If you are not on this trip OR if you somehow managed to not see my mother’s frantic Facebook post in the Duke Parents group OR if you have not heard me complain and be angsty this past week…
Here’s the sitch: I got my backpack stolen on Monday afternoon. At a place called The Honest Café. And, afterwards, as I walked back to our guesthouse without my belongings, I was asked for money probably four or five times on the street (just to tie this back to my blog post from last week). I’m not going to lie, I thought the situation was a little bit funny.
Yea, I was angry at the two men who took my stuff for no reason at all. I was sad that all of my photos from my freshman year of college and videos of my aging grandpa and essays that I had worked so hard on were gone. I was worried about all the money that just went down the drain and all the money that it would take to replace that stuff. I laughed at the circumstances and was in a weird, kind-of-shocked state. Then, the cycle started over, and I was even angrier than before. At the slow-moving, apathetic police. At myself for being such an easy target and for not running after the guys. At the men. At myself again for leaving my passport in my bag.
However, before I was about to go to sleep that night, I got a notification on my phone saying that Otto Warmbier, the UVA student who was imprisoned in North Korea for over a year, died. It was like an immediate snap out of my self-pity and zoom out to see the insignificance of my problem. Dang. A mother and father just lost their child. Someone just lost a sibling. People lost a friend.
A person with a lifetime of memories and relationships and late nights studying and embarrassing moments and family dinners just died. That’s it. That’s everything. It’s all we are which is why it is so hard to comprehend an absence of being. And for one human to senselessly cause death to another human?? To take away literally the most important thing from someone?? I cannot begin to fathom that sense of anger and confusion at how someone could take that from you for absolutely no reason at all.
So maybe my stolen backpack doesn’t matter. Or maybe it does. I do not know. I get that just because someone else has it worse does not mean that I am not allowed to feel upset. But, at the same time, I cannot allow myself to feel so angry when my situation is recoverable and many others’ situations are not.
I also have thought about the people who stole from me. I do not think that they were bad people at all. I honestly wonder if they needed my stuff more than I did — not that it makes what they did okay and not that it makes me automatically forgive them. I just mean that maybe they thought they needed my stuff more than I did. Maybe they felt cheated by the systematic oppression put in place against them, and, by acting out towards me, they felt some sort of agency and retaliation.
I would like to acknowledge that this is all complete speculation and they could have just been assholes.
But maybe they saw me taking pictures of my food in that cafe with my work clothes on and my American accent. They may have thought that I, as a seemingly wealthy foreigner, deserved to be stolen from. I say this because, in Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime, he talks about how his friends who stole justified it to themselves by saying that, “white people had insurance and could afford to be stolen from.” I wonder if the people who stole from me thought the same thing.
I wish I could sit down, talk to them, and tell them that their assumption of me was wrong. I would like to share how my father has been unemployed for two years, how the North Face backpack and nice work clothes that I have were bought for me by a family friend, how I am in Cape Town for free thanks to the university that I attend. I really do not have the means to be stolen from (not that anyone should be stolen from in the first place).
However, is it really fair for me to expect them to not assume things when I have not given that same courtesy to others, especially here in Cape Town?? Also, even though my family is not necessarily part of the economic elite, I am part of a greater system that has oppressed many people- by being white, by being American, by being on a civic engagement program in another country. This does not mean that I deserve to be stolen from, but it just makes me think about how I had the privilege of owning those items — my laptop, my backpack, my wallet, my American passport — in the first place. I was lucky enough to be born into a situation that allowed me to have those things, and, because I was born into that situation, it means someone else was not.
I honestly do not have any answers. I am not trying to preach or act like I am completely enlightened now. I am still angry when I have to take time away from my day to report my stolen passport or go to the police station to fill out paperwork. I am mad that these two men added to the stress of my family and that there will be no consequences for them.
But I also have to acknowledge that this is not that significant. I am lucky enough to be on a beautiful trip with beautiful people. Cape Town is so much more than those two men. I am only one person out of the billions on this Earth at this moment in time. One day, I will not exist and neither will the people who stole from me and my stuff that seemed so important will be in a pile of garbage somewhere.
I am going to continue to enjoy this city, to be of use, and to learn from my internship. Most importantly, I am going to work on not making assumptions and on being aware of the historical, unequal, oppressive systems which make people feel justified in stealing from others in the first place. (I’m also just going to need to work in general because I need to make that MONEY back).