Hands Up, It Wasn't Me

2pm on a Wednesday afternoon—I brush the curtain aside, to see what made the thud outside my door. To my disbelief, a child around the age of 10 had climbed my concrete wall (around 7ft tall), up and over, and had landed in my front courtyard. In his hands, I see a jar of wood varnish I had left outside. Maybe it was my fault for leaving it outside. I quickly opened the door, asked the child what he was doing. He looked at me, his hand shielding his face. While I had been at work, he had hopped over my fence the first time, emptied the container of varnish somewhere else, and thought he could get away with putting the container back, unnoticed. Before I could ask any other questions, he was gone, but I caught the glint in his friends’ eye, the one on the lookout outside my gate.


I knew his friend’s face. I told my neighbor who happens to be a sector official in my village. He tasked his house boy*, Eric, to find the boy that did this. As I didn’t properly get a look at the boy’s face, I couldn’t possibly identify him by anything other than the fact that it was a boy around the age of 10. The next morning, at 8AM, Eric knocks on my door and tells me to come outside. In the corner of my yard, I see a boy, around the age of 10 looking at me, scared. Eric explains that he has found a suspect and asked whether or not this was him. I said I didn’t know. 


Eric then tells the boy to get on his knees and put his hands in the air to be beaten. I said that absolutely isn’t necessary, especially if he wasn’t sure who the kid was or if he had done it. Instead, spared, the child timidly put his hands in the air and said (rough translation) “KK I swear it wasn’t me, I swear I didn’t do it.” And I believed him. 


The thing that struck me most was that they were willing to punish a child without knowing whether he did committed a crime, for the sake of appeasing me and for the ability to say that they had been able to place the blame on someone. A cultural moment of discomfort. I am not sure if I would have told them it was the child who had done it. Public corporal punishment and corporal punishment is viewed very differently than in the states. Here, in Rwanda, teachers even have the “right” to beat children openly as a stern method of discipline. It’s an archaic form of punishment in a developing education system, one which I do not support, but it is a product of a different time. Development takes time. Simply because Rwanda has high rates of childhood education, doesn’t mean that the systems in place reflect modernity nor advancement. 


*House boy is a term used by Rwandans to describe live in help, indentured servitude if you will. These children/young adults usually work 24/7 in exchange for some modest pay and room and board. Eric is 22 years old. In Rwanda and in many other African countries, having live in help is typical and expected. Eric is also one of my closest friends in village and always has my back, asking if I need help with things. I really appreciate his friendship and presence.