This is not how I expected to spend my Friday night. In the dark, whispering with my roommates while peeking out one window to the next. I had heard about mob justice in Kenya. The guidebook even warns to be extremely careful before yelling ‘thief’. But I hadn’t expected to witness it so close to home.
In the parking lot of the restaurant behind our apartment, a group of people was huddled in a tight circle, mostly employees of the restaurant. From our window, we strained to see what was happening in the middle of the circle. Was there a person on the ground? Was he/she sick or hurt? A blonde lady inserted herself in the middle, trying to break up whatever was going on.
We were walking away from the window when we heard someone moaning in terrible agony. We turned back around, and were horrified by what we saw. The group was carrying something, no someone. Like dead weight, like a dead body, with no regard for what body part hit or dragged on the ground. The man being carried was clearly in pain. Naïve me, for a split second I still thought maybe they were just doing a bad job of trying to help him, but it quickly became apparent that this was the mob justice I had heard about.
The mob dropped him, and formed another circle around him. Shouting at him, kicking him, pushing him. The mzungus reappeared trying to break it up again. Apparently the man had stolen something from the restaurant. The mzungus pleaded with the employees to let the justice system handle it. To walk away. The workers were unmoved.
We then noticed the two guys with AK-47-like guns. This had to be the police. How long had they been here, and why were they allowing the mob to continue to beat this man? This man in a suit. We speculated from our window. Was he really a well-dressed thief trying to blend in with unsuspecting victims? Or was this was just a mix up? Beat first, and ask questions later?
Eventually the police led the man away, while the mob continued to push, punch and kick him. Just as things were dying down, the restaurant workers became agitated again, pointing towards our building. Is that how he got in? Is someone still up there? But then they start point more intently and angrily, seemingly, towards me. Me!! Including the two guys with big guns.
I ran to the living room alerting my roommates. We shut off every light in the apartment. We begin whispering. Did they think we recorded it? Just as we started to think we were being paranoid, we heard a commotion outside the front of our building…inside our gated, guarded parking lot. The restaurant guards were bickering with our security guards directly in front of the entrance to our building. We really started to panic. I quickly programmed the US Embassy phone number into both of my phones, just in case. We heard them enter our building and held our breath. As they passed our door and continued up towards our neighbors, we exhaled. But just for good measure, we continued to sit in the dark a long time after listening to them argue with our neighbors.
I went to bed judging Kenya a little bit. How was such behavior so acceptable? But then in the following days, I read the US news about the Trayvon Martin case, and couldn’t help but draw parallels. The ‘beat first, ask questions later’ mentality of the Kenyan mob doesn’t seem that different to me from the ‘stand your ground’ laws in Florida that many describe as ‘shoot first, ask questions later’. And the riots following the verdict may not be that different from a mob in Kenya taking action when they feel justice won’t be served through official channels. When a society doesn’t think the System is just or fair, it can quickly take matters into their own hands. Whether in Kenya or the States. And it’s scary when that happens no matter where you are.