Today I fell victim to a remarkable piece of thievery. What promised to be a glorious second Monday in Kampala was slightly dampened by an elaborate scheme to nab my wallet.

The itinerary for the day was to swing by Kampala’s central post office to get the key to the post office box I purchased on Friday and to visit the offices of the Daily Monitor and New Vision, Uganda’s two largest newspapers. A journalism classmate at Makerere offered to introduce me to some of the reporters and editors at the two papers, and I was excited to take her up on the offer.

When I arrived at the post office at 10 a.m., my key wasn’t ready yet. Based on my experiences with bureaucracy in Uganda, I wasn’t surprised; but if that key had been ready when I arrived, I could have avoided this entire fiasco. Instead, I headed to the newspapers and planned on returning to the post office later in the day.

After meeting up with my colleague and chatting with editors and reporters, she and I took a taxi back to town. If you’ve read any of my previous posts or traveled in East Africa, you know that taxis here aren’t like the ones in New York. They are matatus filled to the brim with passengers and today our destination was the taxi park pictured here:

When we boarded the taxi, there were only two seats left. My friend sat by the conductor near the rear door and I sat in the very front—where a driver would sit in the U.S. A few minutes into the journey, the driver asked me to fix the mirror outside the window. I happily complied. He told me to turn it to the left and I turned it to the left. Then he motioned to the right and I moved it to the right. I kept adjusting it back and forth, left and right, and no matter where I put it, he kept telling me to adjust it more.

The passenger next to me, between me and the driver, reached over with his right hand to fix the left-side mirror, but he couldn’t reach it. At the time, I wondered why he was using his right hand since his left hand was closer.

After a few minutes of adjusting the mirror, my next-door-neighbor told me to leave it alone and the taxi pulled to the side of the road. The conductor, who sits near the side door of the van and collects everyone’s money, told my classmate that the taxi was going to the garage and that we needed to get off. She told me that we could walk from here, so we got out and the taxi drove off. I wondered why we got off so suddenly and when I felt for my wallet in my back pocket, I knew.

The intricate “mirror-adjusting” ploy had worked. As I reached outside the van and fumbled with the mirror for several minutes, the man sitting next to me must have unbuttoned my rear pocket and removed my wallet. The driver, the conductor, and the passenger in the front seat were all in cahoots. They nabbed my wallet with the equivalent of $40 in it, but thankfully they ignored my camera, passport, and cell phone. And because I removed my debit and credit cards from my wallet earlier this morning, they didn’t take anything that is difficult to replace.

Although I am disappointed that the driver, conductor, and passenger took advantage of me while I was trying to help them, I am impressed by their cunning and creativity. I have never been pickpocketed before, but now I know that you can never be too careful and I learned some valuable lessons. Don’t let a rear-pocket button lull you into a false sense of security, keep extra money stashed away in obscure places, and if you are confused by a situation, there is probably a reason for it. Fortunately, I followed the second lesson and my classmate and I were still able to enjoy a day of shopping and exploring in Kampala. The day was not quite as glorious as it could have been, but it was still pretty great.



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6 responses to “Pickpocketed

  1. Cody

    Did you ever get the key?

  2. Kristi

    I admire your positive outlook Brian! 🙂

  3. Michael Fryar

    When I was in Guatemala this summer, I carried around a fake wallet with some old rewards cards that looked like credit cards and an expired Sam’s Club ID. I hoped it might come in handy if I were ever asked to hand over my wallet. Thankfully, I never had anything stolen, real or fake. Sorry to hear about the pickpocket but thankfully your passport, camera, cell phone and cards (and you) are safe.

  4. Anonymous

    I was very unfortunate 450,000 was picked from my pocket in the same way,I was on my way to pay someone. Advice,-never board a taxi with less than 7 people that’s my principle now.

  5. Babka

    Sorry to hear that man. Thieves are very crafty and tend to work in teams. In Europe, if I had to keep my wallet in my pocket, I put it up in the front and usually put something bulky or easy to realize it’s missing (say a wad of tissues) on top to keep sneaky fingers away. Hopefully this is your only experience with pickpockets.

    Thanks for writing about your adventure! 😀 This has been really intriguing!

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