Nothing new, or, Whatever happened to Aiden Diggeden?

16 02 2012

The police are everywhere these days. I see them under the big tree on the way into town trapping those who are careless with their speed. Other favourite spots include stop streets and certain traffic lights that people like to run. Mini busses are favourite prey and in Mutare they even pay a “levy” of around $5 which ensures that they are not pulled over for other infringements. It’s all part of a strategy to self finance the police. Spot fines tend to be inflated as most people are unaware of what they should be so several of my friends carry a schedule of the gazetted fines just in case. My friend Gary was in the local post office in Borrowdale this week having come up to Harare so that June, his wife, could have an operation on her broken leg. He got chatting to a gentlemen in the queue who seemed to know a lot about the subject. He told Gary that the police would even go so far as to release prisoners to do certain “work” and then they police would get some extra income, the prisoner would get a cut and go back to jail.

I mentioned this to Derek who had been in the  (Zimbabwe used to be called Rhodesia) CID (Criminal Investigation Department) of the Rhodesian BSAP (British South Africa Police) for many years. “Oh that’s nothing new” he said. “In the 1960s there was a certain criminal called Aiden Diggeden who was something of a folk hero around here. He was in jail in Bulawayo while there was a wage train robbery and the investigating officer noticed that Diggeden’s fingerprints were at the crime scene. A bit of investigation revealed that one of the prison warders had been letting him out at night to go and commit crimes and they would share the takings”.

Helen, Derek’s wife, was in the same class as Aiden at Chaplin School near Gweru and she said that his career in crime started when his step-father would not give him pocket-money so he would commit petty crime to get himself and his friends sweets. On several occasions her father gave him pocket-money.

Diggeden was a natural athlete and escaped Rhodesia to South Africa where he qualified for the South African Olympic team as a gymnast. An off duty Rhodesian policeman on holiday in South Africa saw him in a press photo under another name so he was extradited back to Rhodesia. He used his athletic prowess on several occasions to escape jail and used to keep fit in his cell by running up the wall and somersaulting back onto his feet.

On a well-known occasion he and another prisoner broke out of the jail on Enterprise road. They had managed to smuggle in some pieces of hacksaw blade and fashioned them into crude tools by inserting the pieces into the end of an old ballpoint pen. This was used to cut through the bars from the outside and Diggeden wrote a letter to Helen to ask her for paints, presumably to hide where they’d been cutting. They also sawed the frame of the door into pieces and put them back so that they were not discovered. Strips of canvas were stolen out of the prison workshop where canvas bags were made and on the night of the escape ladders were fabricated from the canvas and pieces of door frame. The attempt ran into trouble when Diggeden’s accomplice fell and broke a leg so Diggeden picked him up and left him in the chapel and tried to escape along the prison walls wearing canvas shoes also fabricated from canvas scraps to protect his feet from the glass on the wall. By this time the alarm had been raised and Diggeden’s route was blocked. Climbing up to the eves of the prison roof he hung by his hands and moved along to a trapdoor and then swung up into the roof. He was eventually apprehended in a water tank in the roof where he’d been hiding for 3 days.

“Diggeden was eventually deported to the UK where he got into more trouble and was locked up in Wormwood Scrubs” continued Derek. “I also heard that he got involved in crime in Canada and South America. Last I heard he’d committed suicide after getting tired of a life of crime and incarceration, but I am not sure about when or where” Derek concluded.

Former Glory

2 09 2009

It’s a large room with walls in puce green. The ceiling is high, close to the angle of the roof and the skylights on the west side have been whitewashed over to reduce the heat of summer. Two lines of grime mark the waiting area; one for bored, unwashed heads and the other for elbows slouched over the back of benches no longer there.

Gun licences are a requirement in Zimbabwe and this is one sector of the government that works, at least in outward appearances. I am waiting to collect my licences for a pistol and a shotgun ancien (it’s over 100 years old). For obscure reasons both have to be kept at the office where they are pretty much useless but they are probably not easily sold. I have been waiting for some 15 minutes now whilst my request is “being attended to” and I’m as bored as the two young girls opposite who are starting a slapping contest. The bigger takes off her jersey to allow better freedom of movement but that’s as far as it gets. The policewoman, large and stern with glasses, reprimands them and the younger of the two hides behind her sister with a nervous giggle.

The walls are devoid of decoration save for an ILO poster and a few notices of “Cigarettes are permitted in this office but smoking is not”. Opposite me are two small but tacky photos of big game hunters with their kill. One, in sunglasses is holding a dead leopard in an obscene, almost loving embrace under the forelegs. Its hind legs are just touching the ground and its bloody muzzle is resting on his shoulder. Once a magnificent animal it is now relegated to the Firearms Registry wall where it certainly was three years ago when I last renewed my licences. The other is a grotesque photo of a hunter crouching next to a pickup truck sized hippo – I cannot see any evidence of blood and have no desire to look closer. How difficult is it to shoot a hippo? And he was proud of it?

Outside the winds of September are blowing. It’s going to be a warm day too (nights are still jumper-cool) but the heat of October is only a threat – it will come, never fear; soporific, stultifying heat. Cicadas trilling. Every step will be an effort, a sweaty move in the parturition of the rainy season, if it comes. This is an el Niῆo year when the ever fickle rainy season chooses to be more fickle than usual – though it is likely to be dry, very dry. That is then, but for now the winds blow and the dust swirls and even the sun is cowed in the resulting haze. The matriarchal policewoman finishes stacking files (no computers here) and wipes the patina of dust off the tables behind the counter with a well polished rag. The dust will be back.

Squads of recruits jog (never walk!) past outside, neat in navy blue uniforms. Across the road is a sign Forensic Laboratory; the door is open but it looks deserted. Do they solve crimes inside? Is CSI alive and well in the Harare CID? The wind blows and I wait.

I try playing the Sudoku on my cell phone but I am really not interested. I adjust the font size on the contact list to large and then back to standard. I wait some more. Eventually I am called to the counter. A signature, a date and I am legitimized. It seems that in the two months since I have applied for the licences nothing has happened until I handed over the receipt some 45 minutes earlier. No matter, the woman is pleasant and I have what I came for.

A kloppity mounted squad of recruits goes past as I walk out the gate to the car. The horses at least seem proud and well cared for. Outside the gate it is dust as usual.

I drive a few blocks down to the Delta Art Gallery to have a look at a new exhibition. Back alleys are laden with trash that the council has not even pretended to collect. They charge extortionist rates for no visible return. Trash lines the gutters and is piled on the edge of a dusty square of grass where security company recruits in a motley collection of clothes drill and stamp their feet totally out of turn. A fire has burnt part of the square and rubbish has been dumped on the burnt area. Or was it the other way around? There was a fire burning around a couple of skips at a private school on the way into town. A bit of “impromptu” refuse disposal perhaps?

September is not a pretty month in Harare. Trees are still bare after winter and the blooms of the jacaranda and other summer trees have not started. The Gallery Delta at least is cool and clean though the pieces by the well known local artist are optimistically priced.

Driving back out of town the recruits are still drilling aimlessly on the dusty square and a fire engine has moved in to put out the blaze at the school rubbish skips. Town gets a bit cleaner to the more affluent north where the residents are more inclined and able to pay private refuse collectors to remove their rubbish but Harare, once voted the cleanest capital city in the world (1980’s) is now just a dim shadow of its former trim self.