Bulawayo’s pickpockets – when crime becomes normal

Gugulethu’s story is both a call to action for law enforcement and a cautionary tale for anyone venturing into the haven of pickpockets – downtown Bulawayo.

Lobhengula Street – haven for pickpockets [Photo cred The Chronicle]

One lazy afternoon, I was feeling bored and decided to while away the empty hours in Bulawayo’s CBD. I was a curious schoolgirl, observing the mad rush of humanity along Lobhengula Street’s pavements where crowds of hawkers have narrowed the pavement. An angry voice called out.

Ukhangelani? Khangela laph’oyakhon s’fetshana! Uth’ubunyama lokucaka konke, hamb’ugcwalisa mehl’indawo yonke….tshitsha!

(What are u looking at? Focus on where you are going, little whore! So dark and so thin, casting your eyes all over the place. Get out of here!)

I was the unfortunate target of the abuse. I had spotted them, hard at work, as I was walking past Lion Stores – omalume (the uncles).

Pickpockets at work

I watched with keen interest as one fished a wallet and a phone from a lady who was concentrating on negotiating her way through the melee of people walking in two directions on the narrow pavement. He pulled out the wallet with his right hand and without glancing backwards, handed it
to a lady vendor who had a baby on her back, she shoved it into her baby’s wrapping towel, such that it was sandwiched between her body and the baby’s. She did all this without losing her rhythm – “Umnyi, umtshwankela ,umviyo cheap cheap makhiwa!!” – noisily advertising her wares, while simultaneously swinging sideways and backwards, with one hand tapping on the bottom of
the baby strapped to her back, as if innocently lulling her child to sleep.
The phone was handed to a guy who was leaning on a veranda pole using the left hand which went round the victim’s back as she kept on walking, unaware of the action unfolding before my eyes.
I must have momentarily forgotten that on the streets of Bulawayo, witnessing such activities was a crime for which one could pay dearly. In these parts, eyewitnesses are a threat to the pickpockets’ livelihood. A female street vendor came to my defense.
“Heheheehe! Wenzeni umntwana uzum’shawude kangaka Mabrigado? Kumb’ubusuncengisa…. lakho kungabantwana kwakhona
kuyabona stereki,a! sizam’impilo lapha omunye lomunye ubhek’okwakhe, nxa kungadojwanga esakho dlula ngendlela.

(What has the poor child done for you to abuse her like that Mabrigado? Were you maybe trying your luck? These kids nowadays have eyes all over the place. We are trying to make a living here. Each person should mind their own business, if yours has not been picked, just keep walking).
The lady was laughing and clearly enjoying the moment, yet when she turned to me, her facial expression was in itself a warning of imminent danger!
I quickened my pace, suddenly remembering that I had a presentation to make on the characters in Othello the following day in literature class. The need to prepare for that presentation was apparently the reason I had left school earlier on that day, we had Geography in the afternoon and since the school was still waiting for the education ministry to give us a teacher, Geography lesson slots were free periods in my timetable.

Police presence – not such a relief

As I overtook a pair of police officers, a male and a female, the male said to me:
Mainini,zivai kwekufambira futi muhnu ngaafambire chinhu chaatumwa. Munokuvadzwa apa. Iye mhunu angangofambe mutawundi ari relaxed kudaro? Dzinotora boys, hadzirege, ah!”

(Young lady, you should know what places to avoid in town and focus solely on your errands, otherwise you could get injured….how can people be relaxed walking in town, the boys will  definitely pick those pockets).

The female cop responded:
Kwaaniko? Tunenge tusina kombotumwa. Kungombeya netawundi munhu achitsvaga varume panekutarisana nemabhuku!”

(Oh please! She is not running an errand this one, busy roaming all over town looking for men instead of focusing on books!)

I like to think of myself as thick-skinned, but I had reached the human limit of abuse for a single afternoon. I quickly manoeuvred my way through the crowd and made for the safety of our fourth floor apartment.

Do the police care about pickpockets?

Years later, on my return to my hometown, I relieved the incident and tried to imagine one going to a Police station to report a picked pocket or verbal abuse, the attitude of those two officers made me reach the conclusion that they would not get a very positive response. The fact that, in my childhood, we knew the pickpockets as “omalume” – the uncles – illustrates how these career criminals have almost become acceptable on the downtown streets.
Come to think of it, I have never heard of police officers conducting an operation against pickpockets. Maybe it’s not a serious enough offense to merit their attention. But considering that a stolen wallet may actually contain cash meant for food, rentals, medicals bills, school, the police ought to take this crime more seriously.

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