Thursday, July 10, 2008


A few things have gone missing around the house – Hillary’s Walkman that she uses for running can’t be found. She has somehow managed to lose two new blackberry phones in the past few months. More disturbing, her wallet seems to have been riffled. Hillary asked if I had taken money as the bills were turned in a different way than she puts them in (this is the wallet that has been with her since college, so she has deeply formed habits about its usage.) Two weeks ago, Hillary had an advance of three hundred dollars for a trip she was about to take. The day after getting the advance, she went for lunch and there were only two one hundred dollar bills in her wallet. Last week, she received her monthly local draw, the portion of her salary that is supposed to see us through the month. That envelope, containing $1,000, was gone the next morning.

We had started wondering who might be pilfering and ran through the list of every potential suspect. Was it someone from Hillary’s office? Was it Judith, our lovely housekeeper? Under that warm, caring façade, could she be nabbing our cash? Or Grace, who we entrusted with Bodie? And on and on.

It was a rough period of a few weeks, feeling betrayed, not knowing by whom, and feeling uncomfortable around the house. We assumed it was someone at Hillary’s work place, so Hillary held a meeting of her key team at the office to figure out who could be stealing. But when the thousand-dollar envelope went missing, we sat and, like good CSI-devotees, figured out a minute-by-minute scenario of who could have had access and opportunity.

Hillary received and signed for the envelope at 5:30 pm. She discovered it missing at 11 am the next morning. So we traced her steps: upon receiving it, she put it in her bag, which was by her feet, and worked until 6:45 pm, whereupon she left for home. By the time she got home, Judith and Grace were well gone for the day. The bag went on the kitchen counter by the door, where it goes every night. She left for work the next morning at 7:45 and had her bag with her until she looked for the money at 11 am.

There didn’t seem to be any opportunity for anyone, even a knowing and stealthy financial person, to grab the envelope at the office. But how could it have happened at home? Judith and Grace were gone, and no one else came in the house.

Hillary called me at home that morning and asked me to check if it were possible to reach in through the kitchen window to the bags on the counter. I tested the theory, and it was not only possible, it was easy.

Ok, the money was taken between 7 pm and 7 am, and the window in the kitchen seemed to be the point of access. That narrowed the list down to three, Sebastian, the night guard, who I’ve referred to as the happiest man on the planet, Tom, the devout seventh day Adventist gardener or his wife, Martha. If it were Tom or Martha, Sebastian would have to have watched them pad over to the kitchen window and either just let it happen, or collaborate. If it were Sebastian, he knew when everyone was asleep, had the role of walking around the house to check things out, so needed to be by the kitchen in the middle of the night, and knew everyone’s habits. It seemed to be coming clear.

My plan was to wait a week, put another envelope in the bag, and I’d sneak into the kitchen in the dark and wait, stealthily (and hopefully awake) through the night to capture the culprit in the act.

We called Knight Support, the agency that provides security and for whom Sebastian works, and told them of our suspicions. The operations head asked us if anyone else lived on the property. We told him Tom and Martha did, but that it would be both very difficult for them, and we had huge trust in them. He asked where they were from. When we said Malawi, he responded, “That’s all I need to know.” And launched into a diatribe against Malawians, the vehemence and nature of which I’d only seen in movies and footage depicting prejudice a century ago. We told him that it was possible, but highly unlikely given his devout church-going nature and lack of opportunity. “Those Malawians are like that, acting one way and stealing from right under your noses,” he said.

That night, Knight Security had a new super-askari, James, at the door, and sent a local supervisor to bring Sebastian back to the main office. I never got to enact my catch-‘em in-the-act plan.

We’ve thought about this a lot. The initial anger at being betrayed was quickly tempered by putting ourselves in his shoes. If I earned 80,000 shillings a month, or about $850 per year, had a wife and 4-year-old son, and access to $1,700 (the total amount we think was taken, not including the stuff), would I reach through a window in the middle of a long, dark and lonely night? The temptation of two years salary coupled with the need to provide for a family on $75 per month makes it hard to be outraged.

It is the mix of relationship and need that makes easily reconciling this difficult – Sebastian brought his son over one Sunday; he made little bicycle-men for Bodie; and repeatedly listened patiently as I struggled to form sentences in Swahili. He also apparently quietly pocketed money and things that he assessed, probably rightly, that he needed far more than we did.

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