“Thief, Thief” – or What?

We are often prone think adversely about another person’s actions. For example, I may have something that I am not using at the time or have a tool (hammer, axe, sharp saw – or anything else) that someone could certainly make use of on something they are doing. In the Sukuma language, they come saying, “Nalilomba kulanda” (“I am asking [begging] to borrow”) whatever it is they are seeking. This is where culture comes in to play. Our concept of “borrow” is to make use of the thing and return it (usually!) when finished. The cultural concept is often to take it, make use of it and keep it until you come seeking its return for your own use. This can apply to almost anything – borrow my donkey; borrow my bicycle; borrow my tool/s; borrow my money. Yes they, hopefully, in the mean-time have not loaned it out to someone else, but you can always go to reclaim it with no ill-feelings generated.
Question? Is the person doing the “borrowing” hoping you will forget about it and the thing ultimately become his?

There is another language nuance that comes from a limited fluency and understanding of language. You are working in a constricted or cluttered/crowded work-space and you say to someone helping you, “twalaga iji” (take these) tools, meaning to “move them” elsewhere to make room. Next thing you know the things are missing! Investigation finds them in the home or compound of that one who was working with you.
Question? Is that person now to be considered a thief? Language knowledge would have told you to use the word, “sundaga” instead of “twalaga”. “Sundaga” means “move aside” (out of the area in which the person is) but does not imply the “moving” of the item out of the owner’s control.

You have a tree in your yard, bearing edible fruit, which you have not picked yet. The tree or garden is just loaded. It is an invitation for all to come and help themselves. Question? Is that helping themselves called “stealing”? Children come but you can just chase them away; they are not “stealing”; it is just childishness. But should an adult come and help themselves, that – even in Sukuma culture – is considered stealing. I have helped rescue adults who have been beaten by villagers who caught them “stealing” fruit off of someone else’s tree. Any adult should know that the fruit is not available “for the picking” from a tree which is not theirs without asking permission first. However, my half-acre pineapple shamba proved to be sweet pickings for a lot of people. Or even the bananas in the garden. Or papaya. Many seemed to disappear before I got a taste of them!

This aspect can take unexpected turns. When living in town caring for Mission administration my monthly telephone bill never exceeded about Tshgs. (Tanzania Shillings) 300/- (at that time, 18 Tshg=$1). One month the bill was over Tshgs. 3000/-! I went to the Post Office (which controlled the communication systems “East Africa Post & Telegraph”) to speak with a supervisor, showed him the bill along with a number of previous bills for comparison. The official took the high bill, tossed it out and wrote a new one with a reasonable figure. His comment, “Someone has to pay for all the telephone calls” was telling. Workers within the Post Office were making free (stealing?) long-distance calls and someone had to be found to pay for them. Why me? I pity the person who did not check his bills thoroughly when they came through!

Times were tough. The annual food harvest was poor and the price of maize (corn), rice, etc. had gone through the roof. Africans, working on a salary, had a hard time keeping families supplied with what they needed. The Mission employed some folks in station housing and mechanical maintenance upkeep. The water pump, located about a mile away at the lake (Lake Victoria) was run daily by a diesel engine. Fuel for the engine was kept there in a 50 gallon steel drum. BUT, the fuel seemed to last only a few days. “Sleuthing” found that the in/charge worker was selling (stealing?) the fuel to others, thus supplementing his income. Though faithful in performance, his presence in those responsibilities was terminated – and his salary was reduced monthly to help repay the lost (stolen) fuel.

One of the grass-roofed primary schools I supervised needed a new roof. I decided to remove the grass roof and put a corrugated iron roof on; all the truss and rafter timbers, all the iron sheets, all the nails, etc. were brought to the site. I had to hire a lorry (truck) to bring in the supplies and planned to go down to the site by motor-cycle (about 32 miles away) to do the job. A day for starting the job was set, laborers hired and told when to be there, two “fundi seremala” (skilled? carpenters) were employed for the job. The job took several days but we completed it well within the week.

Some timbers, nails and iron sheets were left over and we stored them next to the head-teacher’s house for later pick up. Since I had to find transport for them (I couldn’t carry them on my 250cc Matchless motorcycle or my Volkswagen!), that took several days. But, when I went to get them, they were gone! “Since the job was done and you left them here, I gave (stole?) them to someone else” the teacher said. I found later that he had “given” them for a certain sum of money! Again, a monthly salary reduction to repay the cost of the materials – and a strong reprimand and demotion by the Education Department.

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