Monday, June 25, 2012

Beating sense into children

The wailing was desperate. When you hear that kind of high-pitched shrieking, you know it is absolutely genuine. No self-pitying whimpering or the hiccupping of a child getting over a sudden fall, but uncontrollable screaming, and it wasn’t that far away.

 I walked towards the window.  There was an underlying sound. Crack! Crack! I couldn’t work out what it was at first. Then I realised. It was a stick or a strap being brought down repeatedly. Crack! Crack! The wailing went on, getting higher and higher, more and more desperate.

I went outside the office and stood on the steps. Yes, it was obvious what it was now. A child was being beaten, repeatedly. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it. It was unmistakeable.

It went on and on and on and on.

What should I do? I knew there was little I could do directly, as a white foreigner. I went and fetched a colleague, himself father of a dozen children and well acquainted with the sound of children crying. He walked across the compound and came back.

‘It’s child abuse,’ he said.

‘What do we do?’ I asked.

‘We can’t go down there,’ he said. ‘The mob could gather around.’

He was right. Lynchings are common in Uganda. Although we were safe in our office up at Kyambogo University, the volatility of the poor area of Banda market a couple of hundred yards down the road was not to be risked in a situation such as this, even if – or perhaps particularly because – we would be trying to save a child.

By this time, about fifteen minutes had passed since I first heard the wailing.

‘Could we phone the police?’ I asked.

It appeared not. The police were never around. They wouldn’t do any good etc etc.

‘It’s the responsibility of the LC1 chair,’ my colleague pronounced. The first layer of local government is at ‘parish’ level and the chair of the local council level 1 would have an office in the area and a responsibility for maintaining good community relations and public order.

So that was that.

We metaphorically walked by on the other side.

Another five minutes and the wailing had stopped. The child could have been dead for all we knew.

Thoroughly disturbed I went back inside. Our underemployed office staff were chatting about this and that as usual. Today discussion focused on the laziness of somebody’s maid and the need to take one’s worries to God in prayer. An entirely unoccupied typist breastfed her baby, which was then handed around the other half dozen occupants of the room who cooed and clucked. They too had heard the child outside being beaten but could not have been less concerned.

I went upstairs.

‘Did you hear that?’ I asked.

Yes, they had.

‘I was on the point of going out and doing something,’ said one. ‘I couldn’t concentrate on my work with that racket going on.’

‘A child was being beaten with a stick,’ I said.

Yes, they knew.

‘That’s what happens here,’ said a woman, who added that she had looked out of the window and seen a large man thrashing a very small child.

A young man laughed. ‘It’s happened to all of us!’ he said. ‘It happens at home and it happens at school.’

‘The kid probably lost a 100 shillling coin,’ he added with a smirk. 1,000 shillings is 25 pence. Do the maths yourselves.

Sickened, I turned away.

The woman said, ’There’s no point in doing anything. It’ll only make things worse. He’ll just go back and beat him again when they get home if someone interferes.’

And so we left it.

‘How would we feel if the child had been beaten to death?’ I asked on my way out. But no one was interested any more.           

Every single statement my colleagues had made was true, but it all added up to a small child being ferociously beaten in a busy open street in broad daylight. I might have metaphorically ‘passed by on the other side’ but a lot of people were also doing it, but for real. Which doesn’t make my failure to act any more excusable, of course.

It is so easy at times like this to despair of Uganda, this church-going sanctimonious country.

And then I remembered what my Glaswegian friend and ex-colleague David said to me a couple of weeks ago when I told him how I hated the things which happened to children here.

‘If you go back a few years,’ said David, ‘it was happening here too.’

And he was right. And even now it is still happening in Scotland, though these days usually behind closed doors. Thank goodness for ‘busybody’ social workers!

I thought back to my own childhood in the cosy 1950s which the current Tory government seems to want to take us all back to.

‘I’ll tan you!’ used to screech the mothers in my Lancastrian home town. And they did. Often with a belt. Or a dog lead complete with metal fastening which caught your legs, as I recall.

‘Wait till yer Dad gets home!’ was another favourite. You can see it can’t you? Dad opens the door after a long day at work. Mother shrieks, pointing her finger. And Dad lets loose with his fists.

The staff in my brothers’ respected and respectable direct grant grammar school were particularly sadistic. Beatings, canings and some especially creative and inspired punishments were the order of the day.  The woodwork master made boys hold a heavy plane above their heads for half an hour or so at a time. But he had an ‘excuse’, poor man, so they said; he had been in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

I wonder why there was a need for all that violence. These were the brightest boys in the town, all keen to become solicitors and doctors. Were they really quite so badly behaved as to need physical chastisements of that order?

It makes you think about how many fathers and teachers, damaged by the war, ended up committing appalling child abuse. Families under pressure, poor cramped back-to-back terraced housing with people on top of each other, mothers imprisoned in the house with their toddlers all day (for fifties mothers weren’t supposed to work) and battering the living daylights out of them. Ah, the fifties, when families were families and we all ate Oxo gravy round the table together!

In Scotland, teachers were still using the belt when I started teaching. Dare I admit it? Somewhere in our Edinburgh flat we have a ‘Lochgelly’ (not mine, of course!), and that was long after the nineteen fifties, I would have you know.

When the belt was taken away, staffrooms rumbled with expostulations. ‘It’s the only discipline these lads respect’, and so on ad nauseum.

Canes are the teacher's weapon of choice in Uganda. I was told that in one of the best known government-aided secondary schools, the students who can't do their work are held down on the ground and whacked. Corporal punishment is illegal, of course, but like all the other illegal activities such as riding a motorbike without a helmet or using plastic carrier bags, it really doesn't make any difference. Headteachers just hide the bundles of home made switches when the inspectors arrive and hope the children are too frightened to let on.

So, who can imagine what the Ugandan father who had caused the wailing had experienced himself as a child before he too became a thrasher and beater. In this most traumatised of countries with its huge rates of alcohol consumption, it is hardly surprising that the cycle goes on and on.

But, as David implied, in time, as in Scotland, violence against children will become socially unacceptable. In the meantime, although Uganda doesn't have enough busybody social workers, thank God for ANPPCAN!

ANPPCAN - African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect

You may also be interested in this earlier post.


  1. Great blog.
    Corina from germany

  2. Thanks, Corina. I just enjoy writing...

  3. One of the differences between then and now is the access to other examples via the television or the internet let alone the fact of travelling bringing other versions of how children could be treated.

    I hope that the wait for all of those beaten children is short and that the practice of beating becomes unacceptable swiftly - I can dream.

    In my truck I have two switches - I took one from a teacher and the other one from a child who the teacher had sent to bring him a new greenstick switch.

    The teacher said that he didn't hit with the stick - just threaten. Hmmm...