There is a dead body in front of our house.

Megan: I know, it seems like we are always writing when the shit hits the fan, but I am starting to believe that is just human nature. We have spent a beautiful first two weeks here in Bamenda, Cameroon, working in the office of our host organization GHAPE and heading out into the field to interview microcredit recipients. But, although we don’t subscribe to the “good news is bad news” principle, those stories may have to wait.

Dave: Like previous installments, and those yet-to-be-written, this takes place during a journey. This one is a tad like Stand By Me (based on Stephen King’s The Body), though, we weren’t actively searching for a corpse whilst wrangling with angst over being too fat, too blue-collar (RIP River Phoenix), too abused, or having a deceased John Cusack for a brother. No, we just wanted to come home in one piece after another 9-hour marathon bus ride, this time from Cameroon’s capital, Younde, where we got extra pages for our passports.

M: We got off the overnight bus this morning, around 7:30 am, the time our office is starting work. Late, we gave in and hopped a cab back to our house, which, yes, is right behind the GHAPE office. About halfway up the last hill before Rendez-vous Junction, where we live, the cab driver asked, “So, you people stay up this side?” We said, yes, and before we could say more, we saw a crowd gathered just in front of where the GHAPE sign should be and, the next second, Dave said, “There’s an accident. Oh no. There’s a body.” As we drove a wide girth around the body and I looked in vain for a smashed car or motorbike, it became apparent that something far less innocent had occurred.

D: I saw the body. The broken chair. A shirt saturated in a dark reddish color (away from the body), and beyond that, a red stain stretching down the street for one meter. Hair that looks red. Nike shoes, that look weighed down by rocks. A pile of leaves? Then the cabbie spoke, “Yes, it happened 2 a.m. last night. He was a thief.” This was no accident.

M: I hadn’t seen as much as Dave, and was still just trying to piece together information, while we tried to convince the cab driver to stop, yes, really, right here, where everyone is gathered. This is our stopping point. This is where we live. And, no, we really want all 300 francs worth of change; no, we aren’t giving you an extra 100 francs just because you pretend you can’t do the math… By the time we were out of the cab, with bags collected, and turned again to face the scene, we saw one of our coworkers at GHAPE standing in the front door of the office, also looking out at the scene.

D: Then we heard the details. The man on the street supposedly cut someone across the back of the neck while stealing a cell phone. The victim died in the hospital and, within hours, the public took matters into their own hands – finding the thief, beating him to death, and leaving his body on the street for all to see. Children were gathering. Our coworkers looked rather nonchalant – not embarrassed, or sad, or even surprised. I know the police aren’t trusted around Bamenda, but is this really how things are done here? Another coworker would later ask me in the office, “So, what do you think of our Jungle Justice?”
M: Sometime in the midst of all of this, Dave and I both realized, and admitted, that this was the first time either of us had seen a body – except for the prepared and laid out bodies of family members at their funerals. The raw physicality of the dead body is perhaps the part of all this that sticks with me the most. At first, we headed straight to the office, not wanting to see. Later, after hearing the details, a group of coworkers announced that someone was bringing the picture of the boy who died – the innocent one – and everyone poured out to see. Dave and I found ourselves following along, and suddenly, standing just across the street, staring through the living, moving bodies surrounding us at the still, deflated-looking one, lying bare-back up among a pile of debris. The way that his shoes hang, scarecrow-like off the end of his two legs. The way his shirtless back does not move up and down. The way that the debris seems arranged for public spectacle – a big stone, a broken chair, some dirt and weeds and unidentified rubble – while the rest of the road remains clear for cars to pass. Finally, his face turned to the side in the direction of passing traffic – I could only look for a moment – which did not betray good or evil, right or wrong, fear or anger.

D: Seeing the body feels tawdry, forbidden, even rude. And writing about it now – perhaps even more so. But why? Is it our prepackaged, sanitized Western notion? One that will never see the Death Penalty on public display again – which would surely mark the end of capital punishment. Or white washes victims in Iraq and Afghanistan, because we couldn’t handle the trauma after in Mogadishu (re: Black Hawk Down) or Vietnam (re: the 60s). Death is real. The need for justice in the form of an eye-for-an-eye is real. We as participants are real. For me, the most shocking thing wasn’t the body, but how normal this seemed for everyone. During breakfast of eggs and coffee, our neighbor said this happened before, in fact when someone tried to break into the house where we are living. And in the office, we continued along with the workday, 15 meters from the body. Occasionally someone would go to the window to see the incessant crowd, or step outside for news if the family would come to recover the body.

M: Which brings us to the next point: that the body is not disappearing, leaving behind only a white chalk line and a police barricade. The custom, as it was explained to us, dictates that the body will be left there, blocking half the road and the entrance to our office-house compound – between us and the rest of the world – until the family comes to recover it. If there is a family, that is, and if they want to claim this body as their own. If it still remains after two or three days, it will be collected by the same public that left it there, to be buried down the road.

D: Yes, this was explained by the guy in the nearby shack where I buy french bread, and who a few nights ago concurred after 10 p.m., that the Rendez-vous ‘hood is sketchy, “Oh yeah, I saw an armed robbery here last year. Got the guy across the street, then me.” He said the dead guy on the street was trying to steal cell phones all night until he lethally knifed the last victim – who the proprietor knew. But even he didn’t seem shaken.

M: When we left our house a couple of hours ago – ironically, to go to the police office, which doubles as the immigration office, to have our visas extended – the body was there. When we go back, well, we shall see. In the meantime, we walked into the police office, wondering, do they know what happened just up the road? How do they figure into this justice? Judging by the stacks of paper and fully occupied desks, they don’t. The incident may be reported on the news, just as we heard last week of an incident where police beat to death a man who had stolen a car. But, the lines dividing those that can wield “justice” from those who cannot are different from the world we are used to.

However, before this starts to sound very “us and them,” “civilized versus not,” I will say what I said after the third coworker sighed, cynically, something along the lines of, “Ah, Cameroon, mob justice.” The same – or a very similar thing – happened just a few summers ago in Chicago, when a van driver and his companion passing through a Southside neighborhood jumped a curb, hitting three young women – one later died. A mob pulled them out of the truck and beat both to death. The only difference, I imagine, is the reaction of the authorities whose role was circumnavigated:

Chicago police superintendent Terry Hillard denounced the attack as “senseless,” “cowardly” and “disgusting.” “This is not street justice, this is not vigilante justice, this is not justice of any kind,” Hillard said.

D: I’m sometimes a relativist, and I understand from almost everyone we’ve talked to that the police won’t do anything here in Bamenda. In last week’s interviews with GHAPE members, I’ve heard of the poorest of the poor being robbed – so I see the frustration.

I don’t know what else to say. Maybe the body won’t be there when we get back – that’s what I’m hoping. I turned my head the last time passing. In the end, we’ll see if every so-called “bad guy” has a mom who loves him. We’re truly living in strange times, where rule of law dovetails with vigilante justice. To quote Radiohead’s Kid A, “We’ve got heads on sticks. You’ve got ventriloquists.” Sometimes the lifeless speak the loudest.