Ewe Justice

From Estero to Africa

Monday, July 27, 2009
By Kathryn Taubert

The tro-tro was crowded, so my backpack went in the trunk. I didn’t realize there was a youth there also, until he banged on the window to alert the driver to “STOP.”
I was mildly uncomfortable, dismissing it till I reached the hotel in Ho. Sure enough, my Treo (handheld computer and communication device) was missing. Hoping I’d left it in Kloe, I determined not to jump to conclusions and settle the matter when I returned after the weekend.
On Monday, it was painfully clear that my Treo had been stolen, and as difficult as it was, I notified Samson and Worlanyo, my village counterparts.
Fortunately, I knew the driver, hoping he’d recall the youth’s identity. Within a few minutes, Samson located him, got the youth‘s name (a resident of the next Village). He then said “We will find your Treo, and I will report to you in the morning.”
I never expected to see it again. It was just too much temptation for a young man with so little. I went to sleep blaming myself for not managing it more securely.
At 7:30 AM the next day, Samson paid me an unexpected visit, saying the chiefs were waiting to see me. I felt badly, knowing this would cause them much embarrassment. They are very proud of their hospitality and having an American in their village trying to help them.
I was shocked to discover at least 25 people at the chief’s house, several engaged in heated conversation, which stopped when I approached. Apologetically, Taugbe Avokpo, the Downtown Chief, offered me and others a seat in his home, and produced my Treo.
Surprised, I thanked him gratefully, as he motioned forward the perpetrator in the corner of the room, who promptly kneeled in front of us.
Chastened, he was unable to meet my gaze, but I had no idea what he had yet to endure.
Taugbe Avokpo expressed his sorrow and embarrassment. For the village to have this happen was a humiliation. He further stated his confusion at why someone would steal something from someone trying to help his people. Even though this boy was not a native of Kloe, the villagers felt responsible and apologized to me profusely.
Expressing my gratitude for their help, I implored them not to think the event changed anything between us. I also hoped they could forgive his youthful indiscretions as I would. “Every young person makes mistakes,” I said to relieved, concurring chuckles around the room. I told them I didn’t wish to have police involved. My property was returned, and hoped to put it behind us. This was a lesson for me too. I felt partially responsible for providing too much a temptation for a youthful error in judgment.
With smiles and expressions of gratitude all around, we parted. I hoped the young man, in his 20’s, had also learned an important lesson.
I later learned that the chiefs slept very little the night before, having felt so dishonored by this event. While I was sleeping, they were sending emissaries to his village, confronting him, confiscating the Treo, and him. Stealing is bad enough, but to bring dishonor on the village is tantamount to treason.
Later I asked Samson what happened after I left. Quietly he told me that the young man had been punished according to Village Law.
His father and his own village’s chiefs had been informed first.
And then he was given “24 lashes” as punishment.
Noting my stunned reaction, Samson said quietly, “This is our way.”
I knew at once I was without control or influence. Rapid thoughts of the consequences in the U.S. of such an act flooded my mind, along with sobering awareness that “ I’m not IN the U.S.” Discipline here is swift and sure, nevertheless I wished I had followed my instincts and left that Treo at home.
Although his lashes were apparently administered to his buttocks and not his back directly, with a stick taken from a tree, I know he is probably in much emotional, social, and physical discomfort. My heart aches for him. Had I known the outcome, I’d have thought twice of telling anyone of the theft. This experience further highlights the fact that if we are going to learn about each other, we should prepare for the possibility that others’ ways will be very different, and try not judge or criticize too soon or harshly.
The Ewe are generous, caring, giving. They revere family, honor, and hospitality. Their graciousness cannot be overstated. Their children are among the best behaved I’ve seen. They are extraordinarily polite, well-spoken, friendly, and happy kids. The older children are respectful and for the most part, hopeful and as gracious as their elders.
Justice serves three ends: punish the guilty, deter future crime, help assuage victims.
In the best of all worlds, punishment is swift, sure, just, and serves those purposes.
I do know that the justice administered this day was swift, sure, punishing and to some extent, I suppose assuaging.
Was it just? I cannot truly say without imposing my values upon the Ewe‘s. Nor can I say that I or perhaps the Ewe are more assuaged than regretful. But I expect this kind of punishment is a pretty effective deterrent. Crime here’s practically non-existent.
It was investigated, the perpetrator seized, prosecuted, found guilty, punished, released and the matter ended all in less than 24 hours. I was later told that the only reason he was spared arrest and incarceration was because I “spoke for him.” Apparently his lashing was considered the lesser of the two.
There has been no further mention of it since.
The resident police officer was aware but left it to the chiefs, apparently checking that “things were resolved.“ Even Ghana national police respect the old ways of their Tribes.
Does anyone truly have the right to say whose way is “better?”
My heart says the punishment was harsh. My head tells me perhaps there’s a middle ground, but where, I don’t know. This reinforces the importance of not judging, condemning, endorsing or perhaps even changing too quickly. And this presents a dilemma I’m not smart enough to readily solve.

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