We were supposed to be on a sand dune somewhere in Namibia… but coronavirus. So instead we headed to our place by the lake. As far as back up plans go, we really can’t complain – but there are meals to cook, things to fix, people to visit and relationships to work on. Our place lies halfway from the village along a few km beach stretch of beach that then turns into rocky coastline as far as the eye can see. Further along the beach towards the rocks, there are a number of properties owned by people from out of town who visit every now and then. For most of the year, they are home to the caretakers and their families. Past the rocks and the hills behind, there are small fishing villages, farms and multiple spots to cut trees for firewood so there are often people passing by on their way to and fro.
Small groups of kids will sometimes walk past – off to fish, or with a pack of dogs to go and hunt or chase monkeys away from farms. Every now and then a brazen group will come and sit on the beach in front of our place just to watch the show. For the most part they’re lovely kids but sitting in front of someone’s house watching them go about their business is not really the done thing here – I don’t like it and their parents wouldn’t either so I ask them to move on. With all the traffic, we try to make a point of not leaving things on the beach – towels, t-shirts, thongs and anything small enough to grab and stuff inside a shirt is just too tempting. But on Thursday, Jack forgot and left his mask (goggles) lying on the shore.
Jack doesn’t have a great reputation for keeping track of his things – I’ve lost count of the number of swimming shirts he has misplaced and we rarely leave somewhere without finding out later he has left something behind. So days went by and none of us had even noticed that the mask had grown legs and walked off. We’d been out on Friday – exploring a local waterfall and then Saturday had been too cold and windy to swim. On Saturday night I received a phone call from our guard and he launched into a story about the missing mask. It was only after I got off the phone, checked the swimming bag and sent Jack off on a search that I realised which one he was even talking about!
Our guard had left a few days before to stay with his family in the city while we were around to take care of the place. It seems he has others on the lookout for him even when he’s not there. The story he told me was that the brother in law of the guy who owns the place two spots down and is staying there at the moment saw the child of one of the other guards take the mask and carry it back along the beach towards the rocks. The brother in law was a bit confused at first about exactly which kid but he rang our guard to tell him what happened. They talked and thought that it must be the child of the guard from the house two spots from the far end (our guard’s cousin) but after our guard rang and spoke to him, he chatted to his kids and they said that no, it wasn’t them, it was “Campbell” – the son of the guard at the house nearest the rocks.
Our guard went on to say that on Friday he had spoken to Campbell’s dad to ask him whether he knew about what had happened. Campbell’s dad said that yes, his child had taken the mask and that he was keeping it safe and planned to give it back. On Saturday, our guard sent his friend down to visit Campbell’s dad and ask for the mask back but when he arrived, Campbell’s dad said that when he went to look for it, his son told him that he’d already sold it.
From there our guard went on to say that after hearing that Campbell’s dad wouldn’t / couldn’t give it back – he spoke to both the police chief and the equivalent of the town mayor to tell them about the stolen mask. He said that the police chief didn’t believe for a second that the child had sold the mask and thought the dad was in on it. Further investigations with unnamed people revealed that one of the parents had indeed sold the mask to a brother in law.
Our guard was very upset. He said it was shameful that they had stolen from us. He said he knew for sure who had taken it and he really didn’t want them to get away with it. He reminded me of all the things that had gone missing over the years (very few really considering we’re not overly careful) and really sounded like this time he’d had enough. Without saying as much, he was inviting me to join in the fight against the injustice of it all and do some investigating of my own. I was really quite pleased that he trusted me enough to follow it up – these sort of things are not usually our (the outsiders’) strong suit.
The call about the missing mask had come in about 730pm… I spent the next 4 hours or so trying to work out the best plan. I had about half a dozen approaches I was tossing up – trying to balance maintaining relationships, getting my stuff back, setting an example, being respectful, not being walked all over, working with the way things are done in this culture, not giving up on all my ideals and feelings, working with local authorities. Some of the options I tossed up were…
- go straight to the police / mayor and have them investigate things… I figured my chances of getting anything back that way were slim to none
- storm down the beach and demand they give my stuff back… again, slim to none, anger rarely helps here
- throw my weight around and threaten to involve Campbell’s dad’s boss (a good friend of ours) and put his job on the line
- perform an undercover sting – go in and pretend I don’t speak Ciyawo, question them in Portuguese and then catch them out when they start talking about it
- both Cam and I go together… intimidate them into giving it back?
- go to talk to the witnesses and take them too…
- take a gift in a scarf, hoping that they’d either put the mask in the scarf and hand it back (if they had it there) or that I could “forget” my scarf so that they could bring it back later without having the shame of having to admit that they’d done something wrong.
That was just a sample of the approaches that ran through my head. Cam prayed before we went to bed – that God would direct us toward the best approach. That didn’t stop me lying in bed playing out various scenarios in my mind and wondering how one even initiates local court proceedings with the chief. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep and woke early the next morning with a plan.
I dressed, put on my capulana, measured out four cups of rice into a plastic bag and then wrapped it in a head scarf and set off a bit after 6am to visit Campbell’s parents. I walked down the beach carrying the package on my head. As I approached the house at the far end of the beach, I saw a lady disappear around the corner. Three small children sat on the verandah, about to start a meal of ugadi and beans. I called out, asking permission to enter and the kids responded. As I walked on to the verandah, Campbell’s mum returned from around the corner and welcomed me. She looked a little unsure… often people are if they don’t know we can speak a bit of Ciyawo. I asked her if I could sit, she said yes and we sat on either side of the picnic table – both of us facing towards the end. Conversations always work best here when you’re sitting “side by side.”
She greeted me, I responded. I handed her the gift which she took inside, emptied into a container and came back out with my plastic bag and scarf. I asked where Baba (Campbell’s dad) was. She said that he had gone into the village to take his mother to the hospital. I asked what was wrong with her. She said malaria. I asked how the children were, she replied that they were all fine. I asked her how many months pregnant she was. She thought 9, maybe 10. As we sat chatting, Campbell also came to sit and listen to our conversation. After sitting quietly for a short time, I said…
“Mama, I have a problem. I didn’t sleep well last night. I laid down in bed but I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there thinking, what am I going to do? You see I’ve lost something of mine. I looked for it everywhere but I can’t find it. So I’m feeling very sad. I know what happened to my thing. I left it by the side of the lake and a child was walking past and saw it and picked it up and took it home to keep. They were just playing. But lots of people saw what happened. I wondered if perhaps I should go and talk to the police about it. I was thinking seeing as today is Sunday, I would wait and go tomorrow. But I don’t want to go to the police. So Mama, can you please tell baba that I have lost my thing. Tell him that if he can search for it and is able to find it and bring it back either today, then I will just leave it.”
She replied saying, “So if we were able to find this thing and bring it back then it would be done?”
“Yes,” I said.
She asked again, “So if we did find it, we could bring it back today? Or tomorrow morning?”
“Yes,” I said.
She said to me, “Mama, children are like chickens. They just walk around like this, (motioning back and forward with her hand), and if they see something, they pick it up.
I agreed saying, “It’s true Mama, they are like chickens. They just wander around, pecking, pecking, pecking and if they see something they pick it up as if they’ve found gold. But they’re just playing.”
She agreed, “Yes, they’re just playing.”
I said to her, “But Mama, that thing that they do can cause big problems for their parents.”
“Yes,” she replied.
After sitting for a short while, I told her that I was going to go now. Her youngest child had by this point made her way to sit on her mum’s lap so she picked her up to carry to accompany me on part of my journey back along the beach. After just a very short way, I told her that that was far enough – 10 months pregnant, carrying a toddler and walking on the beach can’t be fun.
I walked away pretty happy. I thought I had communicated well – as in spoken clearly with enough of the correct grammar and words to be understood. But I thought I had communicated well too in terms of all the other bits of communication that are so important. I felt like while I hadn’t ever directly accused her child of stealing, there wasn’t any chance she’d missed that I was accusing her child of stealing. I think in doing that, in not shaming her or the child, I’d given myself the best chance for a peaceful and successful (getting the mask back) resolution.
I headed back to our place and told Cam and Jack how it had gone and replayed the conversation and interaction over quite a few times in my head – wondering if I could have done it differently or better. II’d love to have a fly on wall assessor who could tell me how I’m going with my Ciyawo and understanding of the culture – it’s a rare person who has the courage to tell me I’ve got something wrong but I know for sure I still have so much to learn.
I called our guard mid morning to tell him that I’d been to chat to Campbell’s mum. He was still fired up – telling me how shameful that it was that people would steal and recounting again all of the tales of things gone missing over the years. I listened again and then told him that we would now just have to wait and see what happened, reassuring him that if the mask hadn’t reappeared by the following day, I would go and talk to the police about it.
I then spent the rest of the day waiting, rather impatiently, for someone to appear with the mask. I kept an eye on the beach to see if anyone was approaching but as the sun drifted slowly into the lake, the mask was still no where to be seen. I was a bit disappointed – in my head, our conversation had gone so well and I had been at least 50% hopeful for a good outcome. But as the day drew to a close, the doubts in my heart took over again and I started wondering what my next step should be.
I went to be thinking again about all of the options for my next step.
- Was my internet good enough to download the receipt for the snorkel & goggle set? How much would it equate to in local currency?
- If I was going to go to the police, did I first need to go and speak to the witnesses and get their names / contact details?
- Should I go first thing in the morning or wait, on the off chance they might still be getting the mask back?
- Do I really want to waste my holidays with police involvement over such a trivial matter? No, but it’s the principle. What sort of message would I be sending if I did nothing?
- Had the mask been sold? By whom? Should Campbell’s dad or 10-months pregnant mum go to jail?
After tossing and turning for a little while, I prayed. I asked God what to do? I told him that it feels like he’s been so distant lately and that I’m never really sure if I’m doing the “right” thing I asked him to help resolve things in a way where we could both get our stuff back but relationships weren’t damaged and people weren’t shamed. I asked him to give me a sign. God and I have a bit of a history with lost things. He said, “Be still and know that I am God.” I meditated on those words and eventually drifted off to sleep.
I woke up at 7am the next morning and resolved not to go and speak to the police until at least the afternoon, and even that idea wasn’t exciting me. I sat down on the couch drinking coffee and as I scratched my ear, realised that one of my earrings had fallen off. I went to look in the bed and then started down the steps to look in the bathroom. As I looked up, I saw Campbell and his friend coming across the grass towards the bottom of the steps… mask in hand.
I went down the steps and as I approached them raised my two hands up to my face, palms turned inwards and brought them down and together saying, “Alhamdulillah.” I leant down, received the gift with two hands and said to Campbell, “You’ve done a good thing, thank you very much.” I thanked his friend as well and then they headed home.
I couldn’t believe it, I almost cried… not because of the mask itself, but for the culmination of 8 years slow, hard work trying to understand a language and culture paying off, a sign from God that he’s still there and listening, a peaceful resolution with relationships intact. I called our guard and gave him the good news, he thanked me. We started getting ready for a boat trip and as we were leaving, our guard’s friend asked whether the mask had ‘appeared’? I said it had and the problem was now finished.
And then in true, exhausting, overthinking Kath style, I set about wondering…
- What else had gone on in the background that I wasn’t aware of?
- Who was talking to who?
- Had I really done as good a job as I thought or was it really nothing to do with me?
- Had they sold the mask and then the reason they couldn’t give it back on the Sunday was that they had to go and buy it back?
- Is Campbell’s mum going to expect 4 cups of rice every time her kid takes something?
I’ll probably never know the answers to most of the questions in my mind but I hear God’s voice saying, “Be still and know that I am God.”
This is a great prayer I’ve been using a bit lately – Be Still & Know that I am God