Is that your pig or mine? This is a question which never seems to be asked in Uganda. Animals are everywhere and no one seems to be watching them – operative term, seems. With a widespread distrust of police, where the victim of the crime might just as well fall under suspicion as the actual criminal, Ugandan culture seems to step in to solve the problem of theft. (Note: I refer to daylight theft only. When the lights go out, the rules change and would require a separate article. I acknowledge that these comments are seminal observations, and that research would have to be done to further develop this topic for accuracy.)

This is most obviously manifested in the way livestock is handled. There is livestock everywhere in Uganda. I see chickens in the stores and homes, domestic turkeys everywhere, ducks waddling in the lanes, cows wandering here and there, goats and sheep tied along the side of the road to graze all day or wandering along the roads trailing the broken tethers which they have chewed through, half a dozen goats asleep in the road itself, and pigs ranging their snuffling ways through the forests, pastures and yards.

Piglet snuffling by the trail.

Piglet snuffling by the trail.

I have asked different Ugandans repeatedly why these various animals are just let loose to roam everywhere, why they are not secured in a yard or pen, or why they are not stolen from the side of the road. A chicken is not worth a lot to the average Ugandan, but a pig is worth a great deal, a cow a virtual fortune. Yet there they all are, wandering free, untended by unconcerned owners everywhere from the city residential areas (and sometimes even the stores) to the rural villages.

The common answer is that everyone knows whose pig that is, or, everyone knows who owns that chicken or cow. Really? I don’t know. The Ugandan making this statement isn’t from that village, and surely he doesn’t know. We are just two of the many strangers traveling this road at that very moment, the roads being always crowded with people of all ages and stripes going both directions. So really? Everyone knows who owns that isolated young goat tied to that bush right at the edge of the road? The reasoning seems to be that since everyone knows whose pigs those are, no one will steal them. But they are unbranded and unmarked for ownership in any way.

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My favorite “cow picture” from Uganda.

I think something else is going on. Ugandans live in community rather than as individuals like in the West. I have observed that everyone in the community has developed the innate ability to watch everything in their own community as if it is community property. This does not take the amount of effort it would take in the West. For me to accomplish such a thing in my own neighborhood in Texas, I would have to leave whatever I was doing in my home or yard, surreptitiously peek out from the side of my window or doorway, and watch some suspicious character literally “from the shadows.” This wouldn’t be the case in Uganda. There each member of the community seems to have developed an instinctive “stranger-danger” sense that goes off like radar, allowing them to go effortlessly about their business with one eye subconsciously peeled for any sign of trouble.

A lone sheep tied along the road to graze.

A lone sheep tied along the road to graze.

So, my feeling is that if anyone tried to scoop up someone else’s livestock and walk away with it, they would be quickly confronted, not by one courageous hero as in the U.S., but by many angry citizens emerging from every direction from the houses and fields around, and that very quickly a mob would form like a swarm of bees whose nest has been kicked, and the would-be thief would then be beaten or even killed.

This community mob mentality substitutes for the lack of police presence in a society where the police seem to sit by the road in one place waiting until after a crime is committed and officially reported before they will even move, and where the concept of “crime prevention” is not even known except in the passive sense of barred windows. I have witnessed the mob in action twice in Uganda. The first was in the middle of a crowded public thoroughfare at a bus stop – a boda boda man (motorcycle taxi driver) had apparently cheated a Ugandan woman in her taxi fare, and she shrieked some mysterious phrase at which the crowd at the bus was instantly galvanized. I watched the offender suddenly turn and run for his life with a crowd of no less than fifty men and women chasing after him. He was caught and beaten right there by the side of the road.

A turkey walking freely on the sidewalk in the city of Jinja.

A turkey walking freely on the sidewalk in the city of Jinja.

The second time I saw mob justice was with a drunk man who was causing a violent disruption in a restaurant in the main village on Buvuma island. Within seconds, the merchants from the surrounding stores had grabbed the man and dragged him out to the street where they beat him. I noticed that they did not mean to hurt him, but to make a point to him – they beat him only with the flats of their fists. Then one of the men caned him with a flimsy stick, capable of making more noise than damage. He then forced the drunk man to carry bricks from one pile to another as a penalty for his behavior. The drunk man was uninjured but humbled.

I had a discussion with some Ugandans just a few weeks ago about some men who had killed an eighteen year old boy in an argument over some fish he had caught. Not only were they not arrested and tried, but the reason was that the father of the boy went to the police and begged for their release since they were relatives! In trying to make any sense of this, I asked how many people these criminals would have to kill before the police would step in and punish them. The answer was that if they killed again, the mob would kill the offenders before the police were called.

So, at a primitive outsider’s level, I begin to understand why the pigs and the goats wander free and are perfectly safe from thievery during daylight hours. They apparently know their way home at night and return to their proper places each evening, or if tied, they are collected by their owners and secured. When the community is watching, the community protects them. “Neighborhood Watch” is not a concept that needs to be taught in Uganda, at least during the day.