I was robbed two days after we arrived in Senegal. We were in Dakar, crossing the Place d'Independence, a wide and desolate square of battered colonnades, when we were approached by two young men hawking the kind of brass and copper bracelets sold in public spaces the world over. When we responded with "non merci", they pursued us between a pair of parked cars, jostling us as we walked. It was only when we sat down for lunch and I felt for the prescription spectacles in my day-pack that I realised the rear zippered compartment was open, and my glasses were gone. As acts of theft go, it was very petty, and utterly futile. Fitted with lenses crucial to me but useless to anyone else, the only thing the thieves could do was smash out the glass and sell the frames for whatever small amount they might fetch. But it left me with only my sunglasses with my day prescription, and my reading glasses, which were useless beyond two or three metres. Worse, I realised that to claim on my travel insurance I would have to report the incident to the police, and theirs is a rock beneath which one does not readily place one's hand.
Police headquarters was a morose yellow colonial building in a street near the Place. Entering, we were challenged by a tall man in a Chicago Bulls t-shirt, a baseball cap informing us that he loved New York, tight blue jeans and white Reebox. It turned out that he was a senior detective. I explained my problem, and he directed us towards an office upstairs. 'After that you will come back to my office,' he said, 'and give me telephone numbers for girls in Australia.'
The main detective office was crowded and chaotic. Ten teenage boys stood handcuffed together in front of a table covered with official papers, with a heavy black baton as a paperweight. An ample, surly man sat behind the desk, barking orders into a black bakelite telephone. The boys were plainly afraid of him, and cowered in a corner while other detectives in jeans, baseball caps and gym shoes, swaggered about joking and laughing. A dozen car tyres were piled incongruously a corner: I deduced the teenagers were accused of stealing them.
We were told to sit down while the senior officer conducted a fast, angry interrogation of the boys. Their only response was to hang their heads and not dare look up. When his cold eyes jerked my way, I tried to outline the theft as briefly I could, but found myself in difficulty as his questions came rapid-fire in heavily-accented French that stretched my own scratchy French to the limit. All the while the boys shifted about uncomfortably in a clanking of chains. This only heightened the bristling irritation in the big man. After barely a minute listening to me, he wiped his brow, picked up his telephone and started shouting angrily down it. To complicate matters further, three young blond dreadlocked Germans walked in declaring they had been robbed of everything - money, passports, travellers cheques - at machete-point by a gang down on the seafront. The policeman sighed testily, looked at me and the boys in chains, sighed again and said something to one of his junior detectives, who conducted us out into another office.
Here a young man in a short-sleeved business shirt worked with enormous concentration on an old Facit typewriter. He was typing an account being dictated by a woman in a matronly dress and headscarf of the theft of her handbag. It too had been snatched out in the Place, the equivalent of $100 US taken - avery large sum for the average Senegalese. The clerk laboured on conscientiously, stopping every now and with a pained mutter to white out a typographical error. All the while the woman struggled to maintain her composure, the occasional tear escaping nonetheless.
'Excusez-moi,' I said. The clerk looked up and nodded curtly towards a spare seat. I suggested to my girlfriend that she go back to the hotel on the off chance the glasses had been handed in there, while I waited here to give my details. One of the denim detectives watched her go, all the way down the corridor. Then he twirled his baton in the air, and thwacked it hard into his palm before opening a door and disappearing into a side-room. It appeared he was about to interrogate the ten boys further.
The reading glasses I now wore gave proximate things a bizarre, microscopically detailed quality, while all else faded into a background blur. While the woman continued with her account, I peered through bug eyes around the room, at a pair of desks where older men sat. One of them was reading the Koran, mouthing the words. When he finished, he opened a desk drawer, put the book away and promptly took out a disposable razor which he dragged across his face in short, rapid strokes. This completed, he picked up the big office blotter from his desk, flexed it into a funnel, and deposited his shavings in a fine soot-like deposit beneath his desk. Then he lowered his head to his desktop and instantly fell asleep, snoring gently.
The man at the other desk sat engrossed in a French romance novel, oblivious to the angry shouts which now could be clearly heard coming from the adjoining interrogation room. Heavy fist-slapping sounds and pained cries followed.
A trim, neat man in an olive green safari suit and black suede Hush Puppies wandered in and glanced bored around the office. He had one hand behind his back: the other held a cigarette in a studied pose. Seeing the sleeping man, he complained to the one reading the French novel, who appeared to ignore him. The Hush Puppy man drifted on then, trailing a white curl of cigarette smoke.
The moment he had gone, the reader urgently woke the sleeper, and the pair of them quit the room and returned with a pair of beaten-up Facit typewriters. It was then I realised that they, like the young man still labouring over the woman's account in his typewriter carriage, were clerks - only they, perhaps because of seniority, had not until this moment needed to work. Now they rummaged in a rusted filing cabinet for paper and carbons and sat down at their machines, ready to re-type piles of handwritten reports. But they had not got in a single keystroke before two officers in uniform khaki marched in and commandeered both machines and left without a word. The response of the two clerks to this turn of events was for the sleepy one to go back to sleep, and the reader to his French novel.
I was well aware that I was privileged to be witnessing bureaucracy at its finest, and so engrossed had I become in it, that it came as a surprise that I had lost contact with my left leg. As I stamped around to restore circulation, the young clerk peered up apologetically from his page and promised he would be onto my case "within minutes". I decided on a stretch my legs with a stroll.
Out in the corridor, straining my eyes, I could just make out a watchhouse of dark cells below. The barred windows were tiny, and I imagined what it must be like for the men huddled in there, with the rats and roaches. Then my eye was drawn to something on the prison roof, a soft blur of red. Removing my reading glasses and squinting, I could just make out a red child's tricycle, broken and on its side, wheels gone. How had it got up there, I wondered? To whom had it belonged? Had someone tossed it up there in a fit of anger? But my thoughts were interrupted by more shouts, frightened cries, thumps and groans, and realised I was standing right outside the room where the interrogation was going on. The door opened and one of the young cops strode importantly away down the corridor. Not long after, the ten teenage boys emerged, heads down, shackled together two-by-two, a uniformed cop prodding them on with his nightstick. The boys went downstairs, and disappeared into the cells beneath the broken red tricycle. Only a few years before, they might have been riding one like them themselves.
Then, astoundingly, the young clerk was standing before me, announcing that it was time for me to come and detail the account of the crime to which I had been victim. Such a tiny thing, in the scheme of things, that had left me unable to see properly, yet witness so much.
From my book, The Blue Man (Lonely Planet Journeys)