 15-year-old cousin named Alberto. Shelton has been coming to my house for months to practice his impressive English, to borrow my soccer balls, and to use a typing program I have on my laptop. So when his cousin Alberto asked to play my guitar on my porch a few weeks ago, I decided to let him sit outside my porch on a straw mat and play for a few minutes after he promised to be very careful. Since then Alberto has returned to my house a few times with different friends to ask to play my guitar, but always at inconvenient times. Alberto was polite, seemingly shy, and when I told him I was on my way out the door to go to the school, we decided he could come back over the weekend.

At 2 pm, I went two doors down to the high school and enjoyed working with two star high school students who always have a million questions about English song lyrics. I kicked those boys out of our “Youth Room” at 3 pm because our young women’s club meeting was scheduled to start. It was our first official meeting of the year and we had many new participants show up. We had just begun singing our first song about why it was important for the young women to stay in school when one of my star students interrupted. I asked him to return after our meeting to talk, but he said it was a grave matter – someone had stolen our computers and Abby and star student #2 were chasing the robber down. This news shook me up, but I went back to leading my young women’s group. I figured Abby would call if she needed me, but what was done was done, although I probably should have sprinted to my house directly.

About 10 minutes later, Abby called and confirmed that our house had been broken into and a young man had stolen our computers and torn up our house. Abby asked me to come quickly because she had no idea what to do; there was a hysterical lady crying in our living room beating a high school student who was apparently responsible for the crime while half the neighborhood had entered into our fence and were peering in through the windows. I dismissed the meeting immediately, almost as upset about having to leave the girls as I was about the robbery.

I came home to a nightmare of a scene, just as Abby had explained. I ran to my room and saw that a phone and I-pod were also missing from my room. That was distressing, but not nearly as much so as the 30 year-old woman sitting in our floor in the living room sobbing about the senselessness of the robbery. She was lamenting, “For what? I feed him everyday. He has a loving family. He has the opportunity to go to the school. Why would he rob? How could he do this to his family?”

Abby gave me a run-down of what had happened at that point. She came home after being gone less than an hour in the market. She unlocked the gate to our fence, unlocked the metal grated front door, the other front door, only to find that our back door was busted into and everything was in disarray. She immediately noticed the stolen computers and ran outside where she saw them sitting in a computer bag on top of our 6-foot fence. Just as she spotted them, a hand reached over and grabbed them so she sprinted out the front gate, eyed the teen with our computers in his hand, and started screaming, “We’ve been robbed!” The teen started running, but Abby chased after him. Enter our two star students who were leaving English class I had been teaching. They saw Abby running and were in disbelief because they exclaimed to us that they had never seen Abby run like that! So they came to help, recognized the teen, who by then had gotten scared and dropped our computers on the sandy road to escape. But not before, Amerigo, star student #1, had recognized this delinquent.
Abby recovered the computers and then Americo took Abby to the robber’s house, but he was not there. Americo then took Abby to find the guy’s sister, a very nice lady named Angelica who was distraught when she learned what had happened. Angelica went to find her brother, the alleged robber, and brought him to our house where she started throwing our furniture at him and yelling that she might have done a lot of bad things in her life, but never would she steal. When the teen continued to claim his innocence and would not give the rest of our things back, Abby told Angelica she was sorry, but she had to call the police. Angelica not only approved, but also said of course you have to call because he needs to be punished. We will all go to the police together.

I got home right before the police showed up. What was the most traumatic thing was how the police handled the situation! The first thing they did when they got there was yell at the teen and backhand him, push him onto the wall, and handcuff him! This was an Earth-to-Gracey moment because until that point, I had not realized that Alberto, my guitar-playing friend, was the one responsible for the crime! I had not pinpointed in the crowded room who was the perpetrator, and only thought he was there to be supportive—an innocent, unassuming 8th grader who is only 15 years old! Boy, did I have it wrong!

Then began the public humiliation where we started the parade to the police station. When people get arrested, they are not inconspicuously escorted in the back of a police car to the station. Instead, the suspect walks handcuffed in the front with police pushing him along with big guns (AK47s) while the victims follow behind with ever-growing crowds of onlookers. On the walk up, Alberto looks back at me—tears streaming down his face, blood dripping from his lip from his sister’s beating—pleading, “Mana Gra├ža, nao fui eu.” It wasn’t me, using my name with a title of respect attached to it. The nerve.

In the bare police station, the female police officer told Alberto he better confess. The junior police officers made sure Alberto was low down on his knees while we sat with Angelica, his sister, and our two star students on a bench facing him. He continued to deny he was the culprit, and said that some man just gave him a bag and told him to run with it although he did not know what was in it. (Liar)! The police officers, our loyal students, and his sister had little patience with this game and they all told him if he did not confess where he hid all of our stolen belongings, he would be beaten by a crowbar-looking thing. Afterwards, Abby and I discussed how the hardest thing about the whole situation was watching all this violence, which is actually what it took to get the truth out of him. Village justice at work.

The police led him back down to the high school with his sister where he had hidden the rest of our belongings in a baggie in a field by the school. Meanwhile, Abby, our students, and I were asked if we wanted to open a lawsuit and to evaluate the worth of our stolen goods. We said no to the lawsuit and that we just wanted our things back. And they did come, about 45 minutes later, he re-emerged having made his third walk of shame that afternoon handcuffed in his school uniform! Abby and I spotted his sister walking next to him with a whole plastic bag full of our things (besides our I-pods and telephones, he had grabbed various speakers, and even items like my face wash and my make-up). To add to his embarrassment, the police looped a half-empty bottle of whiskey he had stolen from our freezer through his handcuffs. Message: say no to the bottle, kids!

After about 3 hours of this ordeal, we had miraculously recovered all our stuff and went home just after dark accompanied by our star students who walked us to the door. By that point, Alberto’s whole family had come up to the police station and were apologizing for his behavior, wondering out loud why their teen would do that to a neighbor especially when all his basic needs were met and when he had the opportunity to go to school. Apparently, Alberto had been skipping school to drink and getting into trouble at home recently. The bad decision that he made yesterday not only had immediate negative consequences such as public humiliation and being physically beaten, but will really make his future tough. There are no second chances in this culture for robbers who are caught; the school director came to the police station and expelled the boy from school. He has been living in the city with his older sister and extended family, but is now going to be sent back to the bush where he will work to help his mom. Although Abby had signed a declaration saying that we did not want the police to hold him any longer or put him in jail, as we were leaving the police said that wanted to hold him overnight. Americo and his friend told us that it was a form of corruption because the police wanted the family to pay money before getting Alberto out so they would get something out of it. From start to finish, it was just all one big mess!

Whereas Alberto’s decision to rob for some quick money, effectively bought him a ticket to nowhere, our star students were another story. They acted like heroes to us all day by walking us through the unfamiliar (and harsh) legal processes here. Moreover, while we were waiting at the police station they told Abby and I that this is exactly why they take school seriously, participate in extracurricular groups in the school, and stay away from too much alcohol. As they were explaining how often the corrupt behaviors the police were employing take place, they also talked about the ludicrousness of it. How are the police officers going to beat someone for robbing, but then turn around and rob the family of that robber to earn money, they asked. The outstanding students have a theatre group and they write plays that speak out about these injustices.

Although being robbed is awful, most of the community really came through for Abby and me big-time, which is reassuring. The adolescent’s sister, Angelica, came to check on us this morning to make sure we are doing okay, saying, “After something like this, we are family.” In spite of the awful situation, we were so lucky not only to get all of our things back, but also to have such strong community support and genuine concern. That day, the community made an example out of Alberto about how in the end it does not pay to rob, and how school, hard work, and honesty are the things that will take you far in life.

2 comments:

ghost world said...

Hey Grace! My name is Goran Johansen, i am a norwegian architect. I was a part of the group of architects who built the schoolhouse in Chimundo, for the Sisterhood. We had some contact with the sisterhood afterwards, but lost it, because there where some changes and so on, and now we would like to go back and re-connect to follow up the building-situation. I understand you where there for the bulding of a washroom/toilet-facility? Do you have any contacts down there, still? i would really like to get in contact with you. please write back on my email-adress: g.johansen@gmail.com
regards Goran

ghost world said...

Hey Grace! My name is Goran Johansen, i am a norwegian architect. I was a part of the group of architects who built the schoolhouse in Chimundo, for the Sisterhood. We had some contact with the sisterhood afterwards, but lost it, because there where some changes and so on, and now we would like to go back and re-connect to follow up the building-situation. I understand you where there for the bulding of a washroom/toilet-facility? Do you have any contacts down there, still? i would really like to get in contact with you. please write back on my email-adress: g.johansen@gmail.com
regards Goran