About a week back I was in riding in a matatu (van-like taxi) while talking my sister on the phone. She had just had her birthday the day before, and due to proximity and budget issues, the best I can manage for such special occasions is to allow others the privilege of calling me. The matatu pulled over to the side of the road to give everyone the chance to buy some food or drinks, and, as I was staring out the window, talking to my sister, I saw a man on the street get struck by another man riding a bicycle. I immediately lost track of the conversation. I knew what was coming. I apologized to my sister and told her she would have to call me back, ruining what would have otherwise been my stellar gift to her.
Within seconds, people had already begun to move toward the accident. While the first man writhed around, probably emulating one his international soccer star heroes, the second man immediately hopped to his feet, grabbed his bike, and started to make a run for it. Unlike in America, people don’t hit-and-run out purely to ditch responsibility for the accident they caused, they do it for their own safety, and sometimes, if it’s bad enough, to save their own lives. At any rate, the poor guy and his bike weren’t fast enough. Too many people had seen the accident, and he was converged on from all sides. I couldn’t see the man with the bike once he went down, but I could guess what kind of justice was being administered to him in the center of that mob. The man whom had been struck, miraculously unscathed after taking a grazing from a bicycle going 5mph, quickly got up and joined in. As the matatu began to pull away, I looked around at my fellow passengers and the people on the street who hadn’t joined the mob. Some were watching the incident, but the vast majority of people didn’t appear to notice or care what was going on. This kind of thing, I’m told, just happens all the time.
This is, by no means, the first time I have heard about mob justice in Uganda. Mukono, with all of the crime I have documented on this blog already, has more than it’s fair share. Just a few weeks ago, a man was burned alive in a neighboring village. The mob had found him guilty of killing another man for his boda-boda (motorcycle). Even right here in my own village, a man had been suspected of six ritualistic killings, and while he was able to get away, all of his property was destroyed in the ensuing riot. The culture here is such that, if you harm another person, that harm will return to you.
Our own security procedures are clear. Of course, do not ever participate in the mob. Do not attempt to interfere with a mob or you may find yourself in the same boat as the accused. And finally, if you are the cause of some accident where people have been injured, flee. You can turn yourself into the police once you are safely away.
The whole practice a little Old Testament, and it is. Eye for an eye. Tooth for a tooth. It’s not that the people here are bloodthirsty (I have found just the opposite to be true), it’s just that, they tell me, there is no other form of justice for them in Uganda. Law-enforcement is, at best, under-manned and under-funded, and at worst unreliable and susceptible to payoffs.
I am not trying to justify or make excuses. I really have trouble stomaching the whole thing, but I also understand that I am not in a position to change it. While I might not call the mob justice culture, it is certainly part of life here. I may not agree with it, but It’s not an easy thing to stand by and tolerate, but for now it is something that I have to learn to live with.