The Bicycle Thief

I closed my eyes for a second. Its early evening, all my meetings are over, and the sun is doing that beautiful reddy-golden thing, illuminating glowing patches on nearby huts. I’m sitting with a friend, sitting legs stretched out in front of us on her papyrus mat, backs leaning against the base of her hut. Just chilling.

La kwo, La kwo!  (Thief, thief!) Lots of yells, many voices.

My eyes flick open in a second. For a second I’m confused. All I see is kids. Then I realise their little mob is rapidly gathering stones, sticks and momentum as they run, chanting. This is a different kind of chilling. By the time I’ve gathered my wits they are turning a corner on the path. I jump on my bicycle and race after them.

I turn the corner. The mob is quickly dispersing. There is a pile of sticks on the ground, and an stern man telling the children to go home. A tall girl is standing with tears rolling down her cheeks.

“What happened?”

“That girl stole a bicycle. Don’t worry, we stopped them from hitting her.” The man gestured towards the tall girls retreating back.

I felt like I’d stumbled on a scene from Lord of the Flies. Except in this case, kids have learnt directly from not-so-uncommon social practice. Last year, just after we arrived, a lady burst into church telling us she’d just come from the railway, where she’d tried to stop a group of men from beating a man. She failed. He died. And it turns out he wasn’t even a thief- it was just a misunderstanding. It was broad daylight, and only 300 meters from the police station. It happens.

The context, of course, is an extremely ineffective local justice system and an underpaid, under resourced police force. Maybe people think its up to them to create a deterrent, or maybe it’s a semi-socially sanctioned excuse for frustrated young men to vent some rage. I can’t say I understand yet.

I slowly pushed my bicycle home, feeling cold-stomached, chilled. As the little mob had dispersed, I caught a glimpse of a few kids I knew.

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