(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Thing You Hope Won’t Happen


Last week was the kind you generally wish didn’t happen. I’d thought the toughest part of my week might be meeting with the refugee teachers regarding their stipend. I was wrong.

As refugees they are not allowed salaries, partially because they receive all of their basic needs just by being refugees. Host countries also don’t like to see well-paid refugees since it tends to make them more reluctant to return to their country of origin. My job was to reiterate what they’ve already heard – that there is no increase and besides, it’s not determined by us but by the UN. I’ve had this discussion numerous times, including dozens of times in the camps in Tanzania.  While I understand their frustrations of not being paid a proper salary for their jobs as teachers, they are unfortunately refugees and they need to respect the limitations (and privileges) that come with the territory.

The Accident

We headed out shortly after noon for Muyinga. I was with my driver, Yves, and our Education Coordinator, Innocent. We were about two hours into our trip when we were entering a village, about 10k before Ngozi, a decent sized town which serves as the capital for the province. All of the sudden, out from behind a vehicle parked on the other side of the road, a little boy came bolting across in front of us. Yves hit the brakes but it was too late. The vehicle slammed into the kid on my side of the vehicle he went careening off to the side of the road. It was a sick sound and an even more sick feeling.

We were still rolling forward as Yves and I looked at each other. He said calmly, "I believe we need to keep going." I nodded. It goes against all of your Western instincts to leave the scene of an accident but even in just a few brief seconds, the mob was approaching.

This was something that I learned in Tanzania and was hoping that I’d never have to deal with it. In many parts of the world where mob justice is the norm, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the population has a tendency to take matters such as this in their own hands. Immediately. We saw this a number of times in Tanzania and it’s horrible. They’ll attack with whatever they have in their hands. They’ll use machetes. They’ll put an old tire around your neck and light it on fire. It’s ugly and it usually ends in death. Police don’t necessarily condone it but once it gets going, it’s very difficult to stop.

As Yves hit the accelerator I looked back to my right. The boy wasn't moving. As we made our way out of the village the vehicle was quiet. It’s one of those things that happens fast and you spend a minute or two getting it into your head that you really did experience it and now you really have to deal with it.

Just a few kilometers down the road, in one of the rare times I was happy to see a police checkpoint, we stopped, got out and explained what happened. They were quite understanding confirmed we did the right thing.  The head policeman pulled out his notebook and started asking questions. He would end up spending the afternoon with us as we went on to Ngozi to deal with paperwork and eventually, with police reinforcements, return to the scene of the accident. During this time the police commander received a call that the boy was alive and getting some medical attention at the small clinic in the village.

It was a relief to say the least. As much as I was dreading heading back to the small village, I did want the opportunity to express my sympathy and support to the family. While it’s clear that they would know why we would have left the scene of the accident in a hurry, at the very minimum there would still be quite a bit of anger over what happened, regardless of whether or not it was avoidable.

Back to the Scene

There was a bit of an awkward moment in that our vehicle is not allowed to carry guns.  While I was hoping that we would have strong, visible police protection, I wasn’t going to bend the rules even in this case. Fortunately we would be able to find the necessary protection within the small village on arrival. I was still quite nervous and I’m sure that my colleagues were as well. The plan was to go to the clinic, check on the boy and then make our way to the scene of the accident for the “investigation”.

We went straight to the small clinic. It was situated about 50 meters off the road and a large crowd was gathered near the entrance. I didn’t know how we would be received but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be a warm welcome.  I gritted my teeth, got out of the car, made my way through the throng of people and went inside the clinic. So far so good. The smell reminded me of the clinics in Tanzania when I was working on the HIV/AIDS project. I’m not sure what the smell is. It’s not necessarily foul but it’s not necessarily delightful either.

We were escorted to the room where the boy was being treated. He was indeed alive and semi-conscious. He had a huge bandage on his head and only his face was peering out through the red-stained gauze. The father was sitting at the foot of the bed staring at his son with glassy eyes. The floor was a mess with streaks of dried blood where someone done an initial wiping but no cleaning of what appeared to have been a significant pool.

The clinical officer who was attending to the boy said that he might be ok but he said he needed to get to the regional hospital in Ngozi. I said we’d be happy to take him. The police commander reminded me that we needed to first go to the scene of the accident for the investigation and then we could come back and get the boy. Most of the conversation that afternoon was in Kirundi and except where they borrow words from either Swahili or French, I understand nearly nothing. I was generally in the dark when it came to the details of what was going on. We then made our way back through the crowd outside the clinic. It had grown and was surrounding not only the entrance to the hospital but also the vehicle. We and the police squeezed inside and off we went. This would be the second most frightening moment of the day.

It was only about 100 meters from the clinic to where we parked and got out. Or at least everyone else got out. The commander suggested I stay in the vehicle. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be locked in the vehicle at a distance with the guys carrying the guns or right by that man’s side. I figured he knew what he was doing so as soon as they were out and pushing through the crowds towards the spot of the accident, I hit the doorlock.

I could see it was a dilemma for some of the young guys who were staring at me in the vehicle. While there was fascination over this white guy, there were a bunch of armed police over doing something that was also attracting interest. I was happy to see that, though it was about two-deep around me, the bulk of people were more curious about what the police were doing. I was increasingly becoming worried, however, about whether or not the mob could be kept in check. Because of the people gathered around me and the even bigger crowd around them, I couldn’t see what was going on across the way.

The crowd kept getting bigger and bigger. People were taking pictures of me with their cell phones. Finally (it was less than 5 minutes but it felt like an hour) they came back to the car and off we went to the clinic. Poor Yves was a mess but he held his own. After we paid the clinic bills they carried the boy to the vehicle. His eyes were partially open. This must have seemed absolutely surreal to him. We put him in the back seat with his father, the clinical officer and, of course, the police commander.

Finally to the Hospital

As we drove to Ngozi, it was a quiet ride. The father refused to make eye contact for the entire time. I offered them some water which they took though the father made a point to stare at the floor as he reached out his hand. It’s understandable though probably for selfish reasons I wanted him to acknowledge how sorry we were.

I have to say, the hospital in Ngozi was impressive compared to the regional hospitals I frequented in Tanzania. The facilities were generally very clean and they attended to him right away. The receiving doctor seemed optimistic but he said head injuries are weird. Internal bleeding and things like that can end things in a hurry. Infection is also a huge problem in rural facilities. Anyway, we eventually had to leave them. It was starting to get late in the afternoon and we absolutely had to be off the roads before dark. We were still an hour away from Muyinga and we were far from being done with the police.  We had to go to their rather nasty police compound where there would still be the traditional negotiation as to fault and compensation. I’ll avoid further detail but they were actually pretty fair.

Happy to Be Done with the Day

We eventually got to our guesthouse about 5:30pm. I was tired, dehydrated, headachey, hungry (no lunch) and that sick feeling in my stomach would stick around for quite some time. I was happy to hear that the boy is likely to pull through. I was also happy to get off the roads given that Muyinga has been having some insecurity by what some locals are calling rebels and the police are calling bandits. Either way, my concern was validated. Around 11:00pm that night in a small community not far from town and unidentified armed group reportedly lobbed a grenade in a local shop, attacked a residence and injured two people.

As I drifted off to sleep in the shelter of my mosquito net with the hum of the generator in the distance I thought, it’s still only Monday.

1 comment:

Richa8 said...

Rich,
Re: The Accident
Almost the same thing happened to me when I was in Turkey in the 60s.. A bunch of us decided to go the sea to do some fishing... We were in two car loads and as it turned out it rained the whole time we were down there and so didnt fish too much... We started back to the base and were told that the main road had washed out and that we had to take a alternate route which we did... We had to go through the mountains and as we were going through a village a young boy dashed out in front of the lead car which hit him.. I was in the second car... Of course we stopped and immediately the entire village was surrounding us. We didnt know what to do and the men were picking up clubs and rocks and we were going to have to fight our way out or we were going to lose our lives.. There was however a military outpost there and they heard the commotion and came over and surrounded us and kept the locals from doing what ever they were going to do to us...
The military then took us to the local jail and all of us in one cell.. They knew very little English and we knew a little Turkish so trying to communicate was difficult.. I dont know why but they did an otoposy on the front steps of the jail with the village and us looking on... Finally after about 4-5 hours they let all of us go except the driver of the car.. Long story short after about 6 months the Air Force somehow got him released and when they brought him back to base he was whisked into a jet trainer and was out of the country in less than an hour...
Scary situation and I am glad to be here today...
Rich