Ministry of Margaret Nelson
Uganda, Africa

October 7, 2010

The Thief with the Red Hat

The red hat was moving through the thick vegetation along my fence. Without it, I would not have seen the man so easily. It was the middle of the hot African afternoon, but it appeared no one was home, as my car was in the mechanic’s garage. I had seen the man next to my gate before he’d disappeared in the bush, now he had reappeared behind my house, near the latrine. It was obvious he was looking for a way over or through my wire fence, and he had positioned himself on the opposite side of my house from my sleeping dogs.

My heart began to pump as I realized this was a thief. I got my cell phone and called Kyeyune (chay-oo-nee), my neighbor, who is also my night guard and our village security man. I told him there was a thief by my latrine, please come quickly. I picked up a big stick I keep near my door while I looked to locate the thief who had disappeared on the far side of my latrine.

When I saw him next, he was inside my compound, at the entrance to my latrine, gaping at my house from there. Then he disappeared into the latrine itself, hiding behind its privacy wall, his red hat bobbing as he attempted to look over it, gawking at my house. My house has big windows but due to the screens and curtains, I can see out, but he could not see me. It was obvious he was looking to break in.

I moved into the central part of the house so he couldn’t hear me, and called Kyeyune again, my voice now quavering. Then I traded my stick for a panga (machete) which I also keep in the house. The next thing, I was hearing Kyeyune loudly confronting the red hat. They were now outside my fence, so I walked out with my panga and my now alerted dogs to join Kyeyune. I saw he also had a panga and his dog.

This kid with the red hat belongs to a troublesome neighborhood family, known for their thieving ways. With stealing goes lying, hand in hand, and not knowing I’d been watching him, he lied, saying a jackfruit had fallen from a certain tree on my fence line, landing on my side of the fence. But crossing someone’s fence is trespassing. So I confronted him with that, plus the fact there was no jackfruit lying on the ground. I also mentioned that jackfruit do not fall in my latrine either…

The following week there was to be a disciplinary meeting with the thief, myself, Kyeyune and the village elders. They are the village legal system, able to deal with a certain level of crime before police must be called in. Between fearing their punishment and the surprise of being confronted by 2 angry people with pangas and dogs, the kid fled.

A few days later, we heard the news that he’d been caught about 2 hours north of our village, robbing an isolated house, and had been beaten within an inch of his life. Someone recognized him, so they were going to send him back to the Luweero police, but somehow he escaped and ran off again. Everyone was happy that he was gone, most of all, me!

In Uganda there is a much broader concept of borrowing than I am used to. There is a much narrower concept of stealing as well, but the consequences are much more severe. Motive is generally the deciding factor between the two. A true thief is generally only arrested if the police arrive in time to save his life. Depending on the severity of the crime, as perceived by the witnesses, the thief may be caned and publicly humiliated. He may be seriously beaten, sometimes even to death. And the strongest of all punishments is to pour gasoline on him and light a match. Kyeyune also later showed me how to properly stab someone with a panga, a lesson I hope I never have to utilize! All my friends and neighbors later said the kid should’ve been beaten.

So unless this red hat thief finds Jesus and changes his ways, his future is not bright.

On the other hand, the incident reminded me once again of how Psalms 33 and 127 both indicate that our safety is not found in the strength of our defense systems, whatever they may be. While it’s wise to have them, it is truly only God who keeps us safe.

No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength, it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear Him, on those whose hope is in His unfailing love, to deliver them from death. Psalm 33: 16-19

Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. Psalm 127:1

I was home alone and yet God enabled me not only to spot this thief attempting to break in when he thought no one was around, and in broad daylight, but He caused Kyeyune to be nearby and to come running.

Margaret Nelson