On a cloudy Tuesday afternoon, it will hit you, perhaps for the first time, how little a human life costs. The price of a mid-range smart phone.
You will be clutching at your bag, taking short hurried steps along Tom Mboya Street. There are always people here, and now, as rush hour begins, it seems that the entire city is here. You will turn this way and that, dodging scowling men who bump past you, refusing to acknowledge the small space you take up on the street, squeezing past wide, waddling women, strolling slowly in the busiest part of town, gossiping probably, clapping their hands to punctuate their sentences. You will have just bought a t-shirt for 200 bob from the vendors who lure the financially undisciplined along the pedestrian path from Koja to Ngara, and you will be feeling mighty proud of yourself. The t-shirt is not for you; it is to earn you girlfriend points. You will be thinking about this and trying to cross the road when you realize that there are men running right towards you, shouting. You will stop and hold your bag tighter.
You will see that the man at the head of the sprinting mass is not winning some sort of race. He is being chased. You will notice his faded black t-shirt with the graphics that you can’t quite make out. You will notice his hair, in some sort of weird stage in between open hair and dreadlocks. You will look at his face, his dark skin, his lean build, his rather worn out sneakers, and you will estimate that he is in his mid-twenties. You will discern the words “Aki hata nimeirudisha,” that he sputters in between breaths when a man behind him latches onto his t-shirt and takes away all hope of escape. You will see him put on resignation when his captors reject his excuses, and you will listen to the footsteps of those chasing him thunder to a stop. You will hear the shouts getting louder, more frenzied, as the entire street drops everything to see justice delivered.
Power to the people, it is said.
Long seconds will pass. On the inside, you will hear your boyfriend’s voice telling you to be safe, reminding you to avoid hanging around large rowdy crowds, instructing you to enter a shop or restaurant whenever you encounter angry mobs. Nairobi is not always kind to her own. But on the outside, you will hear shrill voices, hoarse voices: “Mwue! Achomwe!” And you will find yourself unable to move, unable to stop watching the very thing you cannot stand to watch in movies. A man being pounded into the ground.
Sometimes people surprise you with the amount of compassion that overflows from within them. Times when you believe more than ever that we are indeed made in the image of an ever-loving God. This is not one of those times. This is the exact opposite of those times. You will find yourself standing next to a woman who appears to be in her forties. You will hear her cluck her tongue and ask you what the man has stolen. You will tell her that he took some lady’s phone right around Tuskys Bebabeba. This you will know because you have been standing there long enough. You will not know what to say when the woman says, “Kama ni kuiba basi wacha wamwue, hawa wametutesa sana,” and so you will remain quiet, watching men run across the street to join in on the action, speeding matatus notwithstanding.
By this time you will be at the back of the crowd, unable to see whether the thief is conscious or not, whether he is still receiving the punches and kicks of twenty men at the same time. You will turn your attention to the people aboard the Eastleigh matatus looking down at the ensuing fracas, screaming suggestions on how best to rid the earth of scum such as this. Because the moment the street turned on him, he ceased to be human. You will begin to judge them—the mob of justice— for whatever it is inside them that has made them so excited about killing, and you will quickly give up because you will become suddenly aware how little of those emotions you understand. Anger is a secondary emotion; there is hurt underneath the rage. A man on crutches will limp past you, muttering just loud enough for it not to really be muttering: “Watu kama hao hawafai kuwachiliwa.” The city can make an executive decision on whether or not a man deserves his life.
Eventually, you will pull yourself away, stealing several glances back at the mob, even though you cannot actually see anything interesting anymore. Mob justice has always been a story you heard. One of those Nairobian things that you knew happened but had never actually witnessed. Part of you is excited at having seen Nairobi’s wounds, part of you is depressed. What are you supposed to feel when a man pays with his life for a bad decision? Had he escaped, he would probably keep on stealing people’s phones. And you know how it feels to find yourself without a phone because someone decided that he needed it more than you. Perhaps this one had even done worse things.
What is the value of a human life?
You will reach your stage and get onto your bus still thinking about the thief. The man. The human. Did he have a girlfriend? Did she know how he lived? His mother, is she alive? Does he send her money every month? What about his friends? Was he just a guy alone in a world that robbed him of just enough for him to stop caring? You will remember that you watched him being beaten up and not once did you hear him make a sound. No scream. No cry. Nothing. You will wonder why and you will let it go. As the bus fills up, begins to cough and grunt to life, rain will begin to fall on Nairobi streets. You will watch the people scuttle along the pavement and you will tighten your grip around your phone.