Ryszard Kapucinski notes in The Shadow of the Sun, a collection of reporting and essays from a lifetime spent all over the continent of Africa: “something I had observed in Africa before… the reaction to a thief—although there is plenty of theft here—has an irrational dimension, akin to madness.”
Kapucinski was famous among foreign correspondents of the era for scorning hotel bars in capital cities crammed with stringers and hacks, instead disappearing into the bush, going to ground, and emerging weeks or months later with unique material. He was a keen observer of culture and human behaviors, and to read him is to get a measured, thoughtful analysis of a range of African states and conflicts, from the independence years to the early 90s. For anyone who may wish to understand the much-abused continent today—still, as it has been for decades, “an object, the reflection of some alien star, the stomping ground of colonizers, merchants, missionaries, ethnographers, large charitable organizations”—Shadow of the Sun is as close to a primer as I can suggest. Many times while reading it, I highlighted a passage, amused or intrigued that Kapucinski’s observations matched my own, even forty years later.
The theft passage in particular struck a note, as this was something I encountered in Mbang Mboum several months ago. I tried to write about it for the blog at the time, but it was too close, and I still felt too many conflicting emotions, so I let it drop. Now, though, having been reminded of it (I just finished Shadow of the Sun this past week), I felt it might be time to try and externally process the affair.
Let me set the scene: I returned from a weekend trip to Ngaoundere to a somewhat disheveled house. I had left in a hurry, abandoning dirty dishes in a bucket and leaving mud trails caked in my doorway. As is my normal practice in such situations, I commandeered the nearest half-dozen or so children, assigned tasks all around, and sweetened their shanghaied service with the promise of crayons and music when they were done. Between us, we soon had the house in order, and an hour of coloring and listening to The Beach Boys followed. When evening came I shooed them home, and reached into my bag to confirm if a friend had responded to the text I had sent earlier, while walking from the bush taxi to my house.
I groped longer than expected, confused. There was no phone in my bag.
Frowning into the failing light, I brought over a solar lamp and emptied the contents, checking every pocket in case I had mislaid it. Nothing.
Assuming I had put it somewhere while cleaning, and knowing from experience how hard it is to see anything in my house by wan candle and lamplight, I resolved to look the next morning when the sun was up, and put the matter out of my mind.
The next day, despite a thorough search, there was no sign of it—and by noon my solar lamp, which I had left in its accustomed place beside my house to charge, was also missing. A few of the kids who had helped me clean were in my Grassroot Soccer club, and as we had practice that afternoon, I pulled them aside during scrimmage. I told them to come to my house that evening with the others who had been there the day before; once all were assembled, I tried the gentle, liberal approach. I talked to them like they were equals, calmly explaining what had happened and how that made me feel, and urging them, if they had taken the phone or solar lamp or seen another kid take it, to come and talk to me separately. There was no need for public shaming; there was no need for punishment. I just wanted my belongings back. A line of carefully blank faces stared back at me. No one would talk, even to implicate another.
At this point, disappointed with the children—I had trusted them implicitly—but unsure how to proceed, I was about to send them all home. My landlord Djodah, however, had come over to see what was going on. As I explained the situation, his face clouded with rage. “You should have told me about this when it happened!” he hissed, before turning to the children and immediately raising his voice, bellowing at them in Mboum and shaking his fist.
I should pause to explain the vast gulf between African and, say, Northern European philosophies regarding child rearing. I remember explaining to Danish friends once that I had been spanked as a child, and seeing their horrified reactions. “But that’s child abuse!” they protested, continuing to argue that in Danish thought, there’s never a need to even yell at a child. They are reasoning individuals, and can be brought to see the error of their ways through dialogue. Certainly, there is a faction of Americans who believe this, as well—and a faction that believe in the good, old-fashioned character-building method of sending a child out to cut their own switch. This is why spanking, in particular, is such a controversial subject for many American parents.
Blame it on the colonial heritage of strictly authoritarian behaviors and patterns of thought; blame it on older, traditional social norms that still hold root in villages; chalk it up to what you will, but child discipline here in Cameroon is severe, always physical, and never involves reasoned dialogue. Parents routinely beat their children, even for relatively minor peccadillos. It’s part of an entire system of unquestioning submission to authority, and extreme, sometimes arbitrary punishment for transgressing those boundaries.
It becomes apparent, then, why my carefully worded appeal to the children did nothing to solve my problem. In my eyes, I was treating them fairly; I was assuming a priori innocence and appealing to their empathy and innate sense of justice to get my phone back.
But here, children are not treated that way by adults. As many an education volunteer has heard, to their horror: “If you don’t beat us, we won’t respect you.” In the logic these kids grew up with, I had not raised my voice, so I could not really be upset about it. The thefts must not be such a loss to me, or I would have been yelling and laying about with my fists.
Which is, incidentally, exactly what Djodah began to do. The minute he started doling out slaps, his hand cracking against the sides of heads indiscriminately, the children changed their tune: they all, immediately and loudly, began peaching (so to speak), singling out one among their number.
Djodah pulled this boy out, along with Nyari, his middle son, who was among the children. It was unclear why he was including Nyari, who had not been fingered by his snitching companions; I suspect he was angry that one of his children should even be suspected of such an act, and was (rather unjustly) trying to teach Nyari a lesson—Nyari, who had done nothing but happen to be in the yard at the wrong time.
As the other children melted away, he forced the two boys to their knees, fetching a long, plastic-tubed section of electrical wire from his house. This he employed as a whip, bringing it hissing down upon the boys’ backs and arms—they had immediately fallen into defensive postures, covering their heads with their hands—while roaring at them in Mboum. The boys shrieked as the blows rained down on them, each connecting with flesh with a painful-sounding crack. Their howls were comprehensible, if only by their tone: denial of any relevant knowledge, and pleading for the punishment to stop.
I milled around in an excruciating state of indecision, horrified by the turn events had taken. On the one hand, we had been taught in our initial training that this was a cultural norm in which we should not try to intervene. We were free not to engage in it ourselves, of course—education volunteers are armed with an arsenal of alternative punishments, which shame their students without harming them, relying on that other staple of African collective culture, public humiliation. And yet, we were warned that this was a battle best not chosen. We would not change anyone’s behaviors, and would only put ourselves in a socially unacceptable position by interfering in a family in that way. On the other hand, that’s all fine in the abstract, but I was directly responsible for these children being beaten, and I wanted no part in it. Once more, as happens so often here, I was torn between respect for cultural relativity, a desire to be integrated, and the sense that I was witnessing something that was objectively wrong, and that I should do something about it.
Meanwhile, quite a crowd had gathered in the compound. I had assumed, if I had thought about it at all, that the other children had meant to escape before Djodah’s wrath spread to them as well. It turns out they were acting as bailiffs, summoning the jury: the entire quartier, who had been mobilized with remarkable efficiency to witness this summary execution of justice.
Enraged beyond reason by the failure of his methods to produce results, Djodah retired the electrical wire in exchange for a black rubber inner tube, much thicker and heavier than his first whip. Screaming, his eyes bulging, he brought it slashing down on the children, whose screams escalated. At this, tears sprang to my eyes. I ran forward, yelling in French and English for Djodah to back down. “I don’t care!” I cried, starting to feel hysterical myself. “No phone is worth this, leave it, I’ll just buy a new one! For God’s sake, stop!”
Barely had I laid a pacifying hand on his arm when my neighbor Rougaya—a round-faced woman with generous curves, but deceptively muscular beneath her bulge—pulled me forcibly back, shaking her head. “You can’t stop this,” she explained curtly, but not unkindly. “This is bigger than you, now. This is about having thieves in Mbang Mboum. We don’t let that happen.” When I kept protesting, she cut me off firmly. “It’s not your decision anymore.”
Looking around at the faces in the crowd, I saw that I was the only one upset by the proceedings. Everyone else was watching Djodah’s frenzied performance, his normally jovial smile twisted into a rictus of fury, with expressionless faces and arms casually crossed, as though watching a mundane transaction in the marketplace. Occasionally the crowd would murmur to each other or hiss disapprovingly at the boys’ faltering and apparently inadequate responses to Djodah’s interrogation.
There was, however, a system at work; while I did not understand what I was seeing at the time, with Rougaya’s help the next day, I put together the pieces. Two older women, one the sister of the chief and one the grandmother of the accused, had positioned themselves closest to the boys, now writhing on the ground, clutching at their welts and covering their faces as they shrieked. They had been wordlessly acknowledged by everyone present (everyone except me, as I understood neither the familial connections that awarded them these positions nor the underlying traditional structures of justice that were at play) as, respectively, judge and advocate. Djodah, driven to Kapucinski’s irrational madness, dropped the inner tube and picked up an enormous tree branch from the firewood pile beside the outdoor kitchen. As he ran towards the boys, hoisting this log over his head—with what intention, I’m not entirely sure, only that it was beyond any reasonable reaction—these two women finally intervened. One, the grandmother and acting counsel of the thieving boy, put herself bodily in Djodah’s path, putting out her arms to restrain him and interceding rapidly in Mboum. The other gently took the wood out of his hands, laid it on the ground, and addressed first Djodah then the crowd, who immediately began to disperse. It amazed me that women could have that kind of influence in a generally misogynistic, conservative Muslim society; I imagine this traditional system of village justice may predate Islam, but here I am straying into conjecture. It is interesting, however, that the imam was not called to judge the proceedings, while the absent chief’s closest relative—woman though she may be—was.
The gist of her decree was that the matter should be adjourned for the evening, and that the boy would receive further punishment from his family until the stolen objects were produced. His grandmother confirmed, Rougaya translated, that they would not spare the rod, and frog-marched her wayward progeny out of the compound.
And as quickly as that, it was done.
Two days later, Djodah happily presented me with the solar lamp. The phone, it was eventually determined, had been sold on a subsequent market day to someone from Ngaoundere. The boy, I assume, was punished again—although what became of his ill-begotten gains, I was never told. I bought a new phone. I laboriously tracked down my contacts again. The affair blew over.
I worried that Nyari and his older brother Nzika would despise me for my instigation of the punishment, but to my relief they didn’t seem to hold any resentment towards me at all. As Rougaya had tried to explain, this was never understood to be a personal problem; it was a problem for the whole community. In a village where no one locks their doors—if, indeed, their mud huts have locks, or doors for that matter—theft cannot be tolerated. There are no police here; and at any rate, no one was thinking of this as a question of law. This was a question of basic social structure and the natural laws that must exist for men to live together, and if I sound like I’m getting all Rousseau on you, well, it passed through my mind in the weeks following the incident.
I’m still not comfortable with the thought that I instigated the brutal lashing of two children, even if one of them was confirmed to have been a burglar. The kids may not have seen the affair as being at my bidding—a theft had been identified; of course the community had to act as they did—but I wonder if I shouldn’t have intervened earlier, or made stronger my objections. After all, I was the plaintiff here; could I really not have forced Djodah to cease, if I had thrown myself in front of him? I might not have gotten my solar lamp back, if I had obstructed this frontier justice from its path—but I wonder if any physical possession was really worth the pain I inadvertently inflicted on a boy. Where do cultural differences end, and questions of basic human rights start? On the other hand, if this is how justice is always meted out here, and if it works for this community in this setting, who am I to step in and say what should or shouldn’t be done? “ Spare the rod, spoil the child”? Do I really have a better solution?
I remember reading somewhere—I think in a New Yorker fiction piece—the quotation, “Life is an unanswered question.” It struck me as pretentious at the time, but I’m becoming more comfortable with it as a philosophy; or at least with the slightly modified, “Life is a series of unanswerable questions.”