This week I was unlucky enough (or simply careless enough) to have my wallet stolen.
My son and his girlfriend have been here for ten days holiday and last Thursday morning I had arranged to meet them at their hotel for lunch. I got into the back of a taxi for Senegambia (the big enclave of European style tourist hotels) and was immediately followed in there by two other men so as one of them was quite large, we were a little cramped for space, but that is not unusual. During the ten minute journey the man on my right was fidgeting and several times raised his left elbow almost into my face as if he was trying to get something out of his shirt breast pocket (a familiar gesture as I usually keep a few dalasis in my own shirt pocket for taxi fares). I was wearing a pair of “cargo” trousers with patch pockets on the legs and my wallet was buttoned in the right hand leg pocket. When I got out of the taxi at Senegambia and had walked about twenty yards I found that the pocket had been slit as if with a razorblade, and the wallet with about D1200 (£20) had gone, but of course when I looked round the taxi – and the men – had also disappeared. I had not taken any particular note of the man sitting next to me and as there are so many yellow Mercedes taxis here I had no chance of identifying the vehicle. To make matters worse than the loss of cash, my four identity cards were in the wallet along with two ATM cards, one from my UK bank, and one from my local bank. As a result I have had to make several visits to the police station in the hope that the thief would take the money but throw away my documents, but so far they have not been handed in. A brief telephone call to the UK cancelled my HSBC debit card, and a rather longer visit to Standard Chartered here in Gambia eventually did the same for my Gambian ATM card, but only after I had begged a piece of blank paper from the desktop printer and written a letter to the Branch Manager. And of course I then had to fill in an application for a replacement card which was passed around for a while until I was told I was finished and my card would be ready for collection in about two weeks. Meanwhile I have to make sure I am near a bank in opening hours to cash a cheque when necessary which is a nuisance as I usually leave home before the banks open and return after they close so I was in the habit of drawing from the cash machines on my way home.
I reported the matter to the local police who were very friendly and helpful. Just as everywhere else, this involved paperwork, much talking, tut tutting and looking at my slashed pocket, and then two CID men took me across the road to the taxi stand where they questioned/harangued the taxi controller and all the drivers present who of course were also duly sympathetic and told me how sad they felt. In practice of course, although I now have a crime reference number and an open file at Kairaba Police Station I suspect there is nothing they can do unless my documents are handed in or the thieves are caught in the act. I hear that a German tourist suffered a similar loss nearby on the same day, and with hindsight I guess the fidgeting and arm movements of my neighbour were to distract my attention and also prevent me from seeing what was happening on my right as he slit my pocket.
As a result of this loss I now have to replace my VSO ID, Alien Residency Permit, Green Immigration Card, and Gambian Biometric Identity Card, the last of which involves another visit to GAMBIS offices to have my thumbprints and photograph taken. (When the original was issued this involved a wait of about five hours!) Fortunately the Immigration Service have told me they will at least replace my Green Card free of charge when I produce the police report, and also told me to wait until January before applying for Biometric ID as my existing card expires in December anyway and the cost of replacement is D1300 annually (January to December). This relatively new identity card system requiring annual renewal seems to me to place an unnecessary financial burden on the ordinary Gambian citizen, although of course it provides the Government with some much needed revenue! I think however that although it is a legal requirement, many Gambians simply don’t apply, as they can’t afford to do so. It also seems to me unnecessary to take prints and photos every year as presumably the originals are stored on computer somewhere and could be reproduced at the click of a mouse, but perhaps the system is not yet sufficiently developed for that. I hope to be able to collect the police report this evening on my way home so that I can get my identity back as I have just bought a car and need to register it and get some number plates, but that story will wait until next time………….