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Our culture of violence degrades us all

You may have seen a very disturbing scene on our TV screens earlier this week. A local TV station carried the story on its prime news slot, and a very distressing one it was. It caused a cabinet minister to condemn Kenyans as “vulgar hooligans” the next day, and it was hard to disagree.

This is what we saw. A commercial sex worker went to an office building in Nairobi’s city centre, apparently to pursue a debt owed to her by a man with an office on the premises, for services rendered. The security guards in the building saw this as an opportunity for some sport at her expense. They assaulted and molested her to the extent of trying to pull her clothes off. Finally, they bundled her violently out of the building.

That, unfortunately, was not the end of the matter, for the poor woman went from a private frying pan into a very public fire. The general public (read: idlers and wastrels) on the street now saw a chance for some further entertainment. A group of men, baying like hounds, surrounded her and proceeded to rain kicks and blows on her, pulling her hair and dragging her along the ground. These men, too, seemed interested primarily in undressing her. The woman managed to keep her clothes on, but was left a broken and beaten figure, disconsolate and alone.

Of course it was just men who perpetrated this outrage. They formed a mob, their eyes alight with a strange combination of hatred and, yes, lust. Even those who weren’t involved in the violence gathered around, great joy on their faces, waiting impatiently for the woman to be stripped.

A cameraman captured this spectacle. The mainstream print media gave the issue negligible coverage on the days that followed. Allow me to correct that oversight in this column.

The horde of men who did this seemed to feel they had morality on their side. Was not the woman a common prostitute, after all? Did she not deserve what she got? If asked, most of these louts would profess to be Christians. So what, then, would their lord Jesus Christ have said had he come upon this scene in modern Nairobi? We need not speculate, for he came upon a similar situation in biblical times. A group of men brought an adulteress to him, and asked permission for her to be stoned. His answer was simple and unforgettable: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

So, can we presume that the Nairobi mob consisted of unblemished and devout men, interested only in ensuring that a sinner was punished? Ha! Weak, cowardly bullies to a man, pouncing on a vulnerable and defenceless woman to satisfy their own lusts. If you saw their expressions, you knew that gang rape was not far from their minds. Morality is often just the thinnest of masks worn to hide the ugly face of the beast.

Why is it we are able to make such instant judgements in the case of prostitutes? Is it really so easy to assume that she was born with the intention to sell her body already in her mind? Why do we fail to see the lost little girl in this woman, she whose hopes may have been wrenched from her in her tender years, and who may have seen her economic choices disappear one by one? Would grown men have assaulted a little girl and debased her in this way? Perhaps they would have, it’s hard to tell anymore.

I do not know this woman nor the man she has a dispute with. I do not know the details of what transpired between them. But I do know that it would never occur to our baying mob to grab any man caught buying sex and beat and defile him. The men who provide the demand and fuel the business of commercial sex are always blameless. It is women who are the evil witches. Burn them at the stake, as they did in mediaeval Europe, and we’ll all feel better.

Still, some good may yet come out of this. Gender minister Najib Balala made an unusually strong statement condemning this act and expressing his disgust. Women’s groups have become involved and offered to help the distressed lady. The security men have been questioned by police, and may face arrest. The new openness in our society is paying some dividends, however small.

It is not enough. The police should use the TV footage to arrest members of the mob, whose faces were clearly visible. The security firm involved should sack its employees with immediate effect for bringing blemish to its reputation. The woman should be assisted in seeking legal redress against all who assaulted her.

If we do not do these things, we will again be complacent in the face of the continuing degradation of our values as a nation. When we allow rabid mobs to take charge of events, we allow the lowest common denominator to take control of us. The most brutal, the most unreasonable amongst us take the lead, even for a moment. When we can allow this, it is not surprising that we also allow ex-boxers and rabble rousers to become our leaders. It is not surprising that these leaders can shout “Weka tairi” and be applauded. It is not surprising that we have punch-ups in Parliament. It is not surprising that church leaders can see nothing wrong in becoming part of the plunder of the Nairobi City Council. It is not surprising that we have people in prominent positions whose true calling is probably that of a barroom bouncer.

And it is certainly not surprising that we remain at a base level of economic development.

Thich Nhat Hahn is a Vietnamese monk who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his various works of compassion and peace building. He once wrote a remarkable poem called ‘Call Me by My True Names’. In it he writes: “I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks / And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda”. His point is simple. We are all responsible for the state of the world. We are all culpable for every crime that is committed. If women become prostitutes and men become rapists, that is everyone’s fault, not just theirs. Look into the eyes of the prostitute, and see the circumstances she was born in. Look deeply enough, and you will see yourself. So call yourself by your true names.

I am a part of this society and therefore a part of the mob that humiliated that poor woman. I did not do enough to give her a better life and did nothing to save her. I apologise unreservedly to her. So must you.

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