Why do people steal and ruin the good thing they have going?

About 5 months ago a neighbor gardener showed up at the front gate with his cousin, Paul, vouching for him and saying he’d be a good worker.  Yvonne, our landlady’s mom and the person who lives out front decided to give him a chance.  She farms corn, tomatoes, guinea fowl and quail on the front 3 acres of the property and needs help.  So, Paul, his wife, their 3 year old daughter and their 6 month old baby girl moved onto the property, in the shack (for lack of a better term) out front.

Paul and his family were thrilled because since moving from the village to Lusaka a month previous, they had been squatting in this half-built house with no roof, and rainy season had just started.

This is what they moved into, which doesn’t look like much, but it had a roof with a tarp so it was dry inside, it had a door and a window, and Yvonne gave them a mattress to sleep on.  Compared to camping out on cement without a roof, it was the lap of luxury.

All started out well.  Paul worked very hard and was paid about what our guard gets, was given free lodging, and his pay was often topped up each week when he did extra work (so at the end of the month he earned at least another 50% of his base pay).  Within a few weeks, Yvonne was able to convince her daughter and son-in-law that a proper home was needed for Paul and his family, with electricity, a toilet and a sink.  Within a month Paul’s family was able to move into this finished small home with two rooms (instead of one), electricity (complete with hotplate, provided by Yvonne), an indoor toilet, and an outside sink to wash dishes and clothes.  This family’s fortunes had improved drastically from just two months previous.  Our guards and gardener don’t have electricity in their homes – Paul’s family had it better than they did!

Because Yvonne’s a single woman living alone, she often shared meals and gave her leftovers to Paul’s family.  She also bought clothes for the children.

So, how did Paul repay her?  He and our new night guard George started a racket where they’d steal 2-3 of Yvonne’s quail at a time and sell them in Bauleni (the densely populated low income compound where most of the service workers in our area live, including our gardener and our guards).  This went on for a month.  Paul kept telling Yvonne that the quail died and because dozens were being hatched and at various stages of development every day, she skeptically believed him.

Then, early last week, two mirrors Yvonne had stored out in the old shack where Paul used to live went missing.  Then, later in the week Paul came and told Yvonne that a mattress had gone missing over the night.  (And, mind you, Paul is the only one other than Yvonne with a key.)  Yvonne came and talked with us and she and Thom decided to get to the bottom of the situation.

Thom confronted our night guard George and caught him in several lies regarding the quail.  Thom called the guard service and the supervisor came and picked George up right away and took him to jail.  The next morning the supervisor called and said George confessed to selling the quail he said Paul had given him, and that Paul was the one who approached him about carrying the quail to Bauleni (about a 40 minute walk) and splitting the proceeds.  George said he had nothing to do with the mattress and mirrors being stolen.

Yesterday, the police came and got Paul and he was held in a jail cell for 24 hours.  He lied about everything they said, constantly changed his story, and in the end, with a begrudged confession of sorts from Paul (“I only took five quail,” “she wasn’t using that stuff”), everyone concluded that he had not only fenced the quail, but the mattress and mirrors too.  Yvonne calculated she lost more than 60 quail.  Of course, Paul’s family had to go (George had already been replaced over the weekend).

It was quite sad.  I went out for an evening walk with the dogs and Paul’s wife and her daughters were sitting there on the ground, asking to come in.  I didn’t know what to do so I let them in while I went on my walk.  When I got back I texted Yvonne and she said do NOT let them in, she had just found out that they had been stealing her maize (corn) too and selling that.  She said, ‘They’re horrible people with no conscience or morals, they cannot come in.’

So, I had to go get our new guard, Chris, and have him escort them out.  Paul’s wife said they had no food and no where to go.  I told her I was very sorry, but that I also was shocked, why did they steal when they had a good thing going?  Why did they steal when surely they would have earned more in terms of money and food and comfort over a couple of years than they would selling a few quail and some furniture?  She told our guard she was innocent, and that it was her husband.  I just kept asking, didn’t you see how improved your life was since arriving?  You had food, running water, a flush toilet, electricity, a hot plate, and even a small television (that Yvonne had lent to them)?   Why would you steal to add just a few kwatcha to your household?

I was really bummed.  I told the guard that Yvonne was adamant, they had to go.  (And Yvonne didn’t buy it that the wife didn’t know what was going on.)  I went and got half a loaf of bread and some leftover potatoes and roast beef and gave it to them and said I was sorry, but they would have to go, and again, I asked, why would you do this when you had to know you had a good thing going?  (By this point Paul’s wife had stopped proclaiming her innocence and I got the sense that she felt equal parts guilt and defiance – a strange mixture but one you sometimes see here – that people think it’s okay to steal and wonder why those stolen from get so upset over it.)

I really can’t understand why a family that had gone from having absolutely nothing (no food, shelter, clothes) to having it better off than 95% of those working the same kind of job they did would ruin it over what couldn’t have been more than a full day’s pay over a month – especially given the fact that Yvonne gave them extra food and clothes throughout the month.  The only thing that makes any sense to me is that Paul must have thought Yvonne was very stupid, or that she wouldn’t know it was unusual for so many quail to “die” a day, or he thought he could just plain get away with it (arrogance?).

If you have any ideas as to why someone would do this I’d love to hear them.  I honestly can’t understand it.  Now, that poor family is probably out in some dirt field, back where they started, with no shelter, no clothes, no food, and no means of making money.

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About Kimm X Jayne

Gravatar Photograph from the exceptionally talented Ben Heine. http://www.flickr.com/photos/benheine/3794765860/
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16 Responses to Why do people steal and ruin the good thing they have going?

  1. medwoman says:

    http:people.bridgewater.edu/~mtembo/menu/articles/kukomolahate.shtml

    Here is the web site of Dr. Mwizenge S. Tembo from Bridgewater College, Bridgewater VA who is originally from Eastern province.
    read Kumomola: Why they hate us.
    Also his article about his village “Heaven on Earth”
    It really put things in perspective for me.
    I am not saying that Paul hated Yvonne, but I think he felt that she had more than she needed and she should share the wealth. Not that I am justifying anything. It was wrong and hopefully his children will learn from it. Education, Education, Education!

  2. Kimm X Jayne says:

    Thanks Joanne – I look forward to reading it!

  3. Ed Mabaya says:

    Nice read. I have seen and heard this story all too often in many variations. It has happened to me too and i also grew up on the other side of this story. Not to blame everything on colonialism, i recall that stealing from (or sabotaging) the establishment was considered to be a heroic act not too long ago. After Independence, this mentality remained (only replacing ‘the establishment’ with ‘the haves’). This is my attempt at explaining (not justifying) this odd behavior. Bitting the hand that feeds you – painful to both victim and perpetrator

    • Kimm X Jayne says:

      Thanks Ed. Martin Meredith makes a similar point in his book, The fate of Africa. I read it a long time ago so don’t exactly remember his arguments, but I do remember he showed how Africans’ behaviors under colonialism carried through to leaders after independence, who consciously or subconsciously acted the way they did (even if they started out heroes, like Mugabe) because of the colonial legacy, which justified graft and pocketing portions of aid. Here’s the book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Fate-Africa-Freedom-Despair/dp/1586482467

  4. Sara Foster says:

    A similar thing is recalled by John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor, when he was stationed in South Africa in the 70s. The housekeeper was paid more than the going rate and given lots of extras but stole from them quite blatantly. Its recounted in his first volume of his autobiography.

    • Kimm X Jayne says:

      Do you happen to know the name of the book? I’d like to read it.

      • Sara Foster says:

        I think it was in Strange Places, Questionable People (1998)

      • Liberty says:

        There is also Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (1891). His insight into your question was “We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.”
        It’s a confronting and uncomfortable perspective, but food for thought perhaps?

  5. Maureen Witte says:

    It does seem almost impossible to understand. Unless the culture is so messed up that people can’t see beyond today. Old habits appear to be impossible to break. So sad….

  6. Helen says:

    My gardener in Lusaka did the same thing to me and I hated him for it. “Thou shalt not steal” no matter how God Fearing they make themselves out to be is obviously, not one of the Zambian’s 10 Commandments. I lost a lot of respect for Zambians & Congolese in my time in Lusaka. And now as time has passed and its been some 4 months since I was there, I am no longer wishing to retain a connection with Zambia the way I had envisioned I would. I am hurt by several experiences of theft and a very large operation of fraud by a Lusaka based Congolese man named John Mutumbi. He stole 35000 US dollars from our company and left us personally destitute in Lusaka. My exoerience has left never wanting to live in Africa or do business with an African ever again.

    It makes me very sad.

    • Kimm X Jayne says:

      I’m so sorry to hear this!! Where are you living now?

    • Kathy says:

      I am sorry for the sad experiences you had when dealing with some Zambians, but it is wrong to lump all Zambians under one heading of thieves. I know some are thieves, but many more of us are not and have worked hard for what we have. I take it you are American, so I will not talk about Madoff/ There are thieves in every country.

  7. Chikurawadyembeu says:

    Why do Wall Street bankers in NYC and London, e.g., steal when they have so much?

    • Kimm X Jayne says:

      I agree! I guess the question is, what makes people who have enough for their basic needs (enough food, housing, clothing, medical care, etc.) steal? (I can understand swiping something if you’re starving, cold, etc.)

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the interesting post, very thought provoking. Oscar Wilde has written on this subject in The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891) “We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.”

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