Fritz Pölking

Stolen luggage in Nairobi


When you hear nature photographers talking about their lenses or cameras having been stolen during a trip, then that would be in Nairobi most of the time, on arrival as well as departure.

Now I have landed in Nairobi at least 30-40 times in the last decade and naturally I have also taken off from there at least those 30-40 times.

Ten years ago when those nice x-ray machines that were able to destroy all film material were still in existence, I packed all of my films in my suitcase on my way there. 

At that time I had 50 rolls of film packed in a suitcase and the other 100 in my carry-on luggage. The films were just fine after development later. Since I flew the same route every time, Frankfurt – Nairobi – Frankfurt, and that it seemed those x-ray machines did not damage the material, I fell into the habit of transporting all my unused rolls of film in my luggage on the way there and carried the tiresome rolls of used film in my hand-luggage on the way back.

I did notice that on arrival in Nairobi customs always had me open the one suitcase with the rolls of film in it, never the other one.

During the first 3-4 times I took that as coincidence; after the 6th-8th time I didn’t any more.

Since by now I had gotten to know the people who work at the airport a bit better, I had a little private conversation with them which resulted in the following story:

At the Nairobi airport all arriving luggage is scanned through an x-ray machine (in the back rooms) starting about 10-12 years ago, before these bags even get onto the luggage belt. One reason why it takes longer to get your luggage in Nairobi then in other airports.

The reason for this x-ray check was and still is that Kenya has exorbitant customs charges on practically anything that you bring into the country and customs checks your luggage prior to the actual control to see what is in the bags that may look like chargeable goods (that would be just about all electrical items starting with radios). They put a white mark on the side of your bag with chalk so that the customs official can see what needs to be opened when the arriving passenger gets ready to pass customs control.

Every time I had to open that one bag with certainty containing the rolls of film a humorous game ensued:

The official told me sternly that I had to pay a customs charge because I was definitely intending to sell the rolls of film in Kenya . Of course we both knew that it is allowed to bring in an unlimited amount of film for personal use, but he insisted that no one needed 150 rolls of film for themselves and as such the customs charge was due. If I refused to pay I would be taken into the back to the chief of customs officer including bag and baggage, but that would definitely take at least 1-2 hours.

That was a trick. You put a 10-dollar bill into your passport and suddenly the rolls of film were for your personal use – right!?! I always thought of that as a type of private customs charge. Who wants to have several hours of long-winded discussions with customs officials after a long flight?

After I knew all that, I tried to wipe the white chalk mark completely off my suitcase when I took it off the luggage track and before continuing to the customs check. That proved to be more difficult then expected. There was always one or the other customs official in civilian clothes around – of course completely inconspicuous – who was watching the passengers in the area of the luggage belts, just to see if anyone attempted wiping off these white marks. Most of the frequent Kenyan travelers knew this game, whereas the European tourists did not.

Now less cameras and lenses are stolen on arrival in Kenya then during departure for the following reason:

When the thief discovers a camera or lens on the x-ray and cuts the side of the suitcase open to take them out, the suitcase will be in the owner’s hands 10 minutes later and would alarm the customs officers and police in the terminal immediately. So the thief actually only has 10 minutes and that seems to be cutting it rather close.

When these items are stolen during departure, the photographer will not notice them missing until 10 hours later in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Zurich, Paris, Rome, London or Madrid. If he has to change planes he may not even notice until 24 hours later in New York or Denver .

In that case nothing whatsoever happens next. The thief in Nairobi has long since left with his loot and is at home or at his fence and the ground personnel in Europe or the U.S.A. shrug their shoulders, take out a form which you can fill out and that is that. So it is so much safer and less nerve-wracking for the thieves to steal the photo equipment upon departure rather then from arriving photographers.

To add to this, many photographers take their camera equipment in their carry-on for safety (lets face it, who wants to arrive without their camera equipment) but after three to four weeks during which nothing has happened you tend to want more comfort on your return flight and you check in at least part of your equipment – thus forming the basis of existence for the thieves…..

So if there is one good piece of advice to give: Never check in your photo equipment. First of all it gets treated unbearably miserable (see the article “What KLM does with our luggage”) and second, it can be stolen easily, whereas the chances on international airports like Nairobi are especially good, because thieves are able to check the x-ray machines for bags that are worth tearing or breaking open.

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