It is what movies are made of. It is just before 10pm on October 1. About 20 of us stand in wait and no taxi shows up for a moment. When one shows up, it has only one or two spaces. The numbers swell further as more people stream through the main gate of Uganda Management Institute (UMI) on Jinja Road after the evening classes, which end at 9pm.
After waiting for long, some get impatient and wave down motor bikes. My friend decides to take a motorbike too; it is getting late and cold. I cannot take a motorbike to Mukono, so, I wait on.
A private omnibus, whose owner probably wants to make a few bucks off the stranded passengers, pulls up and calls out for passengers going to Mukono. I won’t take the ride. Stories abound of people being robbed clean in such vehicles.
A few years ago, for instance, a friend who was late for work took a taxi heading to Ntinda. On reaching her destination somewhere between Ntinda and Bukoto, she asked to alight.
The driver pulled up but the door could not open. It took minutes as she and the conductor fumbled to open it. In the meantime, her fellow “passenger” seated between her and the driver was emptying her handbag of money.
When the door finally opened, the conductor courteously apologised for wasting her time and said as a way of making it up to her, he wouldn’t be taking the fare from her. Later, she found out that her money had been stolen.
I have heard of other similar stories. But I still feel safer in a public service vehicle than in a private one belonging to a stranger.
Finally a taxi
After waiting a little longer, a taxi which the operators say is headed to Mukono pulls up. All the seats are occupied, save for the co-driver’s seat. “Shs2,000 to Mukono,” the conductor announces. I get on board.
It has been a long day and I feel tired. I rest my laptop bag on my lap and sink into the seat, hoping to get home in 40 minutes or so.
A few metres into the journey, the front door flings open. I react to close it.
The driver brakes, almost instantly. The conductor jumps out to help, wondering aloud why the door is “misbehaving”. He observes that it had been doing so all evening. I pay attention for about less than a minute, trying to close the door.
I suspect that something is afoot. I reach for my pockets to ensure that my phones are intact. I also check out my wallet. They are all in place. I also have my bag on my lap. The conductor continues to fidget with the door as I look away.
The conductor suddenly says the door cannot be fixed and I should shift to a rear seat. Almost immediately, the driver asks him about my destination. “He is going to Mukono,” the conductor responds.
“I will stop in Nakawa and have that door fixed,” the driver says, “He should use another taxi.” I check my pockets once again to ensure that I have all my belongings. I have my bag and see no reason to open it. I jump out of the taxi in disgust.
I’m gripped with a strange feeling, however. I can’t tell why.
The shocking happens
Another taxi pulls up after a while. It has more space and my favourite back seat is not occupied. I take it up.
Shortly after settling down, I open my bag to put in the newspaper I am carrying in my hands. I see a flat rock in the place of my laptop. My laptop, that little thing which for three years has been an integral part of my life, has turned into a stone!
I am supposed to be sad. So sad. I have lots of material on that laptop. It is a bit old and needs to be replaced. But what about my files in there and the things that money cannot buy?
I know that the thieves will not sell it off for a lot of money and for that they will be a bit disappointed. They should be looking for new expensive laptops. Luckily mine wasn’t. For a while, I take this as consolation.
But then I was supposed to use it later tonight to transcribe an interview I did that evening and is due for use the next morning. I will have to wake up earlier to get to office and do work I had hoped to do at home.
I burst out laughing all the same. It is funny. How has my laptop turned into a stone?
First I inspect the stone. It is flat and smooth, slightly shorter than my Acer type laptop, a little more voluminous and heavier. It is shaped like a laptop.
Using the knowledge of secondary school geography; it is a sedimentary rock with different layers formed after thousands of years of deposition of dead matter.
I carefully slide it below the seat in front me. I call up my friend with whom we had been waiting for the taxi to share the news of my loss. I am still laughing. She is sad and seems to want to fume at me for being ignorant of such tricks.
She tells me that sometime back, taxi operators tried to play the same tricks on her around YMCA in Wandegeya. This is indeed a widespread game.
Target and other tactics
I now know that many people who study at UMI are aware that they are a target of laptop thieves masquerading as taxi operators. One of them told me that some students complained that their laptops and other possessions were stolen in a similar way. The conductor will ask you to help close the door, or the driver will request that you help adjust the driving mirror, or the door fails to open.
In a more bizarre case, I have been told, the operators of a taxi that had picked up people from the UMI gate had turned on their clients and picked all their laptops from them before ordering them out of the taxi. Most of the terrible incidents I heard of after my ordeal happened on Jinja Road.
In one other such incident, a journalist at Monitor Publication, who was also seated in the front, had his laptop grabbed and his tormentors pushed him out as the taxi sped off. Learning of this case made me feel luckier. To give it to the thieves however, they have mastered the psychology of human beings and they apply it to deadly effect. I suppose if they invested their brains into inventing something meaningful they have the capacity to make a big contribution to advancing civilisation.
Another journalist who works for another media house, I was told, left office with a camera and a laptop hoping to complete some work at home. When he opened his bag to retrieve his gadgets he found that they too had turned into stones.
It all makes sense now.
Demystifying the incident
While I fumbled to close the door of the taxi, the “passenger” seated between the driver and I unzipped my bag, removed the laptop and replaced it with a stone.
The driver, the conductor and that “passenger” were part of the plot. I don’t know whether the other 12people in the taxi were involved in the game.
But, as I noted already, the thieves do a smooth and efficient job. It must all have taken less than a minute of absentmindedness on my part for my laptop to turn into a stone.
In the end I can’t even file a case at the police because I didn’t write down the registration number of the taxi. For the first time I admire a colleague who takes down the registration number of whatever taxi he boards. My colleagues at work can’t stop laughing at me after telling them this story. One of them calls me “stone”. I decide dto share this story here if only to cause you to laugh a little.
•The 2013 annual crime report shows among the leading crimes that year were common assaults (14,161), obtaining by false pretences (8,113), thefts of mobile phones (4,409), and thefts of cash (4,388), criminal trespass (4,289), and burglaries (3,846). (By Esther Oluka)