I had just sat down to dinner with some good friends. We don’t get a chance to socialize very often (outside the Keep) so this was a big deal. Then the phone rang. It was our Barista, Levi. When I answered, all I could hear was yelling. Something was wrong. “What’s wrong,” I asked. 

All I could hear was “thief”, “customer” and “have him in custody”. 

Although I was disappointed to do it, I excused myself from dinner and heaed to the Keep. On the way, I called a contact at Central Police Station (CPS), Assistant Superintendent Jon Okitoi. 

By the time I turned the corner on Iganga, it was clear something was very wrong. There was a crowd in the street, facing the Keep, and of course a buzzing swarm of bodas (motorcycles). I cut my way through the crowd, and found the white-hot center inside our gate, near “Bob”, one front statues. People were shouting and throwing punches and kicking someone who was huddled on the ground, trying to use “Bob” as protection.

Those of you that have followed us for a while know how thieves are treated here. Well, specificially how those that steal from locals are treated. They are beaten, and when a large crowd forms, they are often stoned.. to death. Why does this happen? I have my opinions. First, tribal bonds are strong. Extreme overty is ubiquitous and changes your outlook on life. If someone takes your stuff, you or a family member can die. Third, oral communication and tradition is strong. When someone says something, it’s thought to be true. So when you’re passing by, and you see someone getting beaten, you might ask, “What’s that about?” If someone says, it’s a thief that stole from Jaja (Grandma), odds are you know Jaja, so that evokes all kinds of personal emotion, like, “How could you do that to poor Jaja? She always looked out for me” You’ll also likely relate it to your own life and might think, “I worked myself to the bone to provide for my family. If someone stole from me, I’d want justice. After all, a thief steling my stuff endangers my family”. 

Then things start to get complicated. For example, if you’re a boda, you have all the above stuff going on but also a bond with other boda drivers. If a boda asks what’s going on, he may hear clearly, but these thoughts are going on in his head and he translates the internal monologue of “someone stole my stuff” to something of value to him and almost inadvertantly it becomes “someone stols a motorcylce”. If that version of the story spreads, suddenly all the bodas are getting involved, inflicting “justice” as a way of defending his own family. 

That’s another element: village justice. Most folks in the village will jump in on justice being dealt because when the time comes to defend their own property they want others to help them out as well. 

When you add all this up, all this emotion bubbles up and very quickly things escalate and get way out of control. That’s when rocks start flying and people die.

I’m sure I don’t have all the dynamics figured out, but this is what I’ve observed. 

Back at the Keep, at the center of this angry mob, I saw the face of Hassan.

We met Hassan four years ago. He was a street kid. He sniffed glue and begged incessantly. He would follow our customers into the Keep, begging for money. He was kicked out of various street kid programs. Then, two years ago, something changed. He started selling things on the street. The haze and aggression of glue was gone and instead of begging, he would try to sell oddball things like plastic brightly-colored coat hangers. After a few attempts, we let him know that he was simply selling the wrong stuff. If he was serious about working and wanted to sell to Mzungus he needed to sell more relevent stuff. He asked for ideas, and I told him coffee cups might be a good idea. When he started selling coffee cups we started buying them for the house and the Keep. Before long, the begging stopped and we saw a change. He had turned a corner. He was clean and determined. We hired him for a few odd jobs, and taught him along the way. We explained a bit about how Mzungus think, and how he needed to behave to avoid freaking them out, and he listened. 

When I saw him at the center of this crowd, my heart sunk. One of our employees was at the center of the crowd standing over Hassan. My heart sunk again. Was my employee actually taking part in this? It seemed clear that he was. His pants were ripped and his face was bleeding. He was filthy.

With a police officer behind me, I pushed everyone back and made my way to Hassan. His eyes were pleading, and he said, “I’ll buy a new bag, they’re only twenty thousand, but let me go. I don’t have the bag.” The officer laughed at him when he saw him. He recognized him. Street rat. He was forever branded. The officer cuffed him and led him away. I knew we were at another level of this incident but we weren’t clear yet. I knew that the jaded police officer wasn’t going to be fair to him but at least he was away from the crowd, safe, for now.

I had already decided the kid was innocent because I wanted to believe he had changed. But as I questioned witnesses, I realized that this was the work of a pro. Someone had opened that car with specialized tools and stolen a medium-sized suitcase from the car without being noticed. I later found out that a vehicle had approached, blocking the view of the victim’s car, a passenger got out under cover of the vehicle, lingered newar the victim’s car for a while, then got back in. The vehucle matched the description of a car used by a professional crew from Kampala that comes around during the holidays to jack stuff from cars. I found out that only a single witness had seen Hassan by the car, and later speaking to a “Mzungu girl”. The “girl” was Dacia, a friend of ours and her story matched Hassan’s. He was asking her if he could wash her car for money. He had started a car washing business and Dacia was one of his clients. 

It turned out Hassan was innocent, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. What’s worse, he was being accused for his past sins, for the person he was two years ago. That resonated with me. I’ve gotten so many second chances, and the thought that I’d be forever damned for my past was simply unbearable. This kid deserved a second chance, and was working hard to clear himself from his past, but the community wouldn’t let it slide. He’d forever be a street rat, a drug user, a thief and a thug. His only crime was running away when people started aggressively questioning him over the theft. Flight was a programmed response, but this time he paid for it. 

Hassan’s beat up pretty bad, but he’s a tough kid. It’s not the first time he’s been beaten, and all those past beatings toughened him up for this one. But I can’t help but wonder what’s going through his head right now. He’s got to be questioning whether on not it’s worth the effort. He has to wonder if it’s easier to go back to his old life especially since he’s getting so much friction and he’s forever typecast. 

I had a long talk with Hassan at CPS (where he was cleared) about what happened. I explained that he was beaten because he ran, and told him that he was doing the right thing by trying so hard. I told him God was a God of second chances, and that he should stay the course because God loves him. I realized as the words came out of my mouth that they applied to me, too.

I gave him some money to go to a clinic and get new clothes since his were destroyed, and the next day, I gave him some money to buy more cups to encourage him to keep trying. I’d love to find something else for him, because I see myself in this kid. Perhaps we can find something in the Ngozi for him to do. I don’t know what the path forward is, but I learned a lot from that kid yesterday.