Petty theft is probably the most common crime in Tanzania and being a “mzungu” here makes you especially a target. During our orientation, it was drilled into our heads just how rampant theft is. From the typical purse snatching or pickpocketing at crowded markets and daladalas, to taxi cab scams, to getting shoved into a car, beaten up a bit and driven around town emptying your bank account and finally to the alleged machete guy on campus who cuts off people’s hands.
The university had their own orientation for us and one of the sessions about safety went something like this:
Mzungus: Is there anything we can do if we’re getting robbed?
Tanzanian police officer: You either let them take what they want or you shout Mwizi (thief).
Mzungus: Well what happens when you say that?
Tanzanian police officer: One of two things can happen. If there is a police officer nearby, they will take him and arrest him. If not, people might get angry and you might see him die in front of you.
So basically, according to the officer if someone is accused of being a thief, people nearby will get really angry and start beating the thief until they die. After hearing this I wasn’t sure what to think. The officer said this so casually but I was skeptical just how true this was. In the end I assured myself that maybe this was an instance that happened once or twice in the past. At the same time though I wasn’t going to shout mwizi at the next guy who looks at me funny.
However, the other day my friend Marion and I were at lunch with Polycarp, one of the Tanzanian students working in CIEE. We started talking about this topic again and we asked if this type of street justice actually happens. Shockingly enough, yes it does. And it’s happened 5 times just on the UDSM campus.
Polycarp then began to tell us his experience with this. He was walking to class and saw a group of people. They were crowded around, beating a man. Some were striking him metal rods, others stomped in his face with their boots. Apparently, the man was caught stealing a bike nearby the campus. He was then chased into campus, caught and beaten. Polycarp said when he got there he saw the man bloody and unconscious. He then broke up the beating and there was an officer nearby who helped. The man was then rushed to the hospital but by the time he got there, he was already dead.
So there it is. Tanzanian street justice. I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around this concept but at this point I just hope it’s one of those experiences I don’t encounter during my time here.