Saturday, May 2, 2015

Mob Hysteria

Barya House was half way up the hill and there were two more dormitories past it before you reached the top of the hill where the great big tank kept the school's large quantities of water. Yet there was a time between 1977 and 1980 that the taps run dry and we had to walk down the valley to the borehole to wash our clothes and carry back our water supply in bright yellow jerrycans. Some girls were really adept at this and easily balanced a basin full of clothes on their head while carrying a jerrycan or two in their hands. For me it was real torture and I spent many hours and smiles begging girls for a little water to wash up and brush my teeth every morning.
At the top of the hill with the empty tanks, one got a sense of how isolated Bweranyangi girls school was from the rest of the community besides the Church which sat on its own hill outside the fence, with the Bishop's residence right behind it. All missionary schools in Uganda were built quite close to a Church, lest we forget the Lord and the religion that was responsible for our education. Students from all faiths were welcome and free to worship their faith, but the dominant faith was that of the missionaries who built the school and they worked hard to get conversions among students without much success.
The teacher's houses were conveniently located around the school dormitories so that whichever route you chose to escape from school you would most likely have to get past a teacher's residence undetected and we managed this with record success, helped by a small bribe to the night watchmen who seemed to delight in our escapades. In the evenings after dinner we attended 'prep' completed our homework and then returned to the dorms to sleep. The nights were dark and quiet after 'lights-out.'
Then one night a shrill scream cut through the dark silent night in Barya house. It came from the front door facing the dining room where the prefect slept. When she wouldn't stop screaming we all joined in and the hysteria spread quickly. Moments later we had found our feet as well as our voices and we continued to scream as we tentatively approached the source of the first scream. And there we discovered to our absolute horror a man sitting on the bed, seemingly frozen by our screams and his own fear at being caught. He never moved, just sat there staring at nothing on the ground while our screams grew louder at the realization that there was a real man in our dorms. The night watchmen finally arrived and took him out to the field where we played hockey and netball. We followed with our battery powered torches and loud screams. At the hockey pitch they tied the man to a goal post with some handy ropes and now he was surrounded by more hysterical girls as they poured out of other dormitories to be part of this spectacle.
Then something happened and in a moment the crowd of scared, hysterical girls was transformed into an enraged mob. We started hitting the man, slapping him, spitting on him, pinching him - our actions fueled by our own screams and outrage. The night watchmen and teachers finally dragged us away from the invader before we were done with him. We walked back to our dorms wondering how the man had slipped passed the night watchmen. Had he bribed them? What was his real motive for entering the dorm after lights-out? Why didn't he run? After some excited talking the conversations dropped to whispers, we forgot our fear and soon we went back to sleep.

At 50 I know that the actions we take as part of a hysterical mob appear safe because shared culpability diminishes personal accountability but when the morning comes, each person faces the consequences of their actions as an individual, alone.

 feeling alone.

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