Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Street Justice

Since I've been in Nairobi, I've seen two lynchings. Both of them occurred on busy streets in broad daylight in the middle of the city. In each case, I was on my way to catch a bus when I saw two or three people begin to surround and beat a suspected criminal. In the first instance, a young street boy was pushed into the middle of the road, stopping traffic on a major thoroughfare as men took turns hitting him. Crowds soon gathered and others joined in the melee as onlookers cheered each act of street justice.

In many poor communities in Kenya, theft is a capital offense. In the slums, it is not uncommon for thieves caught in the act to be publicly beaten to death or set on fire. These communities take theft very seriously; mainly because poverty is already so overwhelming. Stealing an aluminum pot or a charcoal stove could ruin an entire family’s livelihood and put them on the streets. As a result, poor and hardworking families are often frustrated by crime and with the corruption, injustice, and inefficiencies that have long been associated with the Kenyan judicial system. So sometimes victims of crime take matters into their own hands.

The government and police forces officially discourage such acts and are struggling to improve the system. For the most part though, it seems Kenyans support street justice. Sometimes it's the only means to protect communities and restore social harmony. For me, watching a boy beaten as large crowds cheered was a sickening and sad experience. Unfortunately the scene repeated itself on a different street two days later. . .

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