From the Deep South

A friend of mine, who is a Peace Corps volunteer in Madaba, Ruvuma, sent me this email about an ugly incident that took place at his school. I feel it is worth sharing. Here it is in full:

I think it was May 9 that the riot took place.  I was in the laboratory preparing a practical for the following day.  A student knocked on the door – the laboratory is in a building that is almost in the center of the campus – and asked for the teacher on duty (TOD). I told him he had gone home and didn’t think much of it until around 9:30PM – about twenty minutes later – when the TOD came into the lab with a different student. His face was swollen and his nose bleeding. The TOD said that he had been hit by another student with a club. The student himself then recounted his story – the first of three times that I would hear his story that night. 

The student who had been hit, Oscar Kiyao, lives with the TOD in one of the school’s teacher’s residences.  He was at home in his room with the lights on – we run a generator for three hours in the evenings each day – when he heard a noise in the sitting room.  He got up and investigates.  He saw that another student, Jackson Mponda, had entered the home and was in the process of stealing something off of a table in the sitting room. Jackson was startled and ran out of the house, Oscar pursued him across campus, through the boys’ dormitories, into the forest and down to the river. Oscar caught Jackson near a river in a valley adjacent to the school, at which point Jackson hit him with a club he was carrying or a branch he had picked up.  He then threatened Oscar that if he followed Jackson any more, Jackson would stab him with a knife. 

After I had heard the story we went to see the acting head of school, PHD Mgaya. Oscar recounted his story again and PHD said that the I, the TOD, Oscar and some of the students’ leaders should go to Jackson’s home.  In hindsight it appears that this decision helped to escalate tension and it helped spread the word that a teacher had been robbed and who the culprit was.  So we went to his house – he lives only a ten minute walk from the capmus – and found his mother there, asleep.  We had someone wake her and told her what had happened. At this point I suggested we wait until the next day to deal with the situation.  Jackson’s mother is quite old and I didn’t see any reason to wake her and tell her that her son was a thief.  The TOD disagreed and we woke her.  Again, Oscar recounted his story.  The mother threw her hands up and began weeping. Nothing came of the visit except that Jackon’s mother was alarmed.  We then all returned to school. 

I went back to the lab to close up and then left to go home.  It was about 10:20 at this point.  On the walk home I heard commotion at the boys’ dorms so I went to check it our.  Many boys were out, half clothed, running and shouting in all directions.  I proceeded back to the staff room, in the middle of campus, and saw that Jackson had returned and was standing outside with the acting head of school and TOD.  At this point the boys had organized themselves and were approaching the staff room from their dormitory. Then I started hearing rocks and brick fragments landing on the metal roofs of the classrooms.  The boys were throwing bricks.  They were also chanting “mwizi apigwe!”  We sent a student leader to talk to them, he was repulsed with flying bricks.  We entered the office with Jackson and decided it would be best if we escorted him off campus.

We went opposite the boys’ dorms, past the girls dormitories towards the field, and a back way out of school which leads to his home.  As we passed the girls’ dormitories they were singing and jeering Jackson. As we left Jackson at the border between the school and our soccer field, near the path the leads in a roundabout way to his house, the acting head of school told him to go straight home and that if the students got their hands on him, they would kill him.

We turned to go and saw that the boys – now a mob, really – had been following us and continued to encroach.  The acting head of school suggested we go through the girls’ dormitory to avoid them, and then back to school.  I refused, preferring instead to confront the boys. I stood my ground after the TOD and PHD had left.  The boys approached, stopped, continued chanting and rattling their clubs. Then I saw and heard bricks falling near me.  I had to duck and dodge a couple that were heading for my face.  At that point I realized these people would not be reasoned with.

I don’t know if you’ve ever looked into the face of an angry mob but it was jarring for me.  I couldn’t see faces because it was dark but felt as though the people I was looking at were not human beings because they had lost their faculties of reason.  Culpability for whatever they were prepared to do was going to be shared amongst them and spread so thin that feelings of conscience and guilt were nonexistent. These people were mindless, living in a consequence-free space and, perhaps, believing that whatever punishment they were prepared to mete was justified.

The TOD rang the bell and called a meeting near the staff room, in the center of the campus.  A group of, about 50 students, assembled in front of us in various states of undress. PHD started to address them and there was lots of back-talk so I went to stand among them in the back.  I identified a few and tried to confiscate their clubs. I grabbed one kid’s shirt and he hid his face and started pulling away. I didn’t let go and asked him “utanipiga?”  He eventually relented and put down in club.  At this point I realized that we, the teachers, had completely lost control of the school and that if the students were prepared to beat someone to death we would be powerless to stop them.

We decided it would be best if I went home, which I obligingly did. The TOD escorted the boys back to their dorms and noticed that others had stayed behind, collecting kerosene – normally used for lamps and studying after-hours – and making preparations for a raid on Jackson’s house.  The TOD was able to talk them down but, he said, only after some heated exchanges.  The students had been, apparently, prepared to go to Jackson’s house, pull him out, douse him with kerosene, and immolate him.  This realization still disturbs me today. In the following days I talked with some teachers and villagers about it.  All the conversations I had were horrifying and deeply disturbing.  No one seemed to think that what had happened warranted a special meeting or punishments for the ring-leaders.  One teacher said that the students were merely protecting law and order.  A villager said that thieves should be killed. The TOD told me that when he was in secondary school, some of his classmates had beaten a student to death because he had been suspected to be a thief. They beat him and killed him – or left him to die – on the school track.  The police didn’t come to take the body – dead? rotting? – away for two days.  In short, no one was shocked by the riot, no one was upset by it or felt it required special attention.

Thinking back, I am still as shocked and disgusted now as I was then. In the days following I seriously considered leaving the country. Some of the student ring-leaders are students of mine.  One student, Jejison Ngomano, stood up in front of the teachers and students present that night, after the TOD had rung the bell and called the meeting, and said that that very day he had had two t-shirts stolen and that someone had to pay with his life. And I’m supposed to just let this kid into my class, teach him like nothing happened? Exams have started so I have no pressing school work to do until July. I’m so glad that we have this time off.

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