Car n’ boat theft, Swahili n’ war drums; don’t die yet

Saturday June 08 2019

The Busia one-stop border crossing. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Last year a car belonging to President Yoweri Museveni’s senior press secretary Don Wanyama was stolen in Kampala.

A few days ago, Kenyan Police recovered the stolen car and handed it back to him.

The car was found in Gilgil in Kenya’s Rift Valley region, with South Sudanese registration numbers.

All theft is bad, so one hopes the thieves will be found and punished. That said, this theft has a silver lining. It is a great East African story: A stolen Ugandan car, found in Kenya, with South Sudanese number plates. I wish it turns out the thief was Rwandan, that the chap who bought it was a Tanzanian married to a Burundian woman, and we could then bring a grand East African Community curtain down on this saga.

But, also, there is nothing new about this. If you read old issues of Drum magazine and Daily Nation, or for that matter Ugandan newspapers, Kenya-Uganda car thefts are one of the longest running uninterrupted businesses between the two countries. And in the past 25 years, between Kenya and Tanzania, and Tanzania and Uganda.

Like the theft of fishing nets and boats on Lake Victoria that this column has commented on twice in the past, these crimes are indicators of the ties that bind East Africans. If you understand a people’s language; if they resemble you; if you share a common culture; if you have intermarried with them; if there are many panya routes connecting your towns and villages across the colonial border; and if you trade in many other goods with them; then you can steal from each other.


The problem is that we are often not aware of it. A while ago I was in Bujumbura (before things went belly-up there and President Pierre Nkurunziza became “The Eternal Guide”). I was frustrated with the hotel Internet, and the roaming service on Kenyan mobile phone was patchy.

I headed to one of the stalls in the hotel to buy a SIM card and load up with data.

I spoke to the attendant in English, and she looked at me blankly. I am illiterate in French, so after a couple of futile attempts to explain my problem, I stepped out and stood at the entrance asking for a Burundian who speaks English. All this time, a friend I had travelled with from Nairobi looked on bemused. After a while, he decided to end my agony, and asked; “Have you tried talking to her in Kiswahili?” Of course. I have rarely felt so sheepish.

These many sub-layers of regional community ensure that, even in times of crisis, these countries of ours are able to do business.

Since early in the year, Uganda and Rwanda have been having another round of their love-hate relationship. Now, the Rwanda Defence Force runs a fairly sleek Twitter operation.

On April 23, an intriguing post appeared on the page. It said instructors from the Kenya Defence Forces supported by the British Army had been in Rwanda training RDF and Uganda Defence Forces in detection of improvised explosive devices.

That was at a time when war drums were sounding over the temporary closure of the Katuna border point between the two countries. As they say in my village, it’s not time yet for us to die.