Post by Cameron Thieme from the University of Southern California
For the mid-semester break, some friends and I decided to head to Cape Town. Our travel plans also included a few hours laid over at the bus station in Johannesburg before we could catch another bus to Cape Town.
Driven forward by the excitement of break, the last thing I wanted to do was sit in that bus station and twiddle my thumbs. I grabbed a map from a nearby tour bus and brought it to my friends to choose a nearby tourist destination to visit. We settled on Constitution Hill.
If you ever visit Johannesburg, the Hill is probably worth a quick stop. It has some nice old buildings, and the view from the top is the best view of the city that I have been able to find. There isn’t a ton to do there, though, so we after we left we still had more time to kill before our bus. We checked the map and picked another random location to visit. This time it was a local park directly East of the bus station.
When we got there, my friend Kirsten was the first to realize that we had made a mistake. Everyone in the park had their gaze fixed dead on us with stoney and serious faces. At first, I didn’t notice anything unusual about that; after a few months of being a white man in Botswana, stares no longer seemed out of the ordinary. But these stares were quite different from the stares of Batswana. In Botswana, people stare out of curiosity; particularly in the villages, white people are a sort of novelty. These new stares were different, and they had a clear message: you do not belong here.
A homeless man wearing a construction vest and lacking several teeth came up to us and offered to show us around or help us out. We blew him off, and headed towards the bus depot as quickly as we could.
Our route to the bus station went through a wide open, crowded, daylight flooded street. We still had stares following us wherever we went, but I wasn’t very worried about it. I figured it was probably a good idea to head to a different area, but I was actually quite comfortable in the situation.
But comfort leads to complacency, and complacency makes me stupid. Stupid enough, even, to walk around carrying bags and wearing clothes that screamed “Tourist!” louder than if we had brought a megaphone and announced ourselves to the world.
Without any warning, the man in the construction vest from the park was in front of me, holding a switchblade to my chest.
My first reaction was to scream out a note so loud and so high-pitched that any soprano would have been envious. The man was yelling something at me, but I have no idea what. All I could hear was chaos, and my mind was focused on the image in front of me.
I put my hands into my pocket to give him my wallet, and he did not like that at all. He screamed louder, perhaps thinking that I had a knife or something in my pocket and would try and fight him off. So I threw my hands up in surrender, screaming “Take it! Just take anything!”
Three men pushed up against the wall. I moved in response to the force, but I honestly did not even feel their hands against me. All of my brain was preoccupied with that knife. Then, as swiftly as they had come, they were off. The entire event probably took less than twenty seconds. I didn’t even turn around to watch them as they ran away. I just sprinted down the street in the opposite direction.
I caught up with my friends about twenty meters down the street. I guess that the men had decided that it was quicker, or easier, or safer, for them all to gang up on one of us, so the girls had the chance to run away. Neither of them had pockets, either, which is probably the reason I was the chosen target. We regrouped, uttered more than a few profanities, and walked as quickly as possible towards the safety of the bus station.
The strangest thing about the situation is that it wasn’t until I had rejoined the group that I felt anything that I would call fear. In the moment, all I had was instinct. I responded to everything that happened like a machine. Too much adrenaline was coursing through my brain to allow any space for thought or emotion. When I stared at the knife, I simply saw it as an object of disease that I needed to focus on and avoid. It wasn’t until the blade was out of sight that I actually started to fear it.
But once I started to feel fear it hung around me like a fog. In the coming days, every dark street brought me to a complete and paranoid arousal. The homeless beggars terrified me whenever they approached. I assumed that anyone with a hand in their pocket was only a moment away from pulling a switchblade on me.
After putting almost two weeks between that event and now the fear has subsided a bit. Hopefully, I will be able to banish any of that irrational fear while still keeping some of the alertness it gives. I hope I can learn to be aware, but not scared.
The biggest lesson I learned from the whole event, though, was that keeping credit/debit cards in two different locations is a very good idea, especially as you travel. I kept both of mine in my wallet like an idiot. Now I’m paying the price; although CIEE offered to loan me money, it is difficult not to have direct access to my own.
And one last warning before I sign off: if ever you find yourself cornered and mugged, just surrender your possessions. Anyone desperate enough to mug you on the street has far less to lose in a fight than you do. I probably had 8 inches and 60 pounds on any of my attackers, but it still would have been incredibly dumb to resist them. Just don’t carry more in your pockets than you would be willing to lose on any given day. I had my camera in there, and I really regret that. But I would rather lose a camera and negligible amounts of cash than get stabbed. I imagine you all know that already, but I wanted to reiterate it just in case. Even though I got mugged, there weren’t really any major consequences for me. Losing the cards was a hassle, but CIEE did a great job of helping me along and figuring out how to get money transferred to Botswana (which is especially nice because this trip was planned completely separate from the program). And my friends even spotted me some cash so we still got to have a great midsemester break!
Close to Penguins!
Closer to Penguins!
On a Boat!
On a Mountain!
The CIEE Gaborone program supports all students in the unfortunate case of a mugging or theft of items. In the aftermath of incidents such as the one described above, we firstly assist students in accessing police services, if they so wish. If items have been stolen, we help them submit a claim to the property insurance provider. Before they go on any trips, we collect serial numbers of all electronics in case a claim must be made. We also loan them money if they need it and refer them to Western Union and other money transfer companies. If they need to call their banks to cancel their credit cards, they do so on our phones. We are also here to provide emotional support.
In addition, we provide extensive training on how to mitigate the risks of mugging and theft. The above-mentioned excursion was not a CIEE-planned trip, and thereby the students are able to travel as they wish. However, CIEE provides information of safe bus routes, drivers, and other information to make sure that students have the smallest risk of harm as possible. We advise them not to leave the bus station if transferring within Johannesburg. For students that opt to visit Johannesburg, we tell them that they should use specific taxis from the bus station.
During orientation we have a session on safety and we re-iterate that information throughout the semester. We tell students to be especially aware in bus stations and large busy public places, and not to carry too much money at one time. We urge them to wear their backpack to the front and bury things in the large pocket so people do not have easy access to their backpack.
Crime does happen, albeit rarely. In the event that it does, we do everything that we can to mitigate the damage.