Tanzanian Police: A Tale of 3 Phones

Writing from 3.387° S, 36.683° E

Mom, don’t freak out. I promise I haven’t been arrested while over here. I have, however, had two extremely memorable run-ins with the police that make for some nice stories, and they both involve cell phones, a high-speed chase, and several good samaritans.

Let me start out by saying that I am a VERY careful person. Typically, I get a little hard on myself because I think I’m being a little too cautious and not letting go of control enough. I have been lucky thus far (knock on wood) and have never been robbed while traveling. I always keep my valuables locked up, my phone in my purse, and my side eye stare strong just in case anyone tries to pull one over on me. Well, after these two instances, I think I’ll hold onto my caution. It’s never steered me wrong.


My first run-in with the Tanzanian police happened back in November. I was on my way to the Cultural Heritage Centre in Arusha with my friends Lucy and Lena, which involved a bit of walking and catching a dala dala headed south to Kilombero. We got on the bus and I immediately knew something was wrong. My spidey sense was going crazy and nothing had even happened yet.

It was a pretty full bus, so I climbed to the back row while Lucy and Lena stayed standing near the door. As soon as I sat down, the two guys on either side of me started shuffling around and adjusting themselves more than a natural amount, so I knew right away that they were trying to see if I had anything in my pockets. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me, so I kept both hands on my purse in my lap and waited it out. Within 30 seconds, though, I started hearing Lena at the front of the bus saying something about her wallet and phone being gone. She was visibly (and understandably) upset, so Lucy and I tried to figure out what had happened.

The thing was, Lena had both her phone and wallet when we got onto the bus. We were still en route to the first stop, so whoever had taken it was obviously still on the dala data with us. What followed was a minute of confusion: Lena trying to ask for it back in English, people speaking Kiswahili back to us, and the door eventually opening, most likely letting the thief escape without us ever figuring out who it was.

The three of us got out at the stop to try and figure out what to do, while countless locals kept coming up to us to ask what happened and if we were okay. Eventually, we got in a taxi as it started to rain and headed toward home before eventually deciding to go to the police station instead. We had been told time and time again that the police here tend to be very unhelpful when things get stolen: you can fill out a report but most likely will still never see your stuff again. However, Lena was just a few weeks from going home and had lost her phone (and with it, all her pictures), so we had to try.

Now for the frustrating part. On our way to the police station, we realized we could use Find My iPhone to track Lena’s phone using my cell. We could clearly see exactly where it was, and knew it hadn’t gone far from where it was stolen. At the station, we were taken to an upstairs room and told to wait for an officer, who eventually came in about 15 minutes later.

We showed him the app that was tracking the phone, and at this point we could see that it was right across the street.


Surely that would be an easy grab, right? Wrong. We waited another 45 minutes “for the car to arrive,” and it ended up being a legitimate safari truck as opposed to an actual police car. We piled in the back and set off on a chase through the city, with an officer in the back holding my phone and yelling out directions to the driver every time we saw the little GPS thief turn a corner. Once we finally caught up to the little green dot, the officers hopped out of the car and told us to stay quiet. None of them were in uniform, so watching them stealthily walk up and down the street felt like a full-on undercover investigation.

Unfortunately, we had used a special setting that made Lena’s phone ring so we could find it when we got close. This must have spooked the thief, because they turned the phone off so we could no longer track it.

Lena was obviously super bummed to have lost her phone and all her photos, but we tried to look at the bright side: no one was hurt and it could have been worse.


My second interaction with the Tanzanian police was personal, and a lot more scarring. It also was a less than ideal way to start off my New Year.

I was in the Kendwa Rocks Beach Resort for the NYE Full Moon Party with my brother and my two friends, Melina and Lena (different Lena — confusing, I know). We had an amazing night dancing on the beach, watching fireworks, and sneaking drinks in from our room to avoid buying from the bar. By the time 6am rolled around, Melina and I were the only ones still awake, and we came out of the indoor club to see that it was already light outside. It was only one hour until breakfast started, so we decided to pass the time by napping in one of the many beach hammocks like we saw a lot of other people doing. I FaceTimed with my friend Lucy for a bit (who was back in the US, where it was only 9pm) and then fell asleep.


The happy face of a girl who has not yet been robbed. Sigh.

For the first time I can ever remember, I didn’t put my phones (Tanzanian and US iPhone) back in my purse.

You have to understand, this is so beyond out of character for me. Maybe I was thinking, “Hey, it’s the new year, stop being so worried about your stuff, Lauren.” Well, old Lauren is right, and being careful is seriously underrated.

I woke up to a Tanzanian guy poking me and asking if I was OK.

Confused, I groggily said yes and then closed my eyes again, before realizing there must be some reason why he was asking me that question. I looked down and realized that my purse was open and my phones were gone. Clearly this nice man had seen me get robbed in my sleep.


I was still half-asleep and very out of sorts at this point, but I got up as fast as I could, went to tell Melina what had happened, and then walked over to some security guys. Before I could even say anything, one of them put one finger up and said “Wait.”

Well, that’s rude.

Actually, stupid-incautious-new-year-version-of-Lauren, it’s not rude, they just already knew what had happened. Another nice bystander had tipped them off, and before I knew it two of them heard something through a walkie-talkie and started yelling and sprinting across the beach. The third guy told me to follow them, so I set off at a nice brisk walk and prayed that they had found something.

When I caught up, I saw a crowd of about 20 local guys standing outside the security building, all attempting to peer in through a tiny window. They parted ways and I walked in to see a guy sitting on the floor and holding my Tanzanian phone. The police standing over him asked if it was my phone, then told me to sit down while they continued questioning him. Apparently he was denying having my second phone in Kiswahili, because they kept yelling before starting to strip search him. After taking off his jacket, they found that he had hidden my iPhone, and that’s when things got bad.

As soon as I saw them pull out their police batons and make the first hit, I stood up and walked out.

A little bit of context for you: stealing is one of the worst crimes you can commit in Tanzania. There is a real sense of community here, so when someone takes something that doesn’t belong to them, mob justice comes into play. We’ve been told not to yell if we’re robbed on the street, because more than likely whoever stole from us would then be beaten (or worse) by everybody else nearby. I used to think it was a bit counterintuitive to want to protect the person robbing you, but now I understand it.

Once I got my phones back on January 1st, I would have been 100% content with letting the guy go. I learned my lesson, still had my possessions, and as far as I was concerned everyone could just move on and be fine. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works here. I would have had no say in the punishment of the man who stole from me, so I chose to remove myself from the situation before I got more traumatized than I already was.

I have no idea what happened to that man after I walked out of the room, but I truly hope he is OK, and that (for his own sake) he never steals again.

Moral of the story: caution is great!

As long as it doesn’t keep me from enjoying my travels to the fullest, I think I’ll hold onto my careful tendencies. I only have five weeks left in Tanzania, and I would love to make it out without a third story involving the police. Wish me luck!

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