it's a strange feeling to be watched, constantly. to pass by a row of idlers - unrelated - to turn and wave, and to have your gesture returned by every individual in the row, is an eerie circumstance. it's a thing you can sense, as if their eyes cast a line towards you and you can feel the hook digging into your skin and pulling your gaze to meet theirs. it's often enough to drive a man crazy, feeling all of the hooks in his skin, never letting go. there's solace, though, knowing that the eyes harbor no hatred behind them, that they watch with the detachment of a machine, or with the amused interest of a city slicker at the zoo. they will always wave and smile and greet you, if your eyes connect. you had better return their greeting, if your eyes connect. or they will sit and grumble and talk about you when you're gone, your poor manners and your condescension and your pride. your reputation will begin to drive a wedge between you and THEM, you and the community, because the individual is the community and vice versa. it's never just one person greeting you. there's always a village behind him, watching and waiting. that's why sometimes you walk with your gaze fixed ahead, never faltering, pretending not to notice. you know that the next 'how ah yoo?' will break you, that another 'mzungu!' will make you scream, that you just want to get home and into the privacy of your little furnished concrete box where their hooks can't reach you anymore. at least, until tomorrow.
i was hoping that i could get through my 27 months without illness, save a single food poisoning episode that manifested itself on my homestay family's front porch. i wasn't so lucky. i managed to contract...something...that doctor's couldn't classify or identify, but that they could throw drugs at while crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. my throat got so that i couldn't swallow anything except for hot tea and soup, which fed me for a week and a half. a week and a half in which i lost ten pounds. i think i would have chosen almost anything over a week-long starvation period. cut open my heart. my foot's gotta go? fine. just let me eat a damn plate of beans, for christ sake. well, you know me. i love to eat. i think i'm finally over it now, after about three weeks, and believe me, i'm making up for lost time. chapati never tasted so good.
to add insult to illness, my stereo was stolen from my house during the week that i spent doctor-hopping in nairobi. my supervisor called me the evening that it happened and told me that the thief was in prison and that i would have to go to the police station the next day to identify my stereo or they would release him. actually, first he sent me a 5-page text message that follows:
'Nice 2 hear from u. Wish u quick recovery. Wanted 2 tell u that a young gentleman alledged from kandara was seen trying 2 enter ua hse. With him he had a master key. Ua neighbor mama sam saw him and when she confronted him he ran and she alarm. The man was chased and was cornered. He was beaten mercilessly and was rescued by the police. He left behind a cd radio player sony, light blue in color which had a cassettee tape with american hits. The police wud like 2 know if it could be your. He is in the police cell. I went 2 the police station 2 confirm the incident. The police r finding out how he came from kandara and how he found his way 2 ua plot. Mama sam has narrated the incident 2 the police. I will let u know on progress. Gudngt'(sic)
mama sam, my neighbor, had apparently caught the thief red-handed on my patio. when he ran, several other neighbors chased him down and by all accounts started beating him to death by the road. luckily the police drove by and 'saved' him - they took him to prison and confiscated the radio. since they can't hold a prisoner for more than 24 hours without evidence, i had to rush back to my village the next day, in the midst of my illness, to identify my stolen property. when i arrived at the police station it was easy enough to pick out my stereo - it was the one on the counter which the cops were listening to (since the thief left the power cord behind, this meant that the officers went out to buy batteries especially for this purpose). i told them as much, and they looked at me suspiciously. they brought the thief out of the holding cell - an 8x8 concrete hole with a tiny strip of light at the top, in which at least 5 other men were being held simultaneously - and smacked him around and yelled at him quite a bit. they seemed to enjoy putting on this show. i told them that i didn't want to collect my stereo yet, that i was sick and would return in a few days.
when i returned three days later the thief was still in the same cell. the police chief asked me if i would like to take him to court and, while i didn't really care to, i knew that my neighbors wanted to see him 'come to justice.' that's when i found out that, in order to prosecute the criminal, the police would confiscate my stereo until the conclusion of the case, to be used as an 'exhibit' in court. i asked how long these cases tend to take. 'well, they can take a while.' how long. 'could be three months or a year.' i kinda got mad. you're telling me that because you, the police, caught this criminal and took my property, that i can't get it back for A YEAR if i want to see him in jail. 'that's right.' fine. just give me my stuff back. 'what?' i want my radio back. 'you mean you don't want to pursue the case?' that's not what i'm saying at all. i would like to pursue the case. i'd also like my stereo back. but since the two are apparently mutually exclusive, i guess i'd rather have my stereo. 'well, you'll have to sign a statement.'
and that's how common criminals end up back on the streets here. my neighbors were a bit upset when i told them that the thief had been released, but he would be a fool to come back to my neighborhood. one of my neighbors - a woman - said that if he ever comes back, 'he'll be burned.' and the more i see of the kenyan policing system, the less that statement bothers me. mob justice can be cruel, yes - petty criminals are often beaten to death over a cell phone or less. but a petty criminal never caught, or turned back onto the streets, will likely become bolder. kenyans spend their lives learning to mistrust the people who are supposed to protect them; learning that the law costs money and time; learning that cops can't arrest a crowd. so a cell phone thief is beaten to death, a victim recovers his property, a protective mother can breathe easy, a future criminal watches and is deterred.