Stealing, Falling, Running

Part I: Stealing

Rwandans love the radio. They listen to it loudly and they listen to it often. Many people who write about the 1994 genocide note the influential role the radio played in fomenting violence. Currently, the radio has a more benign, mundane but not less omnipresent role.

Some kids apparently loved my radio a lot because, like characters in an old-timey comic, they stole it off my windowsill like a cooling pie. For the record, I know it was foolish to put the radio so near an open window and then leave the house but I guess I thought living on a parish compound would deter nosy kids. I was wrong…
I cursed myself when I realized that the radio had been stolen. It had been sent to me in a care package by my mom so I was really disappointed to have lost this gift from her. I told some neighbors about the theft and then resigned myself to it being lost.

Almost a week later, two laborers came to my house. They had seen some kid hiding a radio in a banana field and, noting that it was not your standard Rwandan radio, they thought it must be the one they had heard about being stolen from the muzungu.

That evening, the security chief for the umudugudu (village) showed up, radio in hand. I was immediately put off by his behavior because he was shuffling his feet and looking away, playing idly with the zipper on his jacket and the brim of his hat. These are all common behaviors to show stress and unease that I’ve observed in Rwandans when they are entering into an interaction which can be confrontational or conflictive. I expected him to be free-and-easy, and even happy since the radio had been found. What was there to confront me about?

He handed the radio to me and told me to look at it to make sure it was OK. I did so and thanked him repeatedly. He, again, shuffled his feet and looked away, angling his body to be perpendicular to mine, facing another direction. “But, there is a problem …”

I called a friend over to translate and they had a heated discussion. The security chief told the whole story and then asked for “something” in return for his role in returning the radio. “Can I talk to the security chief about this?” my friend asked curtly. “But, I’m the security chief!” the man answered, sounding surprised. “Yes, you said you were but I thought it was part of the job of the security chief to return stolen items. Isn’t that right? So, I thought if you were the security chief you couldn’t be asking for a reward.”

The aggrieved security chief retold the tale of the recovery of the radio and asked again for “something.” “Well, said my friend, “let’s just talk to the district security chief [the next level up in the densely stacked Rwandan bureaucracy] and ask them what is the standard compensation in these sorts of situations.” The security chief backed down somewhat at this threat of involving higher authorities but the back and forth continued.

After a minute more my friend turned to me, “Mutoni, does your radio work?” I said that it did. “Then have a good evening, we’re going to leave now.” And, brusquely, he ushered the men out the door.

This incident of minor corruption was mildly unpleasant, of course, but the first corruption of any kind that I’ve encountered in Rwanda. The government is very adamant here about opposing and preventing corruption at every level. But, when people live in poverty corruption becomes very attractive so it’s hard totally eradicate it.

Anyway, the radio came back and no bribe was paid so all’s well that ends well. I can once more listen to auto-tuned, cheesey Rwandan pop and BBC news broadcasts in the comfort of my own home from my own solar-powered radio.


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