14 March 2011

Mob Justice, Boreholes, and (No) Revolutions

These things happened:

Iganga is a highway town on the main road that goes east from Kampala to Mbale. It's hot, dusty, vibrating with passing vehicles. I was there recently, and I was in a second-floor cafe. I walked out, to get some fresh air, to pass a minute or two, to look for other PCVs who were outside somewhere, onto the balcony overlooking the highway where lorries roared past, matatus stopped to let passengers out and started again once they'd packed passengers back in, where construction of a new building going on across the street included a six-man brick-tossing assembly-line where the bricks went from being part of a giant pile through twelve hands to being part of a rising wall, and where general pedestrian traffic milled about, moving back and forth, walking with a purpose or standing about chatting with nothing better to do. And then I noticed, on the opposite side of the street, a stream of people running down the sidewalk to my left, which turned, quickly, into a river of people, and then I heard their voices, angry, shouting, rise on the current up to where I was. I turned to the person standing next to me on the balcony and asked what was going on.

"Somebody has stolen something."

I knew what this meant. I knew what this crowd was coming to see and do. But it still took me a minute to find the man in the middle of the mob. When I found him, though, he was unmistakable. His shirt, ripped open in the front, down to his belly, was stained bright red at the collar and shoulders from the blood that was pouring from his head. He tried to fend off the crowd that advanced towards him menacingly, that had already gotten to him and surrounded him. He covered his head when another man stepped forward and landed punches on his skull and his arms raised for protection. He bounced off the grill of a lorry as he was shoved back against it. And then a man to his left, behind his field of vision, bent down then raised back up with a red clay brick in hand and launched it, from two feet away, like a bowler in cricket, against the thief's head, and he collapsed briefly from the impact, the collision of stone and skull enough to make me wince from a couple hundred feet away, then sprung back up, quicker than expected, quicker than I expected anyway, and then I saw, on the far side of the crowd, from the entrance of a supermarket, a security guard, armed, as they always are, with an old bolt-action rifle, start to push his way through the crowd, and I covered my mouth, but for some reason not my eyes, as I assumed the bolt action rifle was about to be put to use, the thief was about to go from having blood on his shoulders to having blood pouring from a bullet hole in his head, until, somehow, in the commotion caused by the rifle, caused by the gun making its way through the crowd, because it was the gun making its way through the crowd, really, not the security guard, the thief was able to push his way out of the ring of people surrounding him and run, stumbling, bleeding, down the street and around the corner and out of my view and five or six men gave chase but the rifle didn't, the security guard didn't, and I told myself he made it away alive, deservedly so, even though he's a criminal, even though, according to someone else watching from the balcony, this was his third time being caught stealing, and I went back inside and the other PCVs I was with came back inside and I was glad I didn't see him get shot or beaten to death and we all talked about it for a couple minutes, some of them were down there, street-level, while it happened, and then we moved on to better things, better topics, because that happens here, mob justice happens here, and what's the point of dwelling on it?

Right now, middle of March, we're moving from the dry season into the rainy season. It's still hot, at least for me, who's hot when it gets above 80 in Seattle, but it's started to rain a bit at night, clouds have started to gather during the day, the winds have started to blow cool instead of hot and dry (but they're still usually filled with dust). But, maybe a month ago, middle of February, heart of the dry season still, the water in the tap that I have fifteen feet from my door ran out. It ran out one night and, since I didn't notice until it was already almost 9:00, or since I'm lazy, I waited. I didn't bathe the night it ran out. I didn't wash my dishes. I hoped it would come back in the morning. It didn't. I hoped it would come back in the evening when I came home. It didn't. So, dirty dishes piled up in the basin, my entire body filmy with dried sweat covered in fresh sweat, I needed water. And that meant, without the tap, going to the borehole.

It's not that I didn't want to go to the borehole. I was kind of looking forward to it. It'd be a good experience. It was just that there was one thing: jerrycans are heavy. But, whatever. I'm fit. I'm young. I'm healthy. And Ugandan women carry full jerrycans on their heads.


I'm not a Ugandan woman. And, apparently, I'm not as fit as I think I am. (Although I calculated later, in an attempt to make myself feel better, that a full jerrycan, 20 litres of water, weighs about 44 pounds, and I have two, to carry at the same time, and they're unwieldy, I swear they're heavier than they sound. Oh, and the borehole is an entire kilometre away. I don't know how many miles that is -- because America! -- but when you're carrying 88 pounds of water, it feels like about twelve.)

To get to the borehole, I walked that kilometre through the centre of town, at sunset because otherwise it was just too hot, bright yellow jerrycans in hand, and extra stares passed through town with me, and I walked up to the borehole, big stupid grin on my face, anticipating how silly everyone would think that this was, white guy needing water. I greeted the crowd, maybe forty-strong, as I walked up -- "Yoga kere!" -- and set my jerrycans down at the end of the queue. I was determined not to be the imusugun who walked up to the borehole, skipped the queue, got his water, and walked away.

With my jerrycans in place, end of the queue, I stood and watched the whole process -- people towards the end of the queue, like me, milling about, pacing back and forth, chatting with each other, as they waited for their jerrycans and buckets to inch closer to the flow of water; people taking turns pumping water or making fun of the person pumping water or telling someone else to pump water, the water spurting out in bursts then flowing smoothly, funneled through the inverted, cut-off, top-half of a plastic water bottle into jerrycans, buckets, canteens, plastic bottles; people fighting forward through the crowd to get just a bottle, just really quickly, or just this little bucket, it'll just take a second; the two street kids crouched at the small gutter, trying to scoop up the runoff water that was quickly soaking into the mud; everything, slightly chaotic as it seemed, somehow in order, and there was, in fact, someone in charge -- for maybe ten or fifteen minutes.

So far, so good, on not being that white guy.
Then this exchange happened, when a older man came up to where I was standing slightly outside the main crowd circling the borehole, looking slightly amused at everything.

Him: "Good evening."
Me: "Good evening. How are you?"
Him: "I'm fine. How long have you been here?"
My thought process: Oh, he wants to know how long I've been in Uganda. I get this question all the time.
My answer, somewhat proudly: "I've been here for six months."
His thought process: You, sir, are an idiot.
His answer, somewhat slowly, like he was talking to a child: "I meant... at the borehole..."
Me: "Right."

And then he didn't wait for an actual answer to his question, he just grabbed my jerrycans and waded through the crowd, to the front of the queue, leaving me there, protesting to his back, "Wait-- but-- everyone else is-- I can--" and then I was that white guy.

And being that white guy led to a chain of reactions from the crowd: "We are all in line here!" which led to "But we are assisting this stranger!" which led to "He is not a stranger, he is a friend of ours!" which, the mouth of my first jerrycan now under the spout, led to -- directed at me, don't just stand there -- "You pump your water!" which led to -- directed at me, after my pumping the water wasn't much better than my just standing there -- "More effort is needed!" which led to -- directed at me, from myself in my head -- "My arms are so tired this first jerrycan isn't even full yet how am I going to carry these home I'm so weak this is terrible!" which was understood by the kid standing behind me who took over pumping, much to my relief.

Two jerrycans full -- "Eyalama noi!" -- I picked them up to walk the twelve miles back through town. As I picked them up, a jerrycan in each hand, I thought, These aren't so heavy. I've totally got this. Then I took about seven steps, and I thought, Ohhhhhhh thesearesoheavy Idon'ttotallygotthisnotatall. But, somehow, I made it. I mean, I made it about a quarter of the way home before I ran into Julius, a member of one of the Village Health Teams outside of town, who had his bicycle, and we talked for a couple minutes, and I can't tell you what we said, because I was concentrating all of my mental powers on willing him to put my jerrycans on the rack on his bicycle and take them home for me.

And he did. Probably less because of my mental powers and more because he's just a really nice guy, but still. Thank you, Julius. Eyalama noi.

And then I bathed for the first time in way longer than is appropriate.

These things did not happen:

Mass demonstrations.
Anything, due to the election results.

And more stories to come sooner rather than later, promise!

1 comment:

  1. Great story D! Made me cringe at the mob, and laugh at the borehole scene. All in few words. We miss you Son!