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Field Notes

Witnessing mob violence in Dar es Salaam

A victim (name unknown) of mob violence lies bleeding on the cement in Kariakoo, Tanzania's biggest market.

A victim (name unknown) of mob violence lies bleeding on the cement in Kariakoo, Tanzania’s biggest market.

In Kariakoo everyone’s hustling.

The wild, sprawling Dar es Salaam market is the biggest in Tanzania. It’s the kind of place where you can haggle over a blender, score a flashy fake designer bag import, and lose your wallet in the same breath.

While reporting in Kariakoo with some Clouds TV colleagues recently, I felt a slight tug on my purse. I spun around with a “Hey!” and the man who’d been pressed behind me on the cramped roadside darted away, his head down.

The market is crawling with thieves, but it’s wise to think twice before pointing a finger and screaming, “Mwizi!” In dense and often desperate markets like Kariakoo names can kill.

Not a minute later we were weaving through the mess of vendors and traffic when we heard it: Mwizi! Thief!

I turned to see a young man running down the street in our direction. His mouth was open, his teeth invisible behind a crimson curtain of blood. A mob of young guys was forming around him. They came from all directions, improvised weapons in hand. The wild swing of a 2 x 4 brought him down. He disappeared out of sight behind the thickening mass of adrenaline and testosterone, the rise and fall of the 2 x 4 the only sign of his position.

Looking down at the mob from their vantage point above street level were several uniformed policemen and security guards. They stood, some laughing. Short machine guns dangled from their necks on black straps against crossed arms. They did nothing as the mob swelled up and the attack intensified.

A 2012 report from The Legal Human Rights Centre called mob violence one of the biggest threats to Tanzanians’ basic right to life. In a country of 48 million people, police cited 1,234 deaths by mob violence in 2012 (as of December). Nine police officers were killed in such attacks.

Researchers concluded, “Incidents of mob violence have continued to escalate in the country with each coming year,” reaching, “an alarming stage.”

The numbers are disturbing, but they can’t fully communicate the horror of seeing someone at the mercy of a mob.

Not knowing exactly what to do but compelled to act, I ran up the stairs to the idle pool of armed men and started screaming at them to do something.

“What are you doing? It’s better that you help!” I yelled in a mess of English and Swahili.

“It’s okay. Stay back,” they told me, stretching their arms out to protect the lunatic mzungu (foreigner).

“No, it’s not OKAY. They’re killing him!” I railed.

They refused to move and so I started yelling at the mob. Stop and fuck were pretty much all I could think of to say.

By this point the mob had chucked the guy down a set of stairs. People ran off in search of petrol and matches. Setting supposed thieves ablaze is part of the routine.

Finally one of the policemen intervened, dragging the “accused” up and out of the stairwell by the cuffs of his jeans. The circle of young men whipped out their cell phones and started taking photos of the exhausted heap of human on the cement.

My colleagues beckoned me down from the top of the stairs. As we made our way out of the crowd, strangers apologized to me as I passed.

“Pole sana, mzungu. Pole.”

Right, because I was the one in need of an apology.

In the news van, we debated what we’d seen, whether it was justified and whether it was newsworthy.

A fellow reporter even admitted to having participated in mob violence.

“Wait until you’ve had something stolen from you, Brielle,” he said. “If someone comes into my house and steals things I’ve earned with my money for my family, I’m going to give him the beating of a lifetime.” He was only half-joking.

He agreed with me that what we’d just witnessed wasn’t fair. But it also wasn’t news, he insisted. This was a popular opinion in the van, although I do see the occasional story about mob violence in the newspapers.

“Filler,” Athuman Mtulya told me. He’s a local reporter with an English-language paper called The Citizen.

“The tragic incidents have become a normal experience [so] that reportage is with minor interest.”

In the van I, the ignorant and clearly emotionally unhinged foreigner, continued pressing the issue. If we as journalists accept this as normal, who will hold the police accountable for their inaction? Who will hold the people perpetrating the violence accountable?

My colleagues had a variety of answers for me: the police don’t do anything when you report minor theft, thieves know what fate they’re tempting, people won’t care if we show these stories because it happens everyday.

I felt frustrated, but empathetic.

Maybe if we asked Clouds viewers to send us photos/videos along with the time, date and location of any mob incidents they witness, I suggested. We could interview a psychologist about mob mentality, get statements from families of victims, get an expert to talk about what people should do when they witness mob violence…

“Yeah, we can do a story about that,” they told me half-heartedly.

Granted it was late in the afternoon and we were all hungry and stuffed in a van with too many people and too little air-conditioning. But even the most righteous human rights defenders are bound to lose impetus when they’ve witnessed so much violence, and on the flip side, so much indifference by those entrusted to protect the vulnerable.

Eventually you become numb.

“You saved a life today, Brielle!” they congratulated me back at the office when my colleagues relayed the story.

Maybe. I also walked away without ensuring the victim got medical attention. I didn’t ask the police for their names or take their badge numbers. I didn’t try and interview any witnesses, and I didn’t capture any of the attackers on camera.

The embarrassment of being the only one crying out got the best of me, and I left.

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3 thoughts on “Witnessing mob violence in Dar es Salaam

  1. Ellen

    I just want to say thank you for raising awareness about this issue even though so many others already view this as a ‘normal’ occurrence. Although the thieves were not right to steal, this level of violence is simply not acceptable.

  2. Regina

    Oh I understand very well. This is exactly the same I experienced several years ago, Ist’s horrible and unbelievable…animals also are beaten very badly… I was shocked!
    This is how human beings are…black and white… the same! Pole sana!

  3. Iñaki

    After living for 9 years in Mexico, I can tell you: Advocating for a thief is not something right in those countries. Mobs are brutal, violent, and excesive, but those kind of burglars deserve no more. In those countries, people has very little money, and have to work A LOT for it. It is unfair (much, much more than being lynched for stealing) to have your little earnings stolen after days, sometimes months, of working. Death is the least those lazy people who don’t want to work like everyone else and rather get their money by taking it from those who do in fact work -A LOT- deserve. Not even jail is enough, because when they’ll finish their sentence, they’ll go back to their delinquence. And think about it: hard-working for days just so you can feed your child and having it stolen for your child to starve, isn’t it more violent than to just kill the person who wanted to steal from you?


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Speak is an online magazine that publishes and discusses rights media pieces. Rights Media is the process of writing, collecting, editing, producing and distributing media that creates societal dialogue on human rights issues. Speak magazine mainstreams human rights issues through, progressive, balanced and objective reporting into everyday news stories.

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