On Parks, Portraits and Pickpockets

This summer, my seven-year-old Nokia phone was stolen. I was at a park in Abuja, drawing people’s portraits on a Saturday afternoon because I like drawing and it’s good practice. Also if the people want to keep the portraits afterwards then they pay me so it’s a good side hustle. That particular day, I went to the park with my sister U and her friend J. A young Hausa man came and asked to be drawn. When I agreed, he called over a group of his friends and said something to them in Hausa. I thought nothing of it, as I sat on my mat and began drawing. The guy’s friends hung around while I drew, rifling through some of the other portraits I had on display.

After a while, U and J left for a walk around the park, and the hangers on left shortly afterwards. Later, J returned and said that she couldn’t find her purse. She’d left it on the mat I was sitting on. I hadn’t noticed it as I’d been concentrating hard on the picture I was drawing. I thought maybe she’d left it in the car or dropped it during her walk. She said something to the man in Hausa (my understanding of Hausa is pretty basic), and he replied. Then she left again with my sister, and I finished my drawing, negotiated a selling price and received payment. It was then that I noticed my phone was gone. I was puzzled. Just before I started drawing, my phone had rung and I’d answered it, then I’d put it beside me on my mat. I lifted up the mat just in case the phone had supernaturally managed to crawl underneath it. When I didn’t find it, the truth hit me like a brick: the man’s friends had used my drawings as a pretext to rob us, and he was in on it. My puzzlement turned to anger and then disgust. My suspicions were confirmed later when J translated her brief exchange with the man I drew. She’d asked him where his friends were, the ones who were looking at my drawings, and he said he didn’t know those people… which was complete bullshit because he was the one who brought them over. Unfortunately for us the park was really big and crowded and we couldn’t find the group of men.

I went home feeling very deflated. While I was lucky that the thieves hadn’t found my wallet and stolen my money (like they did to J) they took something that I was very fond of. In this age when new versions of technology are churned out faster than you can say Steve Wozniak, and everyone seems to be rushing to discard their barely year-old phones/laptops/tablets for the latest thing, I was aiming to keep my phone for ten years at least. This phone had seven years’ worth of contacts and text messages, as well as all the birth dates of my friends and family members. I wouldn’t have minded too much if the phone simply stopped working because it was too old or if it had gotten destroyed in some way. But these men took something from me without regard for how it would affect me.  And what was even more annoying was that I knew that the phone was practically worthless to them – it was a dumbphone (I guess that’s what you call cell phones that aren’t smartphones?) with most of its buttons missing. No one would buy it, at least not for more than a pittance.

The more I thought about it, the more I hated those men. It also didn’t help that they were Hausa, as my dislike for Hausa people was already an issue I was trying to cope with. I kept thinking I’d return to the park and try and track them down and confront them. I was also angry with myself for being careless. If only I’d watched over our property better; if only I’d asked J what she’d said in Hausa to the man, then I’d have known something was amiss and we may have pressed him to return our stolen items. Or if only I hadn’t gone to the stupid park to draw stupid Nigerians. They don’t appreciate anything, these people, and are only ever looking for ways to exploit everyone they meet.

I stewed in my own resentment for a full day, not speaking to anyone. Eventually I got tired and a different line of thought was able to pierce through the angry barriers; you know, people like those men who robbed you, they aim to make trouble and wreak havoc and if you stay angry it means they’ve won. Yes, they shouldn’t have stolen from you, or for anyone for that matter, but it was only a phone. Besides, you’ve drawn dozens of portraits at that park, and people have only ever been appreciative and intrigued – no one ever tried to rob you before. Don’t let one episode colour your whole experience.

Perspective, an invaluable thing in circumstances such as these. Those men may have stolen my phone, but they will never steal my peace. I forgive them.

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