He stands as the sole witness
in his own defense—it was only a few dollars,
he didn’t know they would beat him like that.
And the police?
They couldn’t understand why he didn’t reward them,
why he looked so sick
and in their privacy mumbled,
How could this mzungu ever get so rich
if he can’t be a man and protect it?
In the early 1980s I spent nearly two years in Rwanda teaching the Bahá’í Faith. I lost the poetry I wrote there and since the genocide in 1994, it has been difficult for me to write about Rwanda.
The Swahili word, mzungu (pronounced ma-ZOON-goo) means “foreigner” and was a word we ex-patriots heard a lot, because, well, we were.
I was working at the American Embassy and this event happened to the husband of one of the diplomatic staff who was newly arrived at her first post. Some paltry amount of money had been stolen from them and the house boy had stopped coming to work. Experienced diplomats would have known this truth: don’ t place too great a temptation on any soul, it’s simply not fair to them. If you do and they fail let it go, it’s your fault. However, this couple did not know this and they told the police, not realizing the consequences of their action.
As a matter of national pride, the police were charged with presenting a very orderly and law abiding view of Rwanda to the diplomatic corps in the capital of Kigali. If it had been a theft from a native of no rank or power, the police would probably not have bothered to leave their depot, except for a bribe of a portion of whatever amount was recovered.
In this case, they found the young man and beat him to a bloody pulp, at some point during the process getting a confession out of him. When they proudly showed their investigative powers to the American from whom the money was stolen, they could not understand why he was so shocked at the brutality of the beating or why he was brokenhearted to think that he had caused it.
But the degree of culture shock that young American was experiencing was probably equal to that of the police, who could not understand his reaction to them. Much of Africa is dirt scrabble poor and what you have is jealously defended. And when you are in power and have nothing to restrain you—well, what happens in those circumstances tells much of the story of that sad, beautiful continent.
Thank you for reading Eye to eye. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.
© 2012 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2012 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.