Raymond Jaravaza, Showbiz Reporter
When one drives through a section of Cowdray Park suburb in Bulawayo in the middle of the night and hears ear-splitting sounds of whistles piercing the darkness; they should know that criminal activity of some sort is going on.
Tired of menacing burglars that roam the streets stealing anything of value from building material to high end electronic appliances, residents of the suburb have decided that enough is enough and come up with ingenious means of fighting crime.
In their arsenal of crime fighting tools, the residents have added a “special weapon” to keep thieves and opportunists that prowl the dark streets of their neighbourhoods at bay. And that weapon is a whistle.
Yes, a whistle — that small instrument that has been used at rugby, soccer, basketball or netball matches since time immemorial.
To Cowdray Park residents, violence is never an option because it’s a crime to lay hands on an alleged suspect no matter what — guilty or not — as it remains the prerogative of the police to arrest suspects and the courts to pass a guilty verdict.
The instruction is simple; when a resident suspects that an intruder has broken into their home, he blows his whistle to alert a neighbour, who in turn does the same and before burglars know what has hit them, the whole neighourhood is off their beds and up on their feet.
It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and for Cowdray Park residents, losing their property to thieves almost every night, sitting around, doing nothing to combat crime and bemoaning the lack of police patrols at night was not ideal.
Sikhululekile Ndlovu woke up one cold morning last month to do her daily chores in her yard and almost collapsed at what she saw.
“It was as if I was dreaming when I found a window frame that had been installed by the builders six months ago missing. I went back into the house confused and came out again because I was convinced that my eyes were deceiving me.
“The window frame was still missing and it then dawned on me that it had indeed been stolen during the night,” said Ndlovu.
She lives in a three-roomed house that she completed building a few years ago and recently decided to build additional rooms that include a sitting room, which now stands at roof level.
“I have no idea how they managed to remove a huge window frame from the wall without making noise to alert the neighbours or myself. I still believe these people use juju to get us into deep sleep while they steal in the middle of the night,” the mother of three said.
The theft is one of dozens that are reported to the police on a monthly basis.
Building material such as cement, window frames and even bricks are the most sought after merchandise by the prowling thieves.
The section of Cowdray Park where Ndlovu resides in is known as Segment 7 and lies at the far end of the suburb that is almost inaccessible by road. There is no electricity and residents still use a communal water tap. The Bulawayo City Council is yet to connect water supplies to each household.
Sophia Mucheke lost 270 bricks two months ago and she says on the morning that she discovered the theft, tyre tracks outside her yard proved that a truck had been used to ferry the stolen bricks.
“I have been living here for three years, but the crime levels have recently spiked such that we wake up every morning expecting to find something missing from our homes.
“Last week, we held a residents’ meeting and decided to come up with neighbourhood watch committees that will patrol the streets at night,” said Mucheke.
Each household is now expected to fork out $5 monthly to pay the men that will patrol the streets every night.
Mucheke said she has never seen police patrols since she moved into Segment 7 in 2016.
“The police do not even come to investigate the thefts. They will just tell you to file a report in case the stolen goods are recovered somewhere else,” she said.
According to the South Africa Institute of Security Studies, police visibility is a deterrent of crime. Criminals tend to target areas that are less patrolled by the police and other security organs such as private security guards as well as community watch committees.
Ephraim Muchakadziya is of the opinion that builders hired by residents to construct their houses work in cahoots with criminals to steal building materials.
“In almost all the cases where building materials are stolen, things like window frames are stolen just days after being installed and we wonder if that is just a coincidence or the builders are working with the thieves,” said Muchakadziya.
But how effective is the whistle blowing initiative in combating crime in his neighbourhood?
“It works wonders. The idea is to avoid confronting the thieves on your own because they will be armed and dangerous. Two weeks ago, I was hired to guard building material by a homeowner based in South Africa and three nights in a row, thieves tried to break into the house.
“Every time I blew the whistle to alert the neighbours, they would disappear into the darkness,” he said.
Cowdray Park as a whole does not have a police station like its sister suburb Luveve which has a fully functional police station with holding cells and police vehicles.
A few “police bases” are scattered around Cowdray Park but residents complain that it’s not enough to curb crime in their communities. — @RaymondJaravaza