Saturday, August 7, 2010

To Catch a Thief

Over the past several months, we’ve been suffering from a series of thefts on our Centre in Ouagadougou. In most cases, it was just items of food from the common kitchens of some of the guesthouses. But in a few cases it was more serious: a significant quantity of cash and a couple of cell phones. And these were in otherwise locked apartments! So whoever it was had access to keys.

Initial suspicion, of course, fell on some of our local employees. We called several employee meetings to explain what was happening and to encourage them to report any information they might have to help solve the problem. We discovered that one of our employees was being careless with his keys and took steps to correct the situation, but the thefts continued.

A break came when a lady reported a theft of sweets from a room in her apartment. This narrowed our suspicions to a particular group of workers who, fortunately, were not regular employees but short-term contract workers. However, the trick was to catch them at it.

The most consistent thefts took place in the communal kitchens, so Kathy planted some food items there and by discretely checking on them at regular intervals during the day, we were able to determine that the thief tended to operate during lunch and siesta time. Finally, I determined to stake out one of these kitchens by concealing myself in a guestroom across the way, from where I watch discretely through a window.

On the appointed day, I installed myself on a chair by the slightly open window in the guestroom, prepared to put in the several hours ahead of me in watching to hopefully catch the thief in action. This, however, was nearly my undoing because the event happened much sooner and much more quickly than I could ever have anticipated!

After only 10 minutes of watching, I turned my head to look quickly around the semi-darkened room behind me in order to give my eyes a break. When I turned back, someone in a light grey outfit was already halfway into the kitchen! I hadn’t heard a thing! You can bet that I was watching intently for the person to reappear! I did not want to miss this opportunity to identify the culprit.

When he came out, it was a young man that I did not immediately recognize. However, he had a chunk of bread in his hand, one of the morsels Kathy had planted there the day before. Quickly and quietly, he closed the kitchen door and moved off. I debated whether or not to rush out and confront him, but lost the opportunity in the time it took me to have the thought. So I quickly left the room and made my way back up to the front of the Centre.

As I went, I caught glimpses of someone in a light grey outfit flitting among the buildings and vegetation opposite me. But every time I stopped to get a better look, the person also stopped, always just out of sight. I decided that my best bet was to go back to my office, from where I could get a broad view of the entrance to the Centre as well as the path the thief was likely to take to get there.

I watched for several minutes along the direction from which I anticipated the thief to come. But nothing happened. So I looked at the entrance. There he was! Evidently he had fooled me by switching from his intended path. I still did not recognize him, so I called the guard at the gate and asked who that young man was. It turned out to be the son of someone on one of our sub-contracted work crews. Telling the father about his son’s behaviour was not a pleasant task, but it had to be done. We asked that he not be allowed back on the Centre and the father did not hesitate to agree to this, declaring that he would deal with the boy at home.

Several days later, on a Saturday morning, we arrived on the Centre to do something and were surprised to see one of our Centre hosts there, the person who is responsible to deal with anything that comes up on the weekends. It turned out that he had been called by the guard on duty at the gate because the young man had come back saying that his father had sent him to check out something! However, since his name was not on the list of approved people to come on the Centre that weekend, the guard had insisted on checking his story. Good thing for us he did!

After the guard had made his phone call, the young man said he needed to go and pick up his bicycle, which was supposedly under repair nearby. He never came back. And when the Centre host arrived, he did a tour of the Centre wall to make sure the thief had not tried another way of entry. Outside the back wall, near where the communal kitchens were located, he spotted two young men on bicycles that fled as he approached. Chances were high that the thief had brought along some accomplices to whom he could throw things over the wall in one last, big, robbery attempt.

The lesson? It’s not enough to identify a thief and think that this will encourage him to mend his ways, or at least discourage him from attempting to try it again. There appears to be no shame in being discovered. Assume the thief will try again and take the necessary steps to make sure he doesn’t succeed!

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