Mob Justice: An Outsider’s Thoughts

I’ve seen it quite a number of times over the last few years that I have lived in Tanzania; it never gets any less disturbing for me. It bothers me that whole day and for days afterward. I keep coming back to it in my mind. I keep trying to understand, to put myself in their shoes. But it’s hard. I’m still an outsider. No matter how long I end up living here I will always be an outsider. Even though I have taken time and I am working hard to learn a new language so I can communicate well with people; so I can connect in a deeper way, I’m still an outsider. I wasn’t born here. I didn’t grow up here. This culture is not my culture. So there will always be some things I can’t fully understand. I will try my best of course. But I will always have a bit of a different perspective on some things. It doesn’t make me right and ‘them’ wrong or ‘them’ right and myself wrong. We have just grown up in two VERY different environments with completely different world views. We see the world differently and it’s a good thing. The world would be a pretty boring place if we all thought exactly the same way. However there are some tricky issues. Some things which I will never understand, hard as I may try. Mob Justice is one of those things.

I grew up in Canada and before moving to Africa I had never seen anything like ‘mob justice.’ It was a completely foreign concept to me. I remember the first time I saw ‘mob justice’ in action in Dar es Salaam. I had witnessed it before but always after the fact. We were driving to the church where we worked and there was some traffic. As we inched forward we saw a large crowd up ahead. As we got closer we could see that many were yelling and throwing stones into the ditch they were surrounding. Others were standing, forming an outer circle watching. Traffic wasn’t moving much now; everyone was stopping to see what was happening. The police had just arrived and were breaking up the mob as it was dying down. There was a man lying in the ditch, bloody and motionless.  I felt sick to my stomach. Julius rolled down his window and asked one of the men standing nearby what had happened. The man said it was a thief that had been caught. Julius asked what he had tried to steal. The man said he has tried to steal a side mirror off a car. Julius tried to talk to this man and asked him, so you think for stealing something so small like that he deserved to die? The man just kind of laughed it off and said, “he’s a thief, that’s what happens to thieves.” By this time two police men had descended into the ditch and had picked up the man; he was still alive, but horribly injured. They put him in the back of their pick up truck and drove off. I asked Julius where they would take him. He said he didn’t know but it wouldn’t be a hospital, and he would likely die. I can’t get those images out of my mind. There were little children standing watching everything. The image of that crowd surrounding that man’s broken body is burned in my brain. That day I was physically shaken. I felt like crying and I felt sick to my stomach.

Since moving here to live and witnessing that event I’ve really tried not to think about it too much. But in the last week and a half I’ve seen it three more times – thankfully not in action – but shortly after. This morning it happened again on my way into work.

I could see a big crowd of people up ahead, in front of one shop beside the road, as I drove. They were all standing in a circle formation, crowding around something…but I had that sinking feeling, that pit in my stomach as I knew it wasn’t something but someone in the middle of that crowd of people. I saw two Police Officers walking towards the crowd and as I slowed down and drove past, my thoughts were confirmed as I caught a glimpse of the man lying on the ground, motionless in the middle of this group. He wasn’t moving and the crowd wasn’t doing anything now accept standing around looking at him and talking. I continued driving my thoughts swirling now; so many questions. What was the story this time? Who was that man? Had he tried to steal something and been caught? (That is the most common story). Was he still alive?

I’ll never have the answers to these questions. But the image of that man lying motionless on the ground will be forever with me.

Mob Justice – the name given to these kind of situations – is common here in Tanzania. People take justice into their own hands because they have no faith in the law enforcement agencies here. You have to understand where people are coming from. I’ve talked a lot to Julius (my husband) who is Kenyan and grew up there and to many of our friends from Tanzania about why this happens and is so common.  You don’t just become part of a mob of people that kills someone in the street randomly. It’s years of pent-up frustration, disappointment, deep hurt, hardships and loss – all suppressed; kept under the surface. Maybe your house was broken into and they stole everything you had, raped your wife and daughter and then beat you and left you for dead. The police weren’t reachable and if they came they weren’t helpful or even made things more complicated. You survived but you carry that pain with you everywhere you go. There is no outlet for it. There is no one to talk to. There is no counselling. You just move on – outwardly. But inwardly the pain is fresh. Then you witness or hear of someone stealing or taking advantage of someone and suddenly something inside of you breaks. All the years of suppressed anger and bitterness rise up. There is an opportunity to release all of that pent-up rage. And so without even thinking about it; almost subconsciously you become part of the action. Part of the mob. And before you have even had time to think, someone lies dead in the middle of the group. But it’s ok. They deserved it. It’s justice. You know the police wouldn’t have done anything; he would have gotten away with it. So justice had to be taken into your own hands. You justify your actions. And you’re not alone – many are standing there with you.

As an outsider it’s difficult to put myself into the shoes of people here. I haven’t lived their lives. I haven’t faced many of the things that they have had to endure. I can’t begin to imagine how they feel.

In some ways it makes sense. I can imagine where they are coming from; what leads to mob justice. I know the facts and the factors present. But despite all of that, I know it’s not justified. I know it’s wrong. I know that feeling it gives me in the pit of my stomach. It’s disturbing to me. I won’t ever get used to it. It won’t ever be ‘normal’ to me. But it is one of the things that happens here and I can’t escape it. I don’t have any power to change it. It can actually be dangerous to try and stop and get involved and try to stop people – because at that point the rage has engulfed them and they can even turn on you if you are against the crowd. But it never gets easier to just drive by. It’s a very helpless feeling.

I know it hurts God’s heart too – more than mine. He loved that thief as much as the people who killed him. He loves them all.

We live in a unjust world. Too many injustices to count. It can be overwhelming. And while I may feel powerless to change anything I know what I can do and what I’ve been called to do. I can pray. I can do my small part in working with the church here and the organisation we are a part of to help raise a generation of Tanzanians who know Jesus and who have been transformed by him; the ones God will use for His glory to transform a nation. The problems are big, it’s true. But our God is bigger and His ways are higher.

So even as I have been dealing with that awful feeling in my stomach again this morning, I am choosing to focus on HOPE. I look at the faces of our kids here in Village of Hope – Mwanza and I see hope and light. I know God can and will use them. So today I focus on them; pouring into their lives the love of Christ so that they can grow to do the same to others. That is what will make a difference in this world. I choose to love and leave justice and revenge in God’s hands.


Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. ~Romans 12:19


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Patti
    Nov 17, 2014 @ 17:26:40

    Really difficult, Jade. Props to you for being willing to process it thoughtfully.


  2. jadekenya
    Nov 17, 2014 @ 18:55:07

    Thanks Patti. It’s not an easy thing for sure.


    Nov 18, 2014 @ 02:06:51

    This must be a real culture shock for you Jade. I have lived in Kenya for most of my life, where “Mob justice” ( which is actually a wrong name for mob lynching or mob murder; because there is no justice in a mob) has been the order of the day, but I have never come to terms with the brutality involved.. The first time I saw it, I was a kid. The two victims, who had stolen cows, were not only badly maimed by the mob but they were tied to the cows which dragged them along a rough stretch of a road for some distance. People kept kicking their lifeless bodies even after they were long dead! I was really traumatized and had nightmares for days.

    This kind of brutality meted by a mob can never be justifiable since the penalty of a petty thief can never be a death or life sentence in any court of law. But, always the authorities seem helpless in the face of marauding mobs. This is partly because they shoulder the biggest share of the blame. As you put it, if people had faith in the justice system, then “mob lynching” would be a thing of the past. But we have had cases where dangerous criminals are apprehended and the following day you meet them roaming the streets due to a corrupt justice system. There have even been criminal syndicates involving the poorly paid police officers! We can say that the people have no choice but take the law into their hands, which is so unfortunate.
    However the pent-up frustrations and bitterness exhibited by the mobs doesn’t only originate from having been victims of theft. Most of the youths who participate in the mob lynching orgies are unemployed, idle and broke. The stinging poverty and anger towards the authorities make them vent their pent-up frustrations on any hapless fellow caught red-handed in the act of theft.


    • jadekenya
      Nov 18, 2014 @ 12:19:33

      Thanks for your thoughts Bro. It’s a difficult issue – but things will never change if we don’t start talking about them. We may not have all the solutions, but the answers start with fir starting the conversation. Thanks for reading.


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