By David McLaurin
Kenyans love congregating in crowds; and when one sees a little gathering in this country, one’s instinct is always to join it – just as the British are supposed to join queues without really caring what they are queueing for. Driving out of Ngong Town the other day we had to stop and see what was going on by the side of the road where about 60 silent people had gathered with all the solemnity of people in church. Down below the road was a car which had come off the road, gone down the embankment and through a hedge. One man was lying on the grass, quite still, and, I soon saw, dead; another man was being picked up, groaning, and decanted into a taxi which would take him to hospital. The crowd watched all this with solemn faces.
An even bigger crowd had assembled a few weeks previously in the Ngong Hills when a light plane crashed into the hillside very close to our house. The two pilots had been burned alive, unable to get out in time. “They looked like yama choma (barbecued meat),” I was told, which made me glad that I had stayed at home and not gone to look.
I encountered another crowd scene just where the car crash had taken place walking home on my own some days later. A crowd of about a hundred people had gathered around two men. Knowing the form by now, I elbowed my way to the front and asked one of the serious observers what was going on. The first man, I was told, had been at a wedding, when he noticed that someone had stolen his wallet. The man he accused of the theft had run away, and he had only just now caught up with him. He was now trying to force the accused to hand back the wallet.
I knew at once that this was a dangerous situation. Everyone seemed to assume that the accused man was guilty because he had run away when challenged. The accused man certainly knew he was in trouble, protesting his innocence, and putting on an act of mental incapacity, taking down his trousers and pulling up his shirt to show that he had not secreted the stolen wallet about his person. The accuser, in his smart wedding clothes, was getting angrier and angrier, and gave the accused several hard slaps around the head with an open palm. The accused made no resistance. True, people said, he did not have the wallet on him now, but he could easily have thrown it away somewhere with the intention of recovering it later.
Things were approaching boiling point. I felt that one of two things might happen: someone might run to the petrol station and buy an old tyre and a canister of petrol, which are the usual instruments of punishment for thieves caught in the act; or else the crowd’s mood might suddenly ignite, and they might start hitting, kicking and beating the accused with sticks until he died. But the police station was not far away, and I was determined, should this happen, to intervene and suggest the accused man be taken there, which would at least save his life.
But suddenly the mood changed. The man from the wedding perhaps realised the wallet would never be recovered. Perhaps there had not been much money in it anyway. He suddenly lost interest in the matter, and with an expression of frustration and disgust, walked away. Losing its focus, the crowd began to break up, and the accused man, knowing what was good for him, quietly slipped away.
David McLaurin is a missionary priest in Kenya