Potential theft, anyway. (As opposed to last time)
It’s worth documenting the scam as a Public Service Announcement for anyone who rides the matatus in Kampala or elsewhere. If you know about it, maybe you’ll be able to stop it from occurring, too.
Before I explain what happened and how to prevent it, though, an important disclaimer: it is exceedingly unlikely that you’ll be a victim of attempted theft in a Kampala matatu. Or one anywhere in Uganda. Or, really, in much of east Africa.
I’ve spent literally hundreds of hours in public transport around the region (sidenote: ahhhhhhhhhh), and this is the first time someone’s tried to swipe something from me while traveling.
I call it the Matatu Door Scam, but I’m confident you can come up with a better name than that.
Here’s how it works: the conductor asks you to get in the front seat next to the door, with his confederate next to you in the middle. As the matatu gets back on the road, the conductor asks you to either hold onto the door or to re-shut it because it’s loose.
While you’re focusing on keeping the door shut, the confederate makes a pass at your backpack, purse, or pocket, maybe using his jacket to conceal the attempted theft. He grabs what he can – a laptop, cell phone, or some cash – and you’re none the wiser.
Fortunately, I’d heard of a variant of this scam from another mzungu in Kampala (who lost her laptop from it), and from the minute I got in the matatu I knew I was a mark. The confederate reached over with his jacket, I pushed his hand away, gave him a knowing look, and moved my backpack away from him.
A minute later they pulled the matatu over and asked me to get out. At least I didn’t pay.
Just knowing the ploy is the best thing you can do to prevent it from happening to you; other common sense suggestions (culled from my common sense and, when that was lacking or failed me, experience):
- Don’t sit in the front seat of a matatu. There doesn’t really seem to be a safe place to sit in a matatu but, in the event of an accident, the front seat (without a seatbelt) has to be the most dangerous. And it’s the only place where this particular scam can happen to you. Just sit in the back
- Do put all of your valuables deep in your bag, out of sight and easy reach. Have a Kindle on you? Don’t put it in the easy-to-reach front pocket of your backpack. Your iPhone? Don’t leave it sitting near the top of your purse
- Do relax. It bears repeating: this situation – and its many derivatives – is extremely rare in Uganda and everywhere else I’ve been in east Africa
But, on the off chance a group tries it on you, at least you’ll know what to look for and hopefully be able to stop it.
If this saves you from having something stolen, my favorite beer here is Castle Milk Stout, and I wouldn’t say no to a glass of red wine…
 I chose to sit in the front because it was an extremely short ride, probably less than a mile. Oops.