Change But The Name

Kibera is a stretching vista of refuse-strewn tracks and refuse strewn streams, between which polygonal clusters of concrete, wood and sheet iron house nigh-on a million people. On the fringe of this district I ambled through a street market, walking in the middle of the rutted dirt road and not stopping to look at stalls. I’d arrived in Nairobi by bush taxi sometime after 4am, had pulled myself from a troubled, sweaty half-sleep and had found, in a shadowy corner of the bus station, a young man sat against a cart with the wear-with-all for making coffee. Now, in the sweltering haze of the morning, I had been blearily traversing the city on foot for hours looking for nothing in particular, abstractly hoping to osmose the aura of a city under siege from within. Smoke from a source I can’t see drifts at head height across the stalls, and a few yards ahead of me the sounds of a heated disagreement stab across the plagent market tones. It is already a very hot day. The dispute seems to be attracting the attention of passers by, and I can see two men roughly holding a third by the sleeves and collar of his polo shirt. They appear to be searching him, and as the captive kicks and protests they begin to shout a single repeated word taken up with frightening haste by the throng of onlookers. I find I've come to a stop, people are pushing past me to join the pressing crowd around the three men and it is with conscious dread that I recognise the word ringing upon the air. The word is Mwizi; thief, and it is not just a word but a sentence. The captive man kicks out and struggles but more arms reach in and grab him, ripping his clothes and pulling at his limbs, a woman spits in his face. The circle around him crushes in, and upon the faces of people who just a minute ago were idly shopping are the contortions of vengeful fury. The blows soon start to land on the young mans body, a few at first and then from all directions, he is knocked to the ground and dragged by an arm, the throng moving with him. He might be screaming, I can’t tell over the noise of the crowd. Some of the fists are holding stones. And then it is done and the crowd disperses, some return to their walking or pick up baskets they had set down to join the commotion, slipping back into the lanes of the everyday. Some, including myself, continue to stare at the young man in the road. His trampled shirt lies near him and blood from his head pools in the dirt ruts, he is quite evidently dead. A couple of small children with bloated bellies, nude from the waist down, look at the bloodied and broken form with expressions devoid of recognition or emotion, before wandering away. The man’s body in death looks puny and poorly constructed, a grisly shell, and I find myself inexplicably wondering whether he’ll be moved before the day gets really hot.
Acts like this one, on an unpaved market street in Kenya, are not the transgressions of evil or malicious persons, they are the desperate lashings out of ordinary folk who live a daily battle of poverty and restriction, who’s society is splitting at the seams, who walk around burning cars on the way to work and live in fear of their home, their family, being caught in the maelstrom of political violence and criminal activity. I mean, hell, if we’re honest, we can all think of a circumstance in which we would beat another human being to death. Mob justice is a terrifying thing to behold, but this is no prejudiced lynch-gang; these are the frantic actions of people trying to protect themselves and those they love from the spread of crime and violence, people for whom law-enforcement and criminal-procedure are non-entities and who are scared and struggling to hold their communities together. These small occurrences of judicial ochlocracy are not ethical or fair, righteous or humane, they’re certainly not pretty, but nor are they evil. What they are is understandably and pitiably human. Change but the name and it is of yourself that the tale is told.

A Lee

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