Theft

Every city has its dangerous roads, Nairobi had River Road and Lusaka’s equivalent was Cha Cha Cha Road, an interesting name for a Latin American [1]. The latter’s reputation was truly bad, and everyone would recommend you not to go there if you could avoid it. Unfortunately, I needed supplies for the project that were mostly found in shops sited in that road so I had to risk it.

The first time I went to Cha Cha Cha Road, I managed to shop for what I needed and came off unscathed. Things were different the next time I visited it…

Aware of the situation, I always went there in the smallest and oldest project car, not to call the attention of the possible robbers. As the first time, I prepared for the risky task and, together with one of the drivers, we agreed that he would stay in the car while I dashed in and out to get the supplies.

All was going well, and I was about to enter into the last shop when things happened. I got out of the car with the money safe in my pocket and left my suitcase in the car, where the driver sat looking after it as well as the shopping we already had. Suddenly, while I was walking towards the hardware shop, I heard a commotion near the car, and I saw a couple of men running away with my case while the driver tried to look after the car!

While the driver stayed with the car, I gave chase but, although I was fitter then, thieves invariably would outrun you. Despite this, shouting “thieves, thieves!” I continued my chase. The fuss attracted passers-by that join me in the run. After about two blocks away my case was thrown away and I managed to recover everything except the money, of course. The thieves disappeared in the distance and I decided that there was not much else I could do.

I was rather shaken so I aborted the shopping. Luckily the driver was still locked inside the car, rather stunned. After a while he managed to recover and explained me that, when I got out of the car, one of the thieves opened the passenger door. When he reacted to stop it another guy opened the back door and took off with my briefcase! I was lucky not to have been injured and pleased to have recovered my case with its contents I learnt a lesson and decided that Cha Cha Cha Road would be avoided in future, if at all possible.

Another common trick those days was that someone would come and tell you that you had a flat tire and, the moment you got distracted, they would snatch whatever you had inside the car!

A couple of days later, while still recovering from my experience, I got a bank statement from my bank in the UK that was really surprising! I must admit that I was not very thorough in checking my bank statements, and I concede that this is not the correct thing to do. As usual, I had a look at it but this time a figure hit me hard: there was a cheque paid from my account for a substantial amount of money that I was sure I had not issued.

I immediately sent a fax to the bank asking for clarification and leafed through my chequebook. To my relief, all cheques were there so I relaxed and thought that the bank had made a mistake. When the reply from the bank a few hour later confirming the information and attaching a copy of the cheque, I got really worried although I knew that I had not written such a cheque. However, looking at it I realized that my signature was different and it had been clearly forged but, how?

I immediately got the number of the cheque and went again to my chequebook. The cheque was not there! Both the cheque and the stub had been removed. Not well versed in the subject of forgeries it was only then that I realized that the removal aimed at me not noticing its absence until it was cashed!

After careful consideration, apart from the Mabel and I, only Mr. Phiri, our caretaker, had access to the house so our suspicions fell on him. However, I was sure that he could not have hatched the idea and that he must have been acting under orders from someone else with experience in this kind of affairs.

While letting the bank know that they had paid a forged cheque and that I was very unhappy with their lack of control on their clients’ signatures, I called the landlady that had recommended Mr. Phiri and she agreed that we could no longer have him inside our house after what had happened.

Before going to the police, I visited the FAO Administrator, an Italian called Alberto (not his real name) that was a well-known and crafty character believed to have a strong connection with Mr. Andreotti, then Prime Minister of Italy. Alberto had lived in Zambia for a long time, and he knew many people and I hoped that he also knew how to handle situations like this.

Mr. Alberto immediately understood the situation and he was happy that I had not yet involved the police as the latter was pretty ineffective anyway. He asked me to come with Mr. Phiri to ask him a few questions. I obliged and, after the canning questions asked by Alberto, Mr. Phiri confessed that he had indeed taken the cheque following instructions from an outsider that we did not know. So, we had not only the direct culprit but also the name of the “brain” of the operation, who had cashed the cheque either himself or sent it to someone in the UK to cash it for him in Bristol!

While this took place, I was on the phone with the bank. They, amazingly, refused to accept any liability for having paid an obviously forged signature, despite me sending them an enlarged picture of my signature pointing at them the four or five errors that the forgery contained.

Very upset after hearing the response of the bank I went again to see Mr. Alberto. Fortunately, he lived up to his reputation and promised me to contact the person who had cashed the cheque and he assured me that he would pay back what was mine. Somehow reasured by his confidence I went home and started organizing to close my bank account.

A couple of days later Mr. Alberto turned up in my house with a rather large bag full of Kwacha, the equivalent of the loss estimated at the parallel market! After that day we had sufficient cash to last us for almost one year!

My argument with the bank continued and, eventually, they agreed to give me a small amount of money to compensate me for the “inconvenience” I had gone through! I accepted it and immediately after that I closed my account and started to check my statements more carefully from that day on!

[1] The Cha-cha-cha is a a genre of Cuban music that developed in the 1950’s and became very popular worldwide. The Zambian Cha Cha Cha was a civil disobedience campaign that started in 1961. The campaign included strikes, arson, road blocks and other protests in Lusaka and the rest of the country and it was named after the Cuban dance meaning that it was time for Britain to ‘face the music’ of the independence of Zambia.

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