Safety in Mozambique and Elsewhere

June 1, 2009 | 40 comments
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I was in Mozambique. I felt safe.

I was only there for a day–My family and I stayed overnight in a hotel in downtown Maputo, and while there I walked around the city, visited a shopping mall, bought books in two different bookstores, visited a cultural center and saw an art exhibit there, retrieved cash from atms and met with a leader of the Mozambican Writers Association at the association’s headquarters. I want to go back for many reasons, including to see Gustave Eiffel‘s House of Steel.

So, I’m not sure that I can offer much explanation for what happened to Elder Nelson and those with him. I suspect others have much more experience than I. I don’t know where the mission home in Maputo is, nor even what kind of area that it is in.

However, I am fairly sure that the kind of robbery that happened at the mission home is not that unusual. Mozambique is the 6th poorest country in the world and one of many poor countries in the poorest continent in the world. Unlike most western countries, the middle class is small to non-existent, and the gap between the rich and poor is very large.

While there I did see how the rich live. Without exception, homes are in walled enclosures, usually topped with glass and often including small guard houses for security guards.

That doesn’t sound like what I would expect in a mission home, but I also don’t know all the issues that go into selecting a mission home. Security is probably one issue, and mission homes in many countries are almost like a embassy for the Church, which might very well put a mission home in an upscale neighborhood. These needs then likely need to be balanced with the need to be approachable by the community–so that missionaries can actually reach the people.

In contrast, the idea that it is ok to ‘steal from the rich,’ especially rich foreigners, because you are poor, is common in many parts of Africa. It seems to me that often the rich make themselves obvious targets–if you protect your house with walls and a security guard, aren’t you broadcasting that you have stuff worth stealing in your home?

I can’t say what should happen in Mozambique. I have a very limited experience with the country. But I do find the pattern of behavior interesting. To a lesser degree we see the same attitudes, on both sides, here in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. We have very rich here too, and the rich protect their houses and goods with security measures–walls, security guards and the like are not uncommon. And while our poor don’t suffer to the same extent, at least some of them use the same justification for illegal activities. And is there any doubt that the same visual clues — ostentatious housing, dress, cars, and the use of security–to select targets for their thefts?

If nothing else, the similarities between the rich countries and poor countries like Mozambique leads me to believe that there are universal motivations at work. I think it would be simplistic to think that some people are just evil and will commit crimes no matter what, just as it is likewise simplistic to suggest that how wealthy a country is determines how much crime there is. Both environment and individual character are at play.

Of these two, environment seems easier to fix, but I have to wonder if security measures really contribute much to the fix. While they make it more difficult for criminals to act, it seems to me that they are self-fulfilling in a sense, tipping off criminals that something behind the walls and security guards is worth protecting. [Kind of like, "if you build it, they will try to break in…"]

But eliminating the conditions and culture of crime–reducing the gap between rich and poor, increasing economic opportunity, strengthening the moral beliefs of a community–all require herculean efforts that make them seem impossible to the individual and extremely difficult to achieve for even the most popular and powerful politicians.

The individual is really left with two choices, in my opinion. First, beef up personal security–build the walls and hire the security guards. Second, live modestly, so that you are not as attractive a target.

I don’t know about you, but the second seems like what the scriptures favor.

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40 Responses to Safety in Mozambique and Elsewhere

  1. bbell on June 1, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    ???

    I simply do not care what the motivations of violent thugs are. These women were roughed up by violent thugs. Violent thugs showing up here in my nieghborhood in TX would be met by me and my neighbors with lethal force. I know plenty of really poor people on my mission in Africa who would never never resort to violence for any reason except immediate self defense. Poverty is simply not an excuse for violence.

    I think you are stunningly naive about the realities on the ground in much of Southern Africa. Of course there needs to be security for middle aged Western women in their place of residence.

  2. Rolf on June 1, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    I was floored when I heard about this, as someone who’s lived in Mozambique and known the Packards (the mission president and his wife) personally. In large part that’s because, though I’ve never been to the Maputo mission home and can’t speak to its location or level of luxury, the Packards are such non-fancy people. Before they were called as mission presidents, they were the runners of an NGO based in Beira, Mozambique called Care For Life (I worked for Care For Life on the ground in Beira for a year, which is how I got to know them), and had spent countless summers on bare floors in orphanages and other random spots where they could lay their heads. It’s the most tragic irony that people like them would be targeted as “rich foreigners”, because they are the last types to carry themselves in such a way.

    Unfortunately (to the degree that circumstances require it), at least in my personal experiences in the developing world (I served my mission in northern Brazil and have lived and traveled there for a few years, and spent a year in Mozambique), church leaders like mission presidents are often forced into living in high upper class neighborhoods for security reasons. Issues like poor-on-rich theft, assault and kidnapping for ransom are very common in the developing world, especially directed towards the especially well off (look, for example, at the high number of ransoms in Mexico this last week).

    This involves the church because, like it or not, American missionaries are, no matter how humble they may consider their circumstances in the States, comparatively rich and therefore targets in the developing world. Missionary attire doesn’t help the situation much–on my mission, I was constantly asked how rich I was due to my white shirt and tie, even when the white shirt was sweat-covered and dirty and the tie sun-bleached, simply because you don’t see people walking around in white shirts and ties in the developing world unless they’re rich or trying to look it.

    I think you make a valid point, Kent, in terms of what should be our living spaces as representatives of Christ–I know that the several mission homes I’ve seen in Brazil seemed “rich” to me, as did many of the houses I lived in as a missionary. However, when you take security into account, a mission president who tried to live more humbly would be more easily robbed without the security measures that a “rich” house provides. I’ve come to see it as a necessary evil in some areas–one that mission presidents don’t exactly choose, either, as they typically inherit the house that the church has already acquired when when moving to the area. The church wants to protect its leaders, and when faced with a choice between appearances and safety, I can understand why they would pick safety (even if part of me is uncomfortable with it).

    It’s a tough issue, and these are all valid concerns–I’m just not sure there’s a very perfect solution. In my personal travels in Mozambique and elsewhere, I tend to rough it more, but that’s easier to do when you’re just responsible for your own safety–the church as an institution has 50,000+ missionaries to worry about.

  3. NOYDMB on June 1, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    BBell,
    I also wonder if Kent would decry the “steal from the rich” mentality. I do.

  4. Chris H. on June 1, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    bbell,

    “I think you are stunningly naive about the realities on the ground in much of Southern Africa.”

    What are your credentials for discussing the realities of Africa?

  5. Chris H. on June 1, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Kent,

    A beautiful and very thoughtful post.

  6. Kent Larsen on June 1, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    BBell, I wish you would take your invective elsewhere. I never suggested that the women involved should not be in a place they feel and are secure. In fact, I said:

    Security is probably one issue, and mission homes in many countries are almost like a embassy for the Church, which might very well put a mission home in an upscale neighborhood. These needs then likely need to be balanced with the need to be approachable by the community–so that missionaries can actually reach the people.

    Please actually read the post before you comment.

  7. Chris H. on June 1, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    Hey bbell, I missed your mention of serving a mission in Africa. I take back my earlier question and apologize.

    I do think that it is important to understand the situations these people are living in, not just to secure the safety of white foreign visitors, but also to secure the salvation of the “thugs.”

  8. gst on June 1, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    I don’t have any experience “on the ground” in Africa, but I did read a novel about this. I don’t remember the part where Jean Valjean broke the old lady’s arm, though.

  9. James Olsen on June 2, 2009 at 1:12 am

    I enjoyed your thoughts. In addition to the security question you pose–which is more effective, a stronger compound or popular blending?–there is serious moral question. What should the Church’s mission and approach be in areas of extreme suffering and depredation? And what should our personal concerns be given the magnitude of extant suffering vis-a-vis our own wealth? I don’t have credentials to speak about the specifics of Africa, but I certainly have credentials to speak about witnessing serious human suffering. There is nothing that degrades the human soul and robs us of agency and the ability to pursue anything lovely, virtuous, praiseworthy or of good report like the poverty and suffering of people living in countries like Mozambique. Of course there are the very rare few who seem to shine out of such circumstances; but there’s a reason why they’re rare. I wish we had a full-time humanitarian missionary force of 50,000+. I’m not sure if it would help our security concerns. I don’t think it’s possible to completely insulate ourselves from violence and crime. But I know it’s not possible to insulate ourselves from our moral obligations.

  10. Peter LLC on June 2, 2009 at 1:35 am

    Violent thugs showing up here in my nieghborhood in TX would be met by me and my neighbors with lethal force.

    Every member a militiaman?

  11. Ralph on June 2, 2009 at 7:56 am

    Your description of the rich living in walled enclosures reminds me of an earlier post about gated communities. Unlike the hairy-chested crowd from Texas whose answer to everything seems to be lethal force, maybe — just maybe — we should give some thought to Book of Mormon teaching about the evils of class distinctions in society.

  12. Doug Hudson on June 2, 2009 at 8:06 am

    Jesus, of course, is well known for gunning down violent thugs.

  13. Wilfried on June 2, 2009 at 8:25 am

    Thanks, Kent, for these thoughts on the safety of our people on missions. Africa, for sure, poses peculiar challenges — and I speak from experience in the Congo.

    Maputo in Mozambique does not make things easy. A city with some 1,5 million people trying to survive, and, I presume, still with the same U.S. safety warnings being valid.

    One of the greatest challenges, however, is trust. You can still get your house protected by guards (even converts to the Church), temptation or gang pressure remains high in such countries. You may lock yourself in and have a quiet dinner with friends, it suffices to have a cook or a maid inside to open the grill gate or the steel back door.

  14. bbell on June 2, 2009 at 9:17 am

    For Western women this issue is about much more then simple robbery of cash and cell phones. Its about gang rape followed by a machete to the head or HIV. That is why I find this whole idea that somehow we can love violent thugs and apply some BOM principles and live unprotected in places like Southern Africa to be just silly.

    You really think that the mission home should be approachable? Sure maybe 99% of the locals do not want to do you harm but that 1% can kill you and will if given the chance. When you open yourself up like this it causes troubles. When passions are inflamed or an opportunty to steal something of value presents itself that 1% can grow to a much larger percentage then 1%

    We once had a naive American mission president who had similar ideas as the OP move 2 sets of elders into rough areas in an attempt to “live amongst the people” similar to what you are proposing above. There was a period of racial violence in 1993 and mobs of angry locals marched to both missionary dwellings with tires and gasoline to necklace the elders. When you necklace somebody you make them drink gas, pour the gas on them, put the tire around their necks and light the whole thing on fire. The elders had been warned by some local members to leave a few hours before and escaped with their lives. Their living quarters were burned to the ground in a race riot aimed specifically at them.

    Another case involved 4 elders who were doing a service project at a school in a rough area. A crowd gathered with the expected tires and gas. One elder started to rebuke them in the name of Jesus after obviously having read the opening post and thinking about converting the rioters and how bad their childhoods must have been. He got slapped by the DL who instructed everybody to grab shovels and get ready to fight it out. Their willingness to fight it out delayed their inevitable deaths long enough for a couple of police armored vehicles to pull up and large men in riot gear holding shotguns dispersed the crowd of rioters.

    Soon afterwards we got a native MP who made lots of jokes about naive Americans this native MP squashed this whole idea of living amongst the people as he knew it was not safe.

  15. HeidiAnn on June 2, 2009 at 9:29 am

    I had the thought come that, “I wonder if the sisters got (or nearly got) worse than a broken arm, cuts, and bruises?” The fact that the others in the party, besides the sisters, got cuts and bruises, makes me wonder if they tried to fight back, and I can see that happening if the sisters were threatened, especially more than physically. I know I shouldn’t speculate, but I wondered if anyone else had the same thought. I have a huge tendency to try to read between the lines, and of course sometimes there is nothing between the lines.

  16. HeidiAnn on June 2, 2009 at 9:32 am

    Of course, if something worse had happened, I can’t imagine that they would stay and finish their trip, but maybe they would, who knows? And clearly, it could be that there was nothing left out of the report. If there was anything left out, I’m not implying it would be out of dishonesty, but out of a respect for their privacy.

  17. MikeInWeHo on June 2, 2009 at 9:47 am

    I always assumed that somebody as high-profile at a member of the Q12 would have significant personal security in a setting like Mozambique. Bbell is right: you have to spend time there to understand what it’s really like on the ground.

    Note to self: Avoid bbell’s neighborhood next time I go a-thuggin’.

  18. jimbob on June 2, 2009 at 11:13 am

    For the record, I met hundreds of Mozambiquanos on my mission, and I can honestly say that I never met one I didn’t like.

    Of course, that doesn’t say anything concerning bbell’s 1% rule or several of the other comments made, but I’d hope we wouldn’t paint all Africans or Mozambiquanos with the same broad brush because of one incident perpetrated by a few individuals.

  19. Sherry on June 2, 2009 at 11:32 am

    My prayers & thoughts go out to not only those who were attacked in Mozambique but any other individual serving the Lord & either being attacked or killed. You don’t have to go to a foreign land to experience this. What about the young elder serving in Chesapeake, VA who lost his life? That is only 45 mins from my home.

    Security & common sense go hand in hand. Why any MP or other would put an missionary or church representative in danger is beyond me…..I realize that GA’s & apostles have certain contacts, visits & appearance that need to be made, but sending young missionaries into “known” areas of danger is rediculous. My son was sent into a “dangerous” area in Brazil while on his mission. Within weeks, they had to be “emergency” evacuated because of the threats on their lives. If individuals are so hostile that they are threatening the Lord’s servants, they can not be of the mindset or heart to be receptive to the Gospel. And I do realize that many of the perpetrators can & are a small fraction of those that live in those areas, but at what cost do we serve?

  20. Vader on June 2, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    #12,

    The only record we have of Jesus confronting thugs was the night before His crucifixion. The thugs in question were acting under color of law, and Christ had already indicated that He would rather not have gone along with them but would do what His Father willed. Not a very good guide to modern victims of thuggery.

    On the other hand, Captain Moroni repeatedly led his followers in systematically cutting down the thugs that were threatening their homes, wives, and children. He relented only when the thugs took a binding oath to stop acting like thugs. Captain Moroni wasn’t terribly happy about having to shed blood, but then I suspect most armed homeowners fervently hope they will never have to use their arms. I would.

  21. Kent Larsen on June 2, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Bbell, I’m not sure why you are ignoring the text of the post, and that of most of the posters. As far as i can tell, NO ONE suggested that reasonable security measures be given up.

    You are creating a straw man to knock down, and as a result, you have completely missed and ignored the idea I’m trying to express here.

    I’ll say it again, please read the post BEFORE you comment.

  22. gst on June 2, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Kent, are walls and guards unreasonable security measures?

  23. Kent Larsen on June 2, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Vader, I’m not sure what your musings on Capt. Moroni have to do with this situtation. I really wasn’t suggesting that Elder Nelson either have or not have security guards. As I said in the post, I’m not an expert in security in Mozambique or any other area of the world. Nor do I know what concerns are important for protecting General Authorities and missionaries.

    The real issue here is how you live your life. The Book of Mormon story on Capt. Moroni makes it clear that he had little choice — fighting was his only security.

    We, in our rich, western countries with reasonably responsive police protection, DO have a choice. What disturbs me is that so many believe that increasing security for our overly ostentatious lifestyles is the only choice. While it may not be true in Africa, it is certainly true in the U.S. that if you flaunt it, you have to protect it.

    In terms of security, we have to ask ourselves why we are protecting that which “moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.”

  24. Kent Larsen on June 2, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    gst (22), it depends. What are you trying to protect, in what context are you protecting it, and why you are trying to protect it.

    In my book, if you are just trying to protect your Rolls Royce and 78 inch flat screen, or if you want to impress your neighbors with how much security you can afford, or if you live in a neighborhood with lower than average rates of theft or home invasions and you aren’t a known public figure who might be targeted, then yes, walls and guards are unreasonable security measures.

    In the U.S. and most first-world countries, there are really very few situations where walls and security guards are justified. They are mostly either about impressing others, or protecting an immoral emphasis on material goods.

  25. gst on June 2, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Let us say, for example, that I am trying to protect an apostle, a mission president, and their wives. In Maputo, Mozambique.

  26. Kent Larsen on June 2, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    As I said, gst, I’m not an expert on security in Mozambique. I don’t know what efforts should have been made, nor do I know what the mission home was like, and to what degree it would be a target. I’ll bet the simple fact that the mission president and his wife are white foreigners makes it a target to some degree, and that isn’t very easy to change.

    I have no idea if the mission home has walls and guards or not, nor do I know if they are needed.

    If the Church were, for some strange reason, to ask my opinion, I would have to have a long conversation with a security expert, someone who knows Mozambique and the mission home there, before I could venture an opinion.

    I don’t know.

  27. bbell on June 2, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Kent,

    I am taking you in context.

    Here is your own paragraph.

    “The individual is really left with two choices, in my opinion. First, beef up personal security–build the walls and hire the security guards. Second, live modestly, so that you are not as attractive a target.”

    On my mission in Africa in order to live modestly one must live in a shack without running water, proper schooling, no healthcare, and mealie corn for every meal. Maybe you could add a security guard and a wall around your shack. That would not stick out not at all.

    Its simply not possible for a westerner in Southern Africa to live modestly. Any type of western style living. Running water, a car, AC all are out of reach for many Africans. I knew many LDS Africans who lived in small 2 room houses without running water or phones. We had a whole district where the entire membership owned literally 3 cars and no phones. Not one. How could the mission operate without phones etc? Smoke signal?

    You think the MP’s in Southern Africa have a Rolls Royce and 78 inch flat screens? Talk about a strawman. Where does lifestyle in the US relate to the opening post?

  28. Kent Larsen on June 2, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    As is clear from the context, bbell (27) that paragraph doesn’t refer to anyone in Africa. It does talk about us here in the US and in other first-world countries.

  29. MC on June 2, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    “The individual is really left with two choices, in my opinion. First, beef up personal security–build the walls and hire the security guards. Second, live modestly, so that you are not as attractive a target.
    I don’t know about you, but the second seems like what the scriptures favor.”

    This seems like a particularly egregious example of blaming the victim. I suppose we should avoid building large, ostentatious skyscrapers so that no one will be overly tempted to bomb them in the future.

  30. Rolf on June 2, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    It seems the main problem here is that Kent seemed to basically say two things in his original post that I don’t believe he intended to be strung together, but were easily conflated–namely, that one, the incident in Mozambique’s mission home (which he admits not knowing much about contextually) got him thinking about LDS lifestyles. Two, in the context he knows better in the States, he thinks a more humble lifestyle is a good idea. In Mozambique, he admits not knowing what the solution would be. Intelligent points are being made along with strawmen raised on both sides, which is unfortunate. So it goes with internet discourse.

  31. Kent Larsen on June 2, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    MC (29):

    This seems like a particularly egregious example of blaming the victim. I suppose we should avoid building large, ostentatious skyscrapers so that no one will be overly tempted to bomb them in the future.

    Not really. Its more like what everyone here in NYC was saying after 9/11 — that we shouldn’t build big buildings so it would not happen again.

    Its not suggesting that building skyscrapers is inherently wrong–its acknowledging the risks inherent (and previously not apparent) in skyscrapers.

    Of course, I do think that there is a problem in many cases with those who are building walls and hiring security guards–its the same problem with those who put all their faith in material goods, and who build their treasures out of that which “moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.”

  32. Kent Larsen on June 2, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Rolf (30), you may be right. But you should also know that BBell decided some time ago that I am an unreformed liberal, and therefore assumes everything I write is from a liberal viewpoint.

    As for my pattern of writing, you are right. I have used that same patter in several previous posts also, and I likely will again. I hope that it draws a few more people into thinking about the issues I bring up.

  33. MC on June 2, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    Mr. Larsen (31),
    I certainly see your point about not putting faith in material things. Flaunting of wealth is a textbook example. But I don’t think that has anything to do with the morality of taking measures to protect your property. Anyone reading this is by definition vastly wealthier than a great many people in the world, and probably a great many people in their own community. Do you feel guilty locking your car because it might be stolen and sold for parts by someone poorer than you?

    I also greatly doubt that “living modestly” is a good crime prevention tactic. I do not believe that disparity in wealth is what causes theft, any more than I believe that skyscrapers cause terrorism. Was Bernie Madoff poor? Was the U.S.S. Cole a skyscraper? . Also, most victims of crimes committed by the poor are themselves poor. We call poor areas “high crime” areas for a reason. Living humbly with the poor might be a Christian thing to do, but it is unlikely to make you safer.

  34. queuno on June 2, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    Note to self: Avoid bbell’s neighborhood next time I go a-thuggin’.

    bbell lives a couple of wards over from me (same school district though) and there aren’t any more thugs than you’d find in West Hollywood. There are, however, a lot of homeowners with licensed weapons.

    I’m thinking of a particular mission home in Russia. It’s located on the 5th story of a building that contains two diplomatic offices (not embassies, because it’s not Moscow, but official government offices other other countries). It also has a gate and armed guards that you have to cross to get in.

    Having discussed the Russian situation with a former MP, I can tell you that the primary consideration is security. The second consideration was security. The third was security. “Ease of access” was not a major consideration. The fact that it was very upscale was a function of it being in a secure area.

    I think the answer in the developing world has to be more security. Maybe the solution is by definition a less ostentatious house, but the more secure areas of those major cities will probably have more ostentatious homes.

    When my wife served her mission in SoCal, some of her work areas were practically war zones. The Church opted for “security” and deliberately housed them away from their work areas for their personal safety.

    My guess is that the Church’s solution to the events in Maputo will be to beef up security.

    I do know that in Texas, there was been much talk a few years back about putting mission homes in gated communities (maybe they’ve done that now). Again, for security.

  35. queuno on June 2, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    I do agree with your view that where one lives aids in the perception of wealth, and can make someone more of a target. It seems then that perhaps the mission home should be nondescript with heavier security. The problem will be finding a house to rent in a highly-secure neighborhood that’s nondescript.

    I would probably look for the Mozambique mission home in the future to end up in the same neighborhood as embassies and government buildings, if it’s not there already.

  36. gst on June 2, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Mission homes should be surrounded by moats patrolled by sharks with frickin’ laser beams on their heads.

  37. queuno on June 3, 2009 at 1:07 am

    I think the private security forces in Russia could top sharks. And in North Texas, you’d have issues with water levels to fill your moat…

  38. bbell on June 3, 2009 at 10:46 am

    I was thinking about some Blackwater private security types.

    When SWK would visit my mission (before I was there and this is according to the local members) he would have 4-5 local armed LDS policeman/military types as bodyguards.

  39. Kent Larsen on June 3, 2009 at 11:55 am

    MC (33): I’m not sure I’m saying that taking security measures to protect your property is immoral — I’d first suggest that ostentatious material goods are immoral.

    But I’m also arguing that security measures need to be implemented with an eye towards what drives why you need the security.

    Yes it is true that some crime happens regardless of income level. But to claim that ostentation doesn’t have anything at all to do with crime, is naïeve at least. I’m quite certain that smart security consultants do worry about why criminals would be after a particular location or target.

    Let’s stop seeing this as all either security or living modesty. The best security is going to be a combination of reasonable security measures, like, yes, locking the car, and living modestly–that is, not owning an attractive, high-end car that thieves see value in.

  40. MC on June 7, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Mr. Larsen,
    I’m glad that you now believe it’s not an “either-or” issue. I would only point out that in your originial post, you wrote:
    “The individual is really left with two choices, in my opinion. First, beef up personal security–build the walls and hire the security guards. Second, live modestly, so that you are not as attractive a target.”
    It was this “either-or” proposition I was responding to.