I never knew exactly what was it. I thought it would only happen to people who aren’t open-minded or don’t like travelling to remote areas. When I travel, it is the different ways of thinking and the unusual ways of living that excites me.
But this one late evening, 3 weeks into my time in Tanzania, I found myself speechless, with my stomach turning when I found out that our other guide and driver hit a pedestrian and ran away. Our guide said he had to do it, “everybody does it”. I knew he wasn’t a bad guy but at first I couldn’t understand why this crimewas okay here. So now I think that that turmoil of emotions and confusion must have been what it meant to have a culture shock.
BREAKING OF THE NEWS
It was already dark, we were into the 7th hour on the road, driving back from the tour to the far desert in the north of Tanzania. Our group of 10 was divided in two jeeps and I was in the car behind. Given the African traffic and their skillful way in taking over the same, we lost sight of the jeep ahead of us.
Approaching a village meant driving through organized chaos that only locals appear to understand, so our driver slowed down as we got the call from the girls in the other car. Panic blew the words out of their mouths:
“We ran over a man and our driver drove away at full speed”,
“now lots of people followed us on motorbikes and they look angry”
“we don’t understand what they are saying”
“the guide and the driver drove away in a motorbike and left us”
“they left us alone with these angry men!”.
As they were driving past a village, they hit a man who jumped into the road out of nowhere. They saw the man being flung unanimated onto the ground and they thought he might have been dead.
The driver put down his foot on the accelerator and tried to exit the village as quick as possible, basically running away from it.
The locals, who witnessed the accident, hurried on motorbikes to follow the jeep speeding away from the village, until they practically managed to stop it far out in the middle of nowhere. The men surrounded the jeep furiously, talking aggressively in Swahili to the driver and the guide. The girls couldn’t understand what was happening and when the driver and the guide decided to jump on a motorbike and drive away without an explanation, they felt abandoned.
They didn’t explain where were they going. There was too much adrenaline and too little time to explain. What the girls didn’t know yet was that they drove back to the village to check on the man’s injuries. They went on a motorbike because they were hoping that this way they were in disguise, so the people at the village wouldn’t recognize them as the “guilty drivers”. When they got there, the man had already been picked up by the locals and taken to the local hospital. He was alive.
As the details of the incident are slowly revealed to us, I had a flashback of a scene I witnessed on my first week in Tanzania. While I was standing outside the school where I was volunteering, waiting on the dala dala (the local bus), a jeep performed such a noisy-break, that my heart skipped a beat. The jeep nearly ran over a little girl crossing the road unattended (which is usual in this part of Africa). The jeep bypassed the girl by centimeters and only managed to stop further ahead. As the car resumes to driving, the locals ran up to the car, blocked his way and started beating up the driver through the window. Although yes, it was the driver’s faults for driving so fast near a school, it was awful to watch the people beat him up.
I understood that the locals were angry at the driver and wanted to do justice with their own hands. So maybe this is why our guide also drove away?! To run away from the anger of the people at the village?!
AT THE HOSPITAL
We drove around dark little dirty streets for a bit before we found the local hospital. The building was poorly illuminated and yet it was the brightest building of the street. So many locals were standing outside, I couldn’t understand if they were all waiting to be seen by a doctor or if they were just there because they were curious towards the victim of the accident. Either way, they were starring at the girls who were understandably upset still inside the jeep, hiding away from their looks.
The atmosphere was horrific with floating doubts about the prognostic of the man and confusion about the reasons that lead to the “hit and run”.
Our guide kept walking between the hospital and the jeep, reassuring us the man was okay, maybe a broken bone. But was he really?!
Another hour must have gone by when we were told that we were welcome to go in and see the man.
We followed the guide, doing our best to ignore all the heads turning to observe our movements. Upon entering the bedroom, we found the man sitting up on the bed of what looked like a bunk bed with a missing mattress on the top level. He had a wound to his face and shoulder, a swollen eye and an arm on a sling. Other than that he just looked embarrassed as if he was the one caught doing something wrong. Or perhaps he was just intimidated at the visit of 6 white foreigners.
Our guide invited us to sit on the other bunk bed and a couple of chairs. As I was the last one in, there was no seats left but the patient’s bed and the guide suggested I could sit there. As a nurse, I found it was against my work ethics and preferred to stand.
Our guide proceeded to say a few words in Swahili to the man and translated to us. He apologized for hitting him, he told him he was going to pay for his hospital bill. The man also wanted to say a few words, him as well, wanted to apologize!Apologize?! Apologize for jumping on to the road without looking, he admitted he was drunk and apologize for making us upset!
The visit was brief and soothed the worries of a bigger tragedy. The drive home was done in total silent, the culture shock still raw to be digested.
As I deepened into research for this article, I found that this practice actually has a name: ‘mob justice’.
Mob Justice consists in taking the justice into people’s own hands and is practiced widely across many countries in Africa. This so called “justice” happens after ran-overs, murdering or robbery. Witnesses and other hundreds of people who have not witnessed anything will frenetically join in the beating, kicking, stoning and even burning of the accused of wrongdoing. Sometimes in the middle of the mob, the guilty one points the finger at another random person and people start beating him up instead. There is no control unless the police happens to be passing by and stops it. Otherwise things can get out of control fairly easily. Then the outcome is an abandoned dead body as the mob goes back to their daily life, feeling guilty-free, after all they think he/she deserved it.
When the police arrive to investigate, nobody accuses anybody because everybody was involved, whether physically or in agreement.
This social and public health problem is the result of a complex web of socio-economical differences, the lack of trust in the police and the lack of police on the streets. The authorities do not agree with this practice but are incapable of stopping it due to the shortage of personnel and the difficulties in investigating a mob justice (nobody saw anything), which results in a crime unpunished.
Kenia, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa are some of the countries where this practice is still real, leading to thousands of deaths every year.
ADVICE FOR TRAVELERS DRIVING IN AFRICA
After discussing this issue with other guides from Kenia and from Zimbabwe that I met later on in my overland trip across Africa, they both told me the same! In the unfortunate eventuality of hitting a pedestrian, the safest option is to drive away as quickly as possible to find a police station, report the accident and call for an ambulance from there. They both told me that once at the police station you should be safe. It’s a matter of protecting your own life, given the brutal way people can react.
If you think nobody witnessed the accident, like in a deserted street, it should be okay to stop and check on the person. It’s your call. Better yet, drive super carefully!
With so many people self-driving around Africa, I can’t help but wander if it has ever happened to any foreigner. I planned driving in South Africa and not one blog adverted me about this practice. It is scary!
This is probably a more dramatic example of a culture shock, because it is a crime even in these countries. For me, overcoming the culture shock about this practice was a matter of understanding “why”. The indignation, however, has remained with the memories of these two situations I witnessed.
As Martin Luther King once said, this mentality of “an eye for an eye leaves the world blind”. This mentality has to change, but for that to happen, there is a long way to go.
So as controversial as it may seem, if you are guilty of an accident, when in Africa be an African, at least for now.