On my last trip to Buvuma Island in Lake Victoria, we arrived in the late afternoon and decided to eat at one of the small restaurants in the main village of Kitamiru. I was with the bishop who originally invited me to the island, and we settled at a small table outside on the porch.

The restaurant was called First Fast Food Restaurant (one small room and a porch with two tables – five tables in all). Ugandans do much in their signs and names for their businesses with their English in ways that sometimes don’t quite translate to the American ear. This particular name, however, lived up to its title, and soon after ordering we were served dishes of popular Uganda foods: matoki, beans and rice, some chicken with broth, some posho, and sodas.

Soon after the food arrived, I was accosted by a very dirty, wild-eyed man. By this, I mean he entered the porch, approached me, the musungu (white man), and aggressively began begging for money. Let me describe this man to you: his clothing was stained and soiled dark brown from collar to cuff from sleeping on the ground for many days without washing; his hair was long for an African, matted, flying every which direction, and also long unwashed; his pants and shirt were ragged from use, and perhaps had been only just a little less ragged when he first got them as castoffs – the many holes and rips showed that he was wearing maybe three sets of clothing top and bottom, as if, not having a place to keep his extra clothing securely, he just wore it all; he did not speak English except to say, “Musungu, give me money,” which even the smallest child tends to learn phonetically very early in life; he was barefoot; he was a man perhaps 40 years old; finally, his personal aroma was only overcome by the alcohol fumes that he breathed in my direction.

I knew this man by sight because he is the resident village “crazy man,” always present in the main street, carrying on a conversation aloud with himself or with someone the rest of us cannot see. The people seem to accept him and give him handouts for sustenance. His story, as I have pieced it together, is that he was in business with his brother, who wanted to take the business for himself, and so a witch doctor was visited, spells and curses were cast, and this man has been on the downhill slide ever since, becoming “crazy” in the sense that he lives on the streets, sleeps in the alleys, drinks up every cent he ever earns, and constantly talks to invisible companions. Almost every village in Uganda seems to have one of these people, and some have more than one. They seem to be part of the culture, accepted and tolerated, fed by the citizens when they have a little extra, and maybe even occasionally allowed to sleep in a shed out back.

Now he stood next to me in the restaurant porch, asking more and more insistently for a handout, and seemingly unwilling to take No for an answer. It is not a good practice for a musungu to give money to such a man because he then learns to approach every musungu that comes to the village, and perhaps that is even why he was approaching me. My fellows at the table, Ugandans who know their own culture, attempted to send him away, but he was not listening. The female proprietor came and told him to leave, but he became excited, then angry, then furious, causing the three women working there to retreat out the back door of the building.

He began cursing them; then he began looking around for something to throw. First he threw some dirt and trash, but then he noticed some ten foot beams stacked opposite our table at the edge of the patio. He picked one up and threw it down the alley between the buildings toward the women, who were now cowering at the other end. I was thinking that this might be a good time to exit the restaurant. However, he stood in the entryway stalking back and forth and frothing out curses, shaking his fist at the women.

Now the isolated culture here tends to recognize the visit of any musungu as an honor – musungus are welcomed by all as guests to the island. By this time the shop keepers around us, who knew this man and who had seen that he was behaving in this disorderly manner in front of a guest to their village, began to gather around him, chastising him with shouts and angry expressions. He would not listen to them, so they grabbed him and dragged him off to the side of the restaurant.

What proceeded not fifteen feet from our table seemed to me something out of a more primitive era, but certainly not the 21st century – he was given a public beating by the shopkeepers. I was aghast! I thought I should intervene. In fact, I was almost to my feet when I noticed that they were not punching him as if to hurt him, but were slapping him on his body in a way that was not injuring him – but by now there were at least five of them participating.

The man would not yield, but continued to call out angrily, rebelliously shouting in their faces. Finally, one of the larger men grabbed him by the collar and rousted him across the street, where he grabbed up a stick and began to beat him with it. Again, I almost lurched to my feet to intervene, but then I noticed that the stick he was using was only a switch that made noise but could not inflict much damage. Instructed by the bishop to sit still, I hung back, watching this horrifying cultural demonstration, but somehow discerning that something more was happening here than an angry out-of-control mob brutalizing someone. The bishop told me that the village members needed to handle this matter and that I should not get involved.

Finally, the man submitted under the switching he received. He bowed his head to the man with the switch and received a severe tongue-lashing. The bishop explained to me that the villagers could not allow such a man to behave in this disruptive and violent manner, especially in front of honored visitors. The police seldom get involved at this level, unless they are present to witness the actual “crime,” so the culture dictates that the villagers handle such minor crises among themselves.

I watched the scene across the street as the disciplinarian ordered the drunkard to carry bricks from a pile and place them in another pile some distance away. The man, with no discernible injuries from his beating, was now thoroughly cowed and perhaps sobering up a little, was even docile, and spent the rest of our mealtime moving the pile of bricks one at a time. Village justice – shocking to my American sensibilities, but also amazingly effective – the man was humbled, corrected, did not end up in prison as he would have if the police had been involved, and village life resumed as if it had not been interrupted at all.

Tomorrow I will tell you the interesting follow-up to this story from my current trip to Buvuma Island for which this story is merely the back-story.

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