Sep 28, 2010

Arrival and an Alarming Actual Allegory

Our arrival to Tanzania was, how shall I put it, dramatic.

Scale of Africa
Africa is enormous!
Initially Erin and I planned to make the trek from South Africa overland.  Looking at a world map this appeared to be approximately the same distance as Colorado to NY.  I've driven that a number of a times in a little over a day, so three weeks seemed like plenty of time. I knew it wasn't precise, projecting a globe onto a 2d map skews the size of continents.  Not to mention that the US highway system has a reputation of being a little bit easier to navigate than crossing countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Before we made it to Africa, however, I found this intriguing map in a history book (the exceptional Africa: A Biography of a Continent by John Reader.) I knew Africa was big, but had no concept that you could comfortably fit India, China, the continental US, Europe, Argentina and New Zealand inside the continent.  In reality, a direct route from Cape Town to Iringa would be farther than going from NY to California.  Not only that, but the most direct route (on sketchy roads) would send us through the painfully war torn Democratic Republic of Congo.  In other words, we decided to fly instead.

When we arrived at the airport in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania the school thoughtfully had a man named Fouad pick us up.  He seemed to be a gentle man, very helpful and with perfect English.  As we stepped outside the airport, a mob of people rushed into the airport screaming. Puzzled, we asked what was going on... is Bono visiting Africa again?

Fouad paused and calmly stated "A man stole car.  I think they will kill him."        

Wait, what?!?  He explained that because people have little faith in their criminal system people here take justice into their own hands.  Instead of waiting for an arrest, court, and an appeal process a mob may simply stack tires around an alleged criminal and set them on fire.  Often it's a brutal but non-lethal beating, but one study found that in a five year period over 1,200 people were executed by crowds in the city of Dar Es Salaam.  Tanzanian mobs find all sorts of crimes to be capital offenses in Africa, including a shocking amount of  executions because of witchcraft (in the mobs defense, the witchcraft community is far from innocent).  Although many are probably guilty of their crimes, many are not.  Although vigilante justice makes great comic book super heroes it is deeply disturbing to see in reality.    

I find this all horrifying, but an argument could be made that as an American my perspective is hypocritical.  Although I don't support it, my country does have the death penalty.  Furthermore, it wasn't until 1968 that the US got serious about ending the practice of public lynching.  However, my problem is about more than the terror an individual would feel if chased by a mob.  It's also the symptom of a broader problem that hurts the prosperity of the country.  People take justice into their own hands because they fear, right or wrong, that if they went to the police a criminal need only pay a bribe to be set free.  Broadly perceived corruption, whether real or not, cripples society as a whole.  For example, if most people believe a small bribe will get them out of a traffic ticket there will be more bad drivers and more people die as a result of reckless driving.  The same concept applies on every level of society ranging from who gets elected to how businesses operate.  A just rule of law can make a society prosper.  

For example, despite this frightening story Tanzania is a far more peaceful place than the United States.  The Global Peace Index distills an array of complex statistics, ranging from wars to number of homicides, about a nations relationship to violence into a single number.  Tanzania is consistently ranked one of the most peaceful in Africa and far higher than the US.  However, concerns about justice and the rule of law inhibit development in a self perpetuating downward spiral whereas these particular problems aren't really a concern in the US. This real and imagined corruption, and the societal reactions to it, hold back this rich and kind society from profiting from its peaceful nature.    


  1. Micah, You are such a good storyteller - please - more! Roger (don't know why it calls me Lorishness?)