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Just don’t cry out ‘Thief!’

Apr 5 • 3095 views • 5 Comments on Just don’t cry out ‘Thief!’ Africa, East Africa, Kampala, Society and culture, Travel, Uganda

6.20 a.m. and it’s still pitch black outside. It’s a heaving sweaty mess; we need rain. The Woodland Kingfisher’s piercing call fills the compound and I hear the unmistakeable cawing and crowing of the Hadada Ibis as they fly over the marshes in the distance.

The first cockerel rouses me at 5.40 a.m. I have a love-hate relationship with these bawdy brash birds but this morning I can tolerate them.

Other birds are joining in the morning chorus now. Next door I hear our neighbours stirring a pot over a charcoal stove. I’m relieved the electricity’s back on this morning. The supply is usually reliable but it’s been on and off recently.

I hear coughs and splutters as people awake on the far side of the compound, in the shanty town. Life here has definitely become louder in the two years I’ve lived here. People have built houses (squatted) right next to us. They’re probably refugees from the North; I don’t recognise the language they’re speaking.

I hear the occasional beep of a car and a passing boda boda [motorbike] on the road at the end of our close.

6.30 a.m. and there’s a fierce red-orange glow in the eastern sky over Lake Victoria.

The slum / shanty town – it’s so awful let’s not mince words – is dire. Snaking around the muddy, carrier bag-lined railway track between my house and the Mukwano roundabout on the edge of town two or three miles away, live 100,000 people (according to some…) but would you call it living?

Every morning thousands of clean and well-dressed men, women and children pour out of the slum down the railway track into town; the lucky ones go to work and school. The simple act of being smart for work puts many a scruffy Westerner to shame. Washing is done by hand in cold water, water that has to be laboriously collected in a jerry can every day (there were 40 people queuing for water last time I passed the pump). Clothes and underwear has to be left to dry in the open (no such thing as privacy here), and are ironed using a charcoal ‘ironbox,’ literally a metal box filled with dangerously hot charcoal.

A man is calling like a banshee at the top of his voice. He’s met with screaming and shouting by another man. I want to know what’s going on but, at the same time, am glad to be ignorant.

Two weeks ago we heard a major commotion beyond the wall. Dozens became hundreds of people, talking, running and shouting. I couldn’t see what was going on but I sensed agitation as the noise got louder and louder. Suddenly – gunshots! Women screamed, men shouted, there was a great whoosh of fear. The pace upped and you could sense people fleeing beyond our wall. A few more rounds were let off, just a few metres from the house. My heart was in my mouth – what were we bearing witness to?

My friend Ronald disappeared to find out what was going on. I wished I hadn’t asked. “A man abused a one and a half year old child. They’ve found the man and they want to kill him,” Ronald told me. “The police have got him and just let off the gun to disperse the crowd. The child has been taken to hospital.”

Within minutes the crowd had dispersed. As quickly as it escalated, so things returned to normal.

Mob justice is common here. I have no sympathy for a man who abuses a child but mob justice can be swiftly meted out – sometimes to an innocent person – for the most trivial of offences.

This week-end was not a good one; I felt ill, no-one was around and I actually wanted the week-end to be over. To kill time I switched on the TV only to see a public lynching. A man was punched and kicked to the ground, someone jumped on his head and a big truck tyre was rolled on top of him. I willed the man to stand up, to get away, as people lined the streets watching. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, as a man waved around a small water bottle. “They’re going to set fire to him” Simpson said matter of factly. The water bottle contained kerosene.

The end was swift – but televised.

And what was his crime? He was alleged to have stolen a boda boda.

This isn’t much of an advert for Uganda, but it’s one of the realities (for Ugandans). The police did turn up; they just didn’t get there in time. A word of caution though: if you do ever get robbed in Uganda, be careful before you shout the word “thief!” you can’t be too sure what might happen next…

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5 Responses to Just don’t cry out ‘Thief!’

  1. liz beauvoisin says:

    Oh Cha that was pure “From our own correspondent” Not prejudiced, it was simply an excellent piece of writing – well done you.

  2. charliebeau says:

    Gee thanks Ma 🙂 Have spent so long struggling with technical side of new blog, have missed the creatives recently. I’m back!

  3. sally says:

    OMG Charlie! The next Times correspondent in the making!! Well done! xx

  4. Danny says:

    I witnessed one such lynching. It was over before I could get through to the police! I didn’t stuck around to be held as a witness! This is a lovely read!

    • the muzungu says:

      Hey Danny, I really enjoyed reading your write-up. I only wish it had been fiction! Did you hear the debate on Sanyu FM last week about mob justice? what happens if they get the wrong person? that’s the most scary part…

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