Readers' Submissions

Delightful West Africa – A Broken Camera Becomes a Police Case in The Gambia

  • Written by Anonymous
  • June 8th, 2011
  • 19 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

Near the end of my African sojourn, my Canon compact camera ceases to work (bought for 540 Euro at the time of introduction to market). On the Gambian tourist coast, I ask around and several people recommend the Sunrise store in the local shopping area of Westfield, Serakunda; but Sunrise, a big, Lebanese run enterprise, deals only with mobile phones. They direct me to MP Trading nearby, a big, Lebanese run enterprise; but MP deal only with TVs and refrigerators. They direct me to Photo Color Service nearby.

Photo Color Service is a big, grubby instant photo printer with around ten employees; they also do passport photos and wedding pictures. When I arrive, a large color print of Gambian president Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Diliu Jammeh just changes hands.

Behind the crowded counter is a white-skinned Lebanese man named Bashir, holding a fat DSLR camera. He looks like the owner and cuts an impressive figure (later I learn he is a senior employee). He talks business without all the small talk and forced joviality of most Gambian clerks and officials. I immediately connect well. Bashir wants to take a closer look at my broken Canon compact, he says he can see the problem. Upon my request, he issues a small paper that he received the camera for repair. I give him my camera. I feel a bit shy when I take the expensive, high-capacity memory card out of the camera and put it into my wallet; it looks a little as if I distrust him, but he seems ok with it.

Two days later Bashir tells me on the phone that he tracked down the camera's problem, but doesn't have the necessary replacement part. I tell him that I will fly out on Sunday night and that he could take more time, if needed. Upon that, Bashir suggests to hand the camera to another man who may be able to repair the Canon even without the original spare part.

On Friday noon I visit Photo Color Service again and ask Bashir to borrow me another camera for two days, for the Thione Seck concert and other last-minute-photos. He gives me a nine year old, zoomless 3 Megapixel Practica DCZ 3.2 S compact camera (from 2002) with new AA alkaline batteries. He wants no lending fees whatsoever – and only later I find out that this replacement camera is so slow and flawed that photographing is practically impossible. He had a number of other seemingly second-hand cameras in a showcase which looked much more interesting than the fossile Practica.

***

Friday night. Theresa and I visit the Thione Seck concert. We would like to take pictures there, but Bashir's replacement camera is so slow and produces such unsightly results that we give up. At least the scene with the mad dancer on our table is repeated several times on Gambian TV, so we can see ourselves there.

***

I call Bashir on Saturday morning, 36 hours before my flight to Europe. He says the other man needs more time with my broken Canon, but I will receive a phone call soon. As I don't receive a phone call, I call Bashir on Saturday afternoon. I get the regular ring tone four times, after that he obviously presses End Call. He doesn't want to talk to me and he even shows his refusal openly. He rejects my next 20 calls in the same manner. He also rejects calls from Theresa, my Gambian friend, in the same manner.

Saturday evening around 8 PM, Theresa and I enter the Photo Color Service, to demand the camera back in whatever state it may be. The shop brims with customers and employees, but my man, Bashir, is not there. Another supervisor, a black, treats us very unfriendly. He says we are none of his business and should wait until Monday, when Bashir would be back. He doesn't even look at Bashir's receipt with the camera's name. "But Hans flies out Sunday, and Bashir knew that since last Tuesday", outrages Theresa. The supervisor doesn't even shrug. In another typical local fashion, he only talks to Theresa in Wolof and doesn't look at me, even though I address him many times.

Theresa drags me out. "I can't stand this behaviour. So sorry for this Gambian experience on your last evening. We go to police right now. The Serakunda station is not far." She is much more irate than me, who has been robbed and cheated all the way up and down the Senegambian trail.

Theresa also has more trust in police.

"Police", I ask? "They only demand tea money, I've had it fifty times. Per day. Haven't you read my submission about self-driving in Gambia?"

"They won't ask for tea money", declares Theresa, "because this is A CASE".

***

We enter a dilapidated, dusty office with various open doors towards the surrounding dirty sand court. There are around four policemen and the same number of civilians. And there is a narrow "chicken cage" with around ten men in rags caged. (Theresa claims these men are petty thieves and small drug dealers who spend up to a week in the police station's "chicken cage", before they move to the regular prison.)

Theresa storms the police office as if they owe her 2000 Dalasi. "We've got A CASE", she declares loudly, "who's on duty?"

Immediately we sit at a large desk and Theresa rapid-explains THE CASE. My laid-back smiling Gambian nurse – I hadn't seen her doing business like that before. Two policemen listen to her, but accept any interruption from the various bystanders around.

"I will phone this man Bashir", says one police man, "but I don't have any credit in my mobile phone". Obviously, a police phone doesn't exist. So I transfer 0,8 Euro from my mobile phone account to his mobile phone account (he might need 0,2 Euro). He calls, but gets no reply. This time, the ringtone is not interrupted.

The policeman agrees to visit Photo Color Service with us. Outside the photo shop, the police man talks to several bystanders. They all confirm that I visited the shop two times in the last week; they know my times of visit better than I myself. The policeman talks to several men inside the shop, but gets no new information. We part without a solution.

***

It is now Saturday evening, 10 PM, 24 hours before my long flight north. In the taxi back to the tourist area I receive a phone call from Bashir. He says he would come to my hotel and return the camera next morning. Suddenly he says that my photo camera got lost somehow and that he would give me "a brand new video camcorder" as replacement. I shout that I either want my own camera or 500 Euro and hang up.

Then I receive a phone call from police. They had reached Bashir on the phone and questioned him about the lost camera, but hadn't received satisfying answers. Obviously only after that call from police, Bashir had called me to settle the case quickly. Theresa believes that he repaired and sold my camera and hadn't expected me to contact the police.

***

Theresa and I sip a glass of red in a quiet garden restaurant. After all, it's our last evening. But no time for relaxed talk: Police calls again, asking me to call Bashir and to tell him to present my camera at the Serakunda police station right now. Why they themselves can't call him is unclear. I call Bashir, he answers, I tell him to visit the police station with my camera and hang up.

I've already stood up to walk to the restrooms when another call from police appears on my mobile phone display. "Oh, Theresa, could you handle this call", I ask and she agrees with a grim face. I have given up on my camera by now and quickly disappear to the bathroom.

When I return, I hear Theresa shouting into the phone angrily. I never want to quarrel with her. She presses End Call.

"You know what", says Theresa: "Bashir came to the police station and he is even in the 'chicken cage' prison cell with all the dirty petty thieves. He didn't bring your camera. He told me many contradicting lies on the phone just now; he asked me to get some kind of consent from you. I replied we demand full replacement either with the same camera or 500 Euro cash. No less."

A little later, an SMS from police: "Please come to the station and make a statement. Only with your statement we can keep Bashir imprisoned."

It is Saturday evening, 23.30, by now on my last evening in The Gambia and in Africa. With some effort, Theresa and I had re-arranged our schedules so that we would have a common quiet last evening. Instead, we shuttle back and forth between photo store, police station and garden restaurant, dealing with unsavory business men, comedic police men and tired taxi drivers. Anyway we call police and agree to come back to the station, if only to see – and keep – Bashir imprisoned. This taxi trip will cost another seven Euro return.

My old night time taxi driver Aliou is called and fortunately available and picks us up at the garden restaurant. As we approach the police station, two different police men impatiently call my mobile number for our whereabouts. The obviously want to close shop for the night.

***

Bashir is not in the "chicken cage" prison. He stands confidently in the police station, chewing gum, surrounded by two of his senior employees. Obviously the employees talked the policemen into releasing Bashir. My lost camera, an enthusiast compact model, had cost 540 Euro when it was just released. It might be cheaper by now. I demand the old camera back, a new camera of exactly the same model or 500 Euro cash.

Bashir claims that my camera was much cheaper and suggests that he would satisfy me with a relatively similar model, not with exactly the same. He also claims that the Canon compact has to be ordered from Belgium. There is no internet at the police station so we can't check the current price.

I could go to court, but Theresa as well as Aliou advise against it: "A court procedure is lengthy and costly. And you fly out tomorrow. In Gambia, we try to reach agreements."

And so an agreement is hand-written into a big police notebook: Within two months, Bashir has to return my old camera or a new replacement camera of the same type. He will give the camera to Theresa at the police station. Theresa will bring a camera specialist to inspect the camera. If after two months there is no replacement model, Bashir has to hand 500 Euro to Theresa. This handing of the money is a problem though because one police man claims "that we don't handle money at the police station".

Bashir and his employees drive away in an old Mercedes station wagon without further talking to me. One policeman gives me his private e-mail addresses with Yahoo and Hotmail. The have no police e-mail.

***

Theresa and me return to the garden restaurant. Theresa is still in rage. "And you know what", she thunders, "I know the chief of the whole police district. My brother once hit another boy on the head and I had to buy him out of the police prison. The police chief was so impressed by me that he wanted to date me. I declined, but I can still call him. He's in my phone directory. The other police men are wimps. I want to see this guy Bashir in prison. I will call the police chief tomorrow or after tomorrow."

***

The next day, in my last African hours, we visit an internet access center and print prices and photos for the camera model in question. Apart from that, the camera is fortunately no longer a topic. I've given up on it. I never liked its white balance in incandescent light anyway.

Back in Europe

Back in Europe. A few e-mails with the most serious of the police men ensue. He says that he called Bashir to remind him of the arrangement and he reminds me to make sure that the Practica replacement camera is well-kept by Theresa. I send the police man screen shots and links for my lost camera and the replacement camera. At one point he replies, among other things (literal quote):

"Your emails are very long I do not have money to buy munites to use the net for long as it is an internetcafe where you pay before use access. (…) I am going into all this trouble just to assist you as what he dose to you is wrong and its like there was an intention of depriving you of your camera which you took there just for repairment. (…) By Monday I will try to meet him anything I will update when I have money to come to the internet."

***

What will happen? In the course of our e-mail and phone communication, I tell Theresa several times that if camera or money do come back, she could give any kind of tip to the police man, even 25 or 50 Euro up to her estimation.

***

A Wednesday in late March is the deadline for Bashir: deliver either the old camera to police, deliver a new camera or deliver 450 Euro (I had lowered my demand due to the falling camera price and to make it easier for Bashir). But on that day, nothing happens. The events start rolling only at 2 a.m. into Thursday. Theresa later reports on the phone:

"Unnoticed to me, my phone had been off most of Wednesday. Only Thursday at 2 a.m. I turned it on again. It rang and I was so scared about who would ring at that time! But it was the police man. He said he tried to call me many times, but couldn't reach me so far. Bashir had been to the police station on Wednesday evening and handed over 400 Euro (a big block of Gambian 100 Dalasi notes, the highest denomination, each note worth 2,7 Euro). The remaining 50 Euro he will hand over next week.

"Obviously, two hours after handing over the money, Bashir returned to the police station. He told them that your old camera might be retrievable this same week and asked to get the 400 Euro back. The policeman told him not to act smart and kept the money.

"When the police man called that Wednesday-Thursday night, he urged me to come to the station almost immediately as he said it was difficult to keep the money safe at the police station. So I went there on Thursday 8 a.m. The police man welcomed me outside the station and led me to a side building where noone could see us.

About the procedure, she says: "You know, he didn't handle it correctly. He should have given the money straight to a senior officer, but he kept it to himself. It's like nine months of salary for a police man (except bribes). He kept the money to himself and handed it over in the empty, closed side room because he was hoping for a tip from me, of course! He even said: 'It is so difficult to keep this money safe in the police station, too many people come and go here. Even I myself (the police man) already took five Euro away from it, I could not avoid it. Glad you finally came to pick up the money.'

"Ha! Well, I gave him another 20 Euro as tip and he was overjoyed with it. I am quite sure Bashir will bring the rest of the money next week. Don't worry. I want to see that guy suffering. He is shedding such a bad light on Gambia, and Africa. Some people here think we should rid the whites of all their money, because they are stupidly rich. But that's so wrong. I've worked in the US and I saw how white people suffer there – suffer from poverty *and* suffer from the cold weather, so they even suffer more than many Gambians!"

***

At that point in time, I receive an e-mail from the police man. He doesn't mention the tip or the incomplete payment, but writes (literal quote):

MONEY RECOVERED FINALLY FOR THERESA

"Dear Hans,
As promised I have tried all my best until I recovered the money since yesterday and handede it over to Theresa this morning in the police station you can ask him.
Theresa it very respectful and patient and I believe thats why you liked her you made a good chose.
Its my pleasure to assist you and thank you all the best.
When are you coming back? should in case you need my number iit is (…)
Best regards"

Interestingly, he doesn’t mention that 50 Euro are still missing. Only when I mention the 50 Euro gap in a reply mail he answers that the rest would surely come next week.

***

Instead of one week, it takes two weeks before I hear more about the next payment, when the police man e-mails:

"Hans ,
Hope work is good. I gave Theresa 30 Euro yesterday she will tell you. all the best"

This means, there’s still 20 Euros missing from Bashir. I give up on those 20 Euros and decide not to pursue them. I just send an thank-you e-mail back to the police man.

Back in The Gambia

Back in The Gambia. Three months after the loss and one month after Bashir paid 400 and then 30 Euros, still short of the last 20 Euro, I happen to pass through The Banana Republic of The Gambia again. Theresa and I meet in the lobby of the Kairaba Hotel.

Theresa immediately hands me the camera money she received from the police man. I had told her previously that she should keep 50 Euro for herself, but she insists to keep only 20 Euro and for those she thanks me profusely.

Still, the last 20 Euro of the camera price are missing, the 20 Euro that Bashir, according to the police man, did not pay and that the police man according to his e-mails did not pursue to get.

Theresa has another story about these last 20 Euro: "Bashir paid the third rate, the last 20 Euro, on a third day. But the police man told me that you instructed him to keep that money! Is that true? I was sceptical about it."

And I had never told the police man to keep this last installment. All I had done was not to actively ask for it.

Theresa fumes: "So he's just trying to keep the 20 Euro and lieing to me. Terrible. I already gave him 20 Euro tip which in a regular country he shouldn't even receive, and now he steals more money from you, the theft victim!" She jumps onto her phone immediately, but doesn't reach the police man.

A little later Theresa gets the police man on the phone. She tells him in the hard voice that made me fear her previously that she expects to receive the last 20 Euro shortly. He stammers that because of the upcoming public holidays he'd need some days to retrieve the money from the bank. "Is Hans in the country", he asks shyly?

***

Theresa continues to call the police man. She claims that his mobile phone is off for days on end. Finally she reaches him while we are sitting on the beach together. Again she addresses the police man like an angry mother scolds a particular nasty child and even blames him for turning off his phone. She hands the phone to me.

I first thank the police man for all his efforts and ask politely if and when he could hand over the remaining 20 Euro. He says I would surely get this money but that currently his "financial condition" didn't allow him to give the sum to Theresa or me. I ask him if the money could come forth early next month and he murmurs something incomprehensible.

He also says that a new government policy should prevent him from prosecuting "people like Bashir" at all and that he persecuted Bashir against his superior's orders.

Theresa comments this: "We had a government order trying to reduce scams against white tourists. The way the police man puts, Bashir is a white tourist who needs more protection. That's rubbish: Bashir is a light-skinned Arab who cheated you and needs to be punished. Bashir is not scammed, but a scammer."

About the police man: "See, finally he admits that the money should go to you and that he spent the last 20 Euro even though they never belonged to him. Terrible – and remember, he already received 20 Euro as tip from me. I will continue to call him, but frankly now I have no idea if and when these last 20 Euro will be obtainable. They may be the better part of his monthly salary and quite likely he cannot even pay them back after receiving the next monthly pay-check."

I want to get this business out of my head. I tell Theresa that I don’t want the last 20 Euro any more and that she could keep that money to herself – if she ever gets it. Of course in theory Theresa could be part of a scam here, too.

Back in Europe

Back in Europe, several weeks later. When I call Theresa, she says that she is still working on the police man to retrieve the money; he made some promises, but she is not sure. Of course this money would then go to me, she has no interest in it.

As it seems, I have been robbed of my camera by a business man and then been robbed of part of the refund by a police man.


Stickman's thoughts:

Interesting story.

Personally, I would have let the last 20 Euros go but suggested to the policeman that should anything untoward occur in the future, that Theresa would get first class assistance from him.