All writing has been in conjunction with local sources on the ground in Uganda. They are satisfied with the result and it has been anonymised at their request.

The shout draws the attention and the sharp crack captures it. The ping that follows as the spent casing is released is jarringly pleasant; like a cap being popped from a beer bottle. A private security guard has shot a young Acholi man through the chest with an almost comically antiquated M1 Garand rifle. The rifle had probably crossed the border from the stock of some 21,000 the Americans gave the Ethiopians to fight communism in the 1960’s. The youth had stolen from the shop. He is prostrate, bleeding out, and still. Next to him was his take. One loaf of bread: 1500 shillings, or 31p. I possessed a medical kit and a probably exaggerated knowledge of trauma management. As I readied to spring into quixotic action a hand, tenderly but firmly, stopped me.

“Do you want to undo the good progress you have made with the locals?” my friend asked. He was a Basoga from Kamuli in the East. “If you are seen helping a thief that’s what you’ll do. You’ll be tainted by association.”

The middle-aged contractor, rifle slung over his shoulder, saunters lackadaisically over to the boy. He kicks him for signs of life. Finding nothing obvious, he picks up the loaf and returns it to the shop. The blood – darker than I had expected – puddles around the body. It congeals into an odd treacle as it merges with the terracotta earth. It is a busy street yet nobody has reacted more forcefully than if a car had backfired. They observe, then return to their business.

“He has made his bed and the people know that he must lie in it,” my friend said.

Asking the majority of Ugandans, in a country where both Catholicism and Islam is deep-rooted and devoutly adhered to, they will tell you that the youth committed a sin and obviously sin must be punished. An earnest belief in righteous punishment for some, perhaps, however I felt there was more to their reaction. So violent an act, so casually dealt, for so minimal a crime would elicit widespread protest and probable parliamentary inquiry if it occurred in London. Why has such violence become normalised in Northern Uganda? Why so passive a response?

For one, the Acholi had suffered violence once Museveni took power, violence from both the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan Defence Forces, violence in the concentration camps. Many had seen the reprisals from all sides for intervening, or indeed for their simple mistake of being born to the wrong people. At present, the threat is from the private security contractors; their corruption being an open secret across the nation. My Basoga friend swore that if you testify against them or oppose them in any way then they come to your house and kill you. Certainly, it is not difficult to find numerous shootings by guards where such circumstances are suggested by locals. For the Acholi, prudence may simply dictate that you do not bother the man/child with the gun. Although, the framing of this perhaps sensible advice for survival as morality is something common across Uganda.

“So, why was he shot? The young man broke the eighth commandment and the retribution was swift”

My friends at the university ascribed this to a syncretism of Catholicism, Islam and indigenous culture. Many indigenous tribes already utilised parable as a means of teaching, particularly whilst preliterate, and it was the introduction of Abrahamic faiths that infused a greater moral weight. The invocation of God, the greatest moral authority for the majority of the population, ensures a greater adherence to the lesson. In Kampalan slums, I hear parents tell their children tales of God being happy with them if they were clean, did not eat food from the ground or drink dirty water. A happy God being an interventionist, this would ensure their continued health. It is, of course, the prophylactic advice that keeps them safe but both parent and child believed in the weight afforded to the message by faith.

So, why was he shot? The young man broke the eighth commandment and the retribution was swift. He failed to follow the practical rules for survival and should have known better. Both are likely true for the crowd. Certainly, decades of violence and abusive authority had rendered such an event commonplace for the Acholi, inciting little interest out of self-preservation or sheer apathy. Their social capital is minimal and their habitus dominated by religion, survival, and recent history. That is not to say that they engage in a daily reflection on the abuses of Amin and Museveni; rather that their daily practise has been moulded by their behaviour during those times. It becomes habitual to the point of subconscious. Their place in society seemingly fixed but reaffirmed daily. Violence is normalised. It is no longer extreme. It is even just.

I ask my companion what would happen to the guard and the youth. He shrugged.

“The guard will call the police. They’ll come, take the body. That’s it. Time to go.”

Just like everyone else in the street, we turn our backs on the corpse. Face down, still, bloody, waiting to be collected with the sewage and the rubbish.

“Don’t worry about it,” my friend smiles at me and punches my shoulder, “that’s just how it goes here.”


After the incident a local source informed me of the outcome. The guard said money was taken and his action justified. No police follow up. There was also a major attack on a police station in the region drawing most police attention. So it goes.

Julius L. Geertz

Image: ‘Untitled’ by Clare Clarke

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