It was a nice day in February. Everything was going well. I had spent the night with some of my friends, and we were having a lavish breakfast, when the discussion began.

One of my friends mentioned a “funny” story that took place a long time ago. The kind of ordinary story that involves a houseboy disrespecting his boss and getting arbitrarily “punished” as a result. I was outraged by the story. I looked around the table and noticed that nobody seemed to be surprised by the tragic outcome. As usual, eeeh mama ngo nkunda guharira, I raised the question about corporal punishment. How can we allow this to happen, without acting against it?

One of the answers I got was “Dude, come on! This is Africa! Don’t act like a westerner! Turi abirabure wana, kandi guhana abakozi n’ibisuma vyaramyeho!” I was very surprised. I defended my opinion arguing that that wasn’t a valid point. How can we support corporal punishment simply because we’re “African”? Do we have to stay insensible because this is an old reality? Does this make it legitimate?

Then I remembered a sad scene I saw during my childhood: two young men caught after stealing a bicycle were lynched by a mob of houseboys, watchmen, and taxi-drivers. As justification, the crowd was saying that the two men were famous and regular bicycle thieves. Ultimately they passed away. That barbarous scene took place years ago, but I can’t forget it till now because of the horrific violence. I was a young teenager. I watched the scene silently, terrorized, and went on my way quickly. I was surprised to see some young people of my age in the mob. The crowd was claiming that the president at the time had allowed mob justice because burglary had grown into important proportions in the country. This was not new anyway.

I answered my friends with this point: why does this kind of mistreatment only happen to ordinary people? Why are people with a certain social standing generally not disturbed by these cases of violation of universal human rights? For instance, if someone within a high social standing is accused, why are his/her rights better respected? Why do we seem to have full rights to do anything we want to ordinary people? Is there a certain category of people on whom torture can be inflicted, as we want, and another one that is immunized from such treatment? Although I have to mention that exceptions have occurred in Burundi, like when a well-known former Vice-President was tortured.

More seriously, I started to raise the Universal declaration of Human rights and the Law in general as a valid argument. But everyone around the table seemed to not be convinced by my argumentation. I given up the discussion, frustrated by the fact that no one was really interested by this serious issue. Rather, they preferred to continue alleging that torture was a “normal” thing in Africa. But I strongly believe that it doesn’t have its place in Africa and more specifically in Burundi!

I decided to share my little story because a few weeks ago I saw a report on Renaissance television. The coverage was about a thief who had been caught. The story footage showed a man witnessing that a gang of thieves had attacked him and his friend around Mkolo Mboka Bar, but that they had been rescued by a group of residents who helped them catch one of the criminals in a taxi. The man had been conveyed to a police station, but the video footage showed traces of blood on his face. I wouldn’t be surprised if the presumed thief had first been “punished” before being transferred to police station.

Recently a post talking about sorcery in Burundi was published on this blog. I personally find hard to believe in witchcraft stories, but it reminded me of some videos I saw on YouTube (you can’t imagine the number of weird videos that are on YouTube) of Africans being killed because accused of sorcery. Burundian testimonies and press articles of such situations exist. Cases of torture, mob justice,… occur indeed. But is it legitimate to punish people just because they are presumed sorcerers or thieves?

There are many questions still ringing in my ears. How and why can we support corporal punishment or be insensible to torture? Why does everyone scream about the President’s potential third/second term, but no one raises his/her hand against torture? Considering that many of us are indifferent to torture, how would we react the day we’re unjustly accused of robbery or sorcery? What prevent from being engaged against violence and torture? Does our culture allow corporal punishment, or is it because our history has been characterised by many calamities, civil wars…? I still don’t have answers to all these questions!

Please help me understand this worldwide reality. I can’t agree that being Africans allows us to be insensible to torture. I strongly oppose any case of corporal punishment! After all we are human beings endowed with rationale, aren’t we?

By J.I, who currently lives in Belgium

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