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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Nausch

Vigilantism, for the peace of the village:Nowhere in (West) Africa Part 3

By Eli Ayeke on Unsplash

Where there is lots of poverty there is often lots of robbery. But things are different 60 kilometres south of Burkina Faso’s Capital Ouagadougou in the small village of my friend Margo, which belongs to the district Kombissiri. People here, as well as in other villages in Burkina, don’t use door locks. Everybody knows everyone. The interdependence is too high to steel or cheat the neighbour, taking the risk to lose one’s trustworthiness and community connections. Except for a few members of the family that may have a ‛normal’ job with a regular income and some youngsters who move to the ‛young’ city Ouagadougou – in which approximately half of the habitants are younger than or around 20 years old – most of the family members in the village stay in the village. Their life is organised according to Nature’s rhythm and pace. Self-sufficiency agriculture practised mainly in the rainy season from May to October is the most important work, source of food and income. I admire the high amount of energy that the villager women show each and every day from early morning on, cooking, cleaning, getting ready for the work on the field, where they would stay working often till 1 or 2 pm. How can they withstand this merciless burning sun? It is still a miracle to me. “If we want to pay something for our household and for our children, we have to work”, is what Mama, Margo’s sister-in-law, responds to my question. There‘s toughness and strength that can be noticed in her arms and whole body, a lot of aliveness that radiates through her voice and pride manifested in her posture.

People sustain themselves and support each other. They eat natural food from their own fields and trees, and they work hard for it. They don’t owe anything to anybody. And they take pride in it. This is not the Africa that the famous Nigerian-born singer Nneka sings about in her song “Wake up Africa”. It is a part of Africa that does not need to be awakened, I guess. But which, yes, needs to be protected and supported. And as the villagers are aware of the reality in their country – the fact that there are not enough cops is one aspect of that reality –, they take measures to protect themselves against robbers.

“Our life here in the village depends on our peace and freedom”

It happens rarely, perhaps once a year or even less and mostly this sort of crime, robbery, is committed by somebody who’s not from the same region, I’ve been told. It’s easy to calculate that it is pretty unlikely for me to be present at such a rare moment – and yet, this is exactly what happened when I stayed in the village: A thief is caught! “Somebody saw him stealing 2000 CFA (around 4 Euros). He’s still on the market. The villager men have handcuffed him and started interrogating him ”, tells me Hamado after dinner. “Really? But this is not legal, or is it?” I’m thrilled to know more. “It is not legal. But what else can we do? The police staff is limited. They already have a lot of other things to do. If we presented him to the police, they would interrogate him and let him go again. There would be many more thieves if we proceeded this way. But our life here on the village depends on our peace and freedom. We must protect ourselves. This is what all villages do – it is an unwritten law and the police actually, secretly knows this – they don’t show up here.” “Do you have a photo of him?” “No. This is a part of the unwritten law. No photos. Do you want to see him?” “Of course!”, I reply impulsively and not one minute passes until I find myself on the back of Hamado’s motorbike riding down the two kilometers to the nearest market stretch.

Handcuffed, sitting on the sandy ground, undressed except for his slip

By Daniel Current on Unsplash

It is already evening and dark. Most of the people have left the market already, except for a few men keeping guard and interrogating. Hamado begins speaking in Moré to a man sitting on a bench and only a little while later I spot the slim, perhaps 20 years old young man sitting on the sandy ground, leaning against the light pole, undressed, only in a slip, hands tight behind his back. Intuitively, I stay a little aside, almost not feeling courageous enough to look at him. I guess he must have been the first and so far only ‛prisoner’ I’ve ever seen. I know it is illegal what they are doing to him and, given his exposure – which of course is part of the punishment –, I feel a bit uncomfortable. On the other hand, I can understand the villagers who want to keep their villages safe. I did not really know what to think or feel . The way how the old man speaks with the disturber of the village’s peace is quite calm and friendly, though. I was expecting the worst. As far as I could understand, another person was involved in the theft and the men now wanted to find out more about it.

People need to have a proof that no thief gets off scot-free.

“What will happen next?” “We will ask him questions and see whether he is contradicting himself – a sign that he is lying. He is going to stay here until we all know what we need to know, it may even take a few days. And when we find he is lying to us or not cooperating, we will also beat him”. (It is what indeed had happened on the second day, before they had let him go again.) “Do you give him something to eat and drink?” I wanted to know and see whether some minimum standards of human dignity were kept. “Not too much. It is part of his punishment. Just a little water and a bit of rice perhaps. The necessary for him to survive and not to get sick. We don’t want to kill or hurt anyone – but the situation needs to be clarified. People need to have a proof that no thief gets off scot-free.”

I thought of Germany, well Europe, and about the people who advocate vigilantism here. Seen from an emotional side, I can totally understand this desire to take power and control back into one’s own hands. But if people begin to just implement and apply their very own rules here, we might probably get easily into an anarchic state. What somehow seems to work in Burkina Faso, out of lack of alternatives, doesn’t work just anywhere else. I think – after all – our police still work relatively well if we compare it with countries with way higher crime rates, and the lack of police officers such as it happens in Burkina.

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