Not long ago, I was walking back from dinner at a Thai restaurant in Kampala with a large-ish group of friends. During our walk, we had thinned out to a widely spaced, nearly single file line, with two small clusters of people at the head and tail. It was fairly dark, given that it was night and Kampala is probably among the most poorly lit cities in existence. But the stroll along the edge of the steep, thickly forested ridge that leads down to the city's golf course was nonetheless enjoyable.
I was walking near the front of the line when suddenly I heard a frantic shriek from behind. I whirled around to see my friend Caroline (I'm not at liberty to use her real name), who had been walking by herself in the middle of the pack, being grabbed by a young guy who had popped out of the darkness of the woods.
Almost instantly, three boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers appeared. They pulled over, dropped their bikes on the side of the road, and ran towards the slope, ostensibly to help, but more likely to exact a violent retribution on the man grabbing Caroline. (In Uganda, the only real justice is mob justice, the cops largely being corrupt, incompetent, or just plain absent. When somebody is caught stealing in the market, it's customary for a crowd of vendors to turn on the thief and beat him mercilessly with tire irons and wood slats until he goes unconsious or dies. I've seen the former happen at the large produce market in Hoima town.)
By the time the boda drivers - and I - reached the spot where Caroline had been grabbed, both she and her attacker had tumbled down the muddy slope into the woods. We rushed over, shouting to Caroline and scanning the with our cell phone flashlights. We found her, frightened and crying, but okay. The attacker had tried to abduct her, but when that failed, he attempted to make off with her purse. Caroline, though terrified, had clung bravely to the purse as they fell down the hill, refusing to give it up. When they both regained their footing, the attacker gave up and fled through the trees.
Almost too late, a police officer wearing green camouflage fatigues came running across the street, weapon drawn. "Where did he go?" the officer demanded. We pointed down the steep slope, into the shadowy tangle of trees. Wasting no time, he cocked his AK-47 with a loud KA-CHUNK and disappeared into the woods.
Unfortunately, the would-be thief was long gone, no doubt having sprinted halfway across the golf course immediately after failing to snatch Caroline's purse. I carefully descended the muddy slope with some of the boda boda drivers, only to find the police officer standing and shaking his head disappointedly.
"We are thieves, we Ugandans and Nigerians. Even me," he said. I didn't ask him to clarify that.
As the situation was no longer tense, the officer and the boda drivers began to laugh heartily, congratulating Caroline on being such a strong fighter and resisting the attack. The would-be thief hadn't managed to hurt Caroline or take anything of value from her, but she had lost one of her brown flip-flops in her chaotic slide down the hill. We searched up and down the slope with our flashlights for a while, but it didn't take long to realize that a brown sandal would be more or less impossible to find under piles of rotting leaves and mud in the dark of night. We gave up the search and walked back up the slope to the main road.
Up top, we brushed ourselves off and comforted a teary, visibly shaken Caroline. We thanked the boda drivers for their help, and they sped off into the night on their motorcycles. The police officer ejected an unused bullet from the AK-47. "I wouldn't have even wasted bullets on that one. I would have just knifed him," he chuckled, toying with the unaffixed bayonette mounted below the gun's barrel. I noticed he wasn't carrying handcuffs. To this day, I'm still shocked and angered by the attack on Carloine. But stabbing someone to death for a failed theft? That's some other kind of justice.