In any exercise of cultural exchange, you encounter situations that make you uneasy. Even those travelers that attempt to accept a new place wholly, with all the good and the bad mixed together, inevitably find incidents, moral codes, cultural practices that are impossible to align with their own cultural experience – even with the most liberal application of acceptance. For me, this sticking place is mob justice. Mob justice, in this context, is generally the response to a theft in which the surrounding community responds by beating the thief, most typically resulting in death. Since I have been in Kenya, I have seen two dead bodies, doubling the amount of dead people I have seen in my entire life. Both of the deceased I have seen here died as a result of mob justice. While it is surely a gruesome and uncomfortable topic, it is a reality for the residents here and I thought it was important to attempt to share my experiences.
I do not intend to misconstrue this act as simply an expression of the moral code of Kibera, it is much more complicated than that. It is an act that is the product of extreme desperation, frustration with the almost complete lack of a judicial system, a reaction to violation and insecurity, and a presumed safety measure. This explanation isn’t meant to justify the action, but to illustrate the complexity. It also does not mean to paint the residents of Kibera as lawless, amoral people without a sense of right and wrong - that is also far from the truth.
I have not seen the act, but have witnessed the results. The two people I have seen – one killed in the market directly in front of my place and the other killed in front of the office in which I work – elicited from me strong emotions. I was upset that someone’s child had been murdered at the hands of other humans. Frustrated that there wasn’t a police system functioning to properly react. Disheartened at the quickness and ease in which the thief was seemingly disposed of.
But perhaps the more illustrative observation I made was the almost complete nonchalance at which the bodies were pointed out to me and the relative non-reaction of those that also witnessed the scenes. Imagine how many bodies you would need to see in order for the next to just blend in with the scenery or to not provoke a strong sense of emotion?
The second body, which I saw just this week in front of the office where I work, was a boy, probably 16 or 17. He had reached in a mama’s house and taken her purse. Because it was light outside, the woman was able to see who had taken her bag. She screamed and the boy was chased down and beaten. Eventually someone came with a metal bar.
I have had a few really interesting and involved conversation about mob justice in Kibera that resulted from this incident. Several ideas were posed, several entities or circumstances were blamed, several justifications were made.
How are the citizens to protect themselves against the roving bands of thugs present every night?
Didn’t that boy murder that mama by taking her livelihood?
Where were the police?
It is about a lack of hope! If the youth had hope they wouldn’t resort to this behavior!
That boy was most likely working for another man, it was that man who should be killed!
The boy knows that happens to thieves here!
The mama should have known he just wanted something to eat and should not have screamed!
But at the core those I talked with understand that this mode of retaliation is regrettable.
As a result of this incident, some officials showed up to the office (which used to be a medical clinic and is known to be well equipped) to ask for two things – someone to come and document the proceedings, i.e. to videotape or take pictures, and for some gloves to carry the body away with. This request alone has implications that just left me shaking my head. Also as a result, I was told that the mama who shouted at the thief will now be ostracized by her neighbors and blamed for the boy’s death. Not those whose hands committed murder, but the woman who screamed.
What is the proper reaction to this act? I am still considering where my personal response lies, probably it is found somewhere along the spectrum from disgust to acceptance. But this is a vast, and convoluted, continuum. Mob justice is a fact of life here - a complicated, messy, entirely deplorable fact of life.