I could have died today.

I could have been accused of a crime I didn’t commit or, at least, not willingly.
I could have had my jaw broken in multiple places along with a couple of ribs, to add good measure.
I could have been stripped naked, dragged through the streets and made an example of.
My collapsed lungs and raptured organs could have stopped functioning one by one, leading to my ultimate demise.
And all because of what?
A phone.

Yes. A smartphone could have led to me being a victim of mob justice.
It all started when I went downtown, this morning, to purchase a replacement power cable for my laptop.
A recent power surge, during a heavy downpour, had fried the power cable along with our fridge, DVD player and pay TV decoder. What a way to start the week! I mean, by the time you get a technician to come over and assess the fridge, provide a diagnosis, fetch the replacement part and install it, you’re going to have a fridge full of stuff that has gone bad.
Well, worse things can happen.

I arrived at that street that has a string of computer shops run by shopkeepers of Indian extract. I settled on one called computer world (or something of the sort) and was received at the shop entrance by two friendly attendants – one male, one female.
When I asked the female attendant about the laptop power cable, she asked if I had a sample with me. I proceeded to open up my laptop bag and pulled out the old power cable. She took it and went to a nearby desk where an Indian gentleman (presumably the manager) was seated. She asked him whether they had the item in stock and he replied in the affirmative and sent her to the store room to pick one out.
In the meantime he stood up and ushered me into a visitors chair by the desk before resuming his seat.

As I sat there, twiddling my thumbs, I noticed my phone on the desk in front of me. Did I just place my phone on the desk? I could have sworn that I didn’t. After all, I am not your typical place-your-phone-on-the-table kind of guy. Not that there is anything wrong with the practice. It’s just a habit that I never picked up. I tend to keep my phone in my pocket whenever I am not using it.
But that was my phone. Or was it?
Something looked a little off but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was.
I picked up the phone and immediately disabled the sleep mode in the exact same way that I always do. What I saw next, made my heart skip a beat.

That was not my phone! Everything was identical right down to the latex phone case. The only stark difference was the home screen.
And here I was holding a stranger’s phone. I looked at the shopkeeper, smiled sheepishly and gently placed his phone back on the desk. I immediately fished my phone from my pocket and gestured with it. I laughed nervously and said, “I thought that was my phone!”
The shopkeeper raised his eyebrows, smiled and then replied, “You mean you also use OnePlus?”
I nodded. What kind of coincidence was that? I mean, you have to understand that, in this part of the world, the amazing OnePlus phone brand is pretty much unheard of.
When you tell people the brand of your phone, they’re like, “What one plus?”
“OnePlus 6”
“Yes, what one plus 6? Samsung?”
“Never mind.”
So seldom are these phones seen that, as opposed to being alarmed that a complete stranger was handling his phone, the Indian fellow was actually more intrigued by the fact that a rarefied OnePlus owner had appeared in front of him. It was like witnessing an eclipse.

Now that that was cleared up, I had a moment of pause.
Did that actually just happen?
Wasn’t a local lawyer recently lynched as a result of a similar incident? Only, in his case, he actually went a step further and mistakenly placed a stranger’s phone in his pocket – paying for it with his life.
I thought deeply about how short life is and how it can be snuffed out in an instant.
What if I hadn’t disabled the sleep mode feature? What if I had only noticed the phone after concluding with my transaction and absentmindedly walked out with it?
Would anyone have believed that it was an innocent mistake, made in error?
Did they believe the lawyer when he protested his innocence?
Would you?

As you ponder that last question, let me make it clear that I abhor the practice of mob justice not because I think thieves don’t deserve a good beating but for two reasons. Firstly, there are legal channels to deal with such crimes as well as the fact that the law does not allow anyone to take another’s life. Secondly, in the case of mistaken identity, the damage caused by a thorough lynching cannot be reversed.
Having said that, today I am going to take the path of least resistance and focus my efforts on appealing to would-be victims to take strict precaution in such situations to avoid landing into trouble.
I will let someone else attempt to reason with the section of society that believes in mob justice and that is not likely to be easily dissuaded from the practice.

If I was to remind them that there are laws and law enforcement that deals with thieves, they are likely to say that the law is an ass. In their experience, thieves, in collusion with corruptible officials, often manipulate the system and wind up back on the streets.
If I say, “But look at this man. Surely, he couldn’t possibly be a thief!”
They may ask, “Why? Because he is well dressed? Because he is presumably well to do? Because he has that middle class look?”

That counter-argument would be hard to dispute because aren’t there many people who fit those descriptions but have been indeed guilty of theft?
Isn’t grand corruption among the most decried vices in this part of the world and isn’t it perpetrated by arguably well to do folk?
Wasn’t a senior Uganda government official accused of stealing – of all things – underwear from a supermarket some years back?

Kleptomania is an impulse control disorder that results in an irresistible urge to steal, typically without regard for need or profit.
So if well to do people could possibly be kleptomaniacs (and I am in no way pronouncing myself on the matter of the most recent incident regarding the lawyer. I do believe his was an innocent mistake) then what does a thief really look like?
We could debate this issue all day and still be at a deadlock, so as I said before, I am going to focus this article on the power and benefits of prevention as opposed to the morality of mob justice or lack thereof.

To better understand how easily one can end up being lynched and how I could have died today, I am going to narrate a possible worst-case scenario regarding my particular situation, had it actually panned out that way.
So I have paid for the power cable and it is actually cheaper than what I had budgeted for. Life is good, right?
I receive my change, thank the shopkeeper and leave. Only problem is that I have pocketed the shopkeeper’s phone, thinking that it is mine. As I exit the building the shopkeeper realizes that something is amiss and raises an alarm. He says, “You! Stop! My phone was on the desk and now it is missing!”
I freeze and turn around. Is it me he’s referring to? Hell yeah. He is pointing his finger right at me and charging in my direction.
At this point, the previously friendly male shop attendant and another employee grab me by the clothes!
“Empty your pockets!” the shopkeeper bellows.
“No! I did not take your phone!”

“There was no one else here! Only you!”

“I did not take your phone! Now tell your people to get their hands off me!”

By now, a murmuring crowd of onlookers has gathered outside the shop peering inside with curious eyes – spoiling for some action. Suddenly a voice is heard from the crowd.
“Call the number!”
The shopkeeper proceeds to pull out his other phone and dials his own number.
Alas! I immediately feel the buzz of a phone’s vibration feature accompanied by a melodically captivating Hindi song.
For a few seconds, all I can hear is the high pitched soprano belting out powerful, romantic lyrics over a carefully mastered soundtrack.
The rest of the world seems stuck in time – frozen for what seems like an eternity.
Suddenly, a hand is thrust into my trouser pocket. The phone in question has been recovered.

Before I know it, I am out on the street sprawled on the concrete pavement amidst a cacophony of jeering and yelling. I have somehow lost my polo shirt and I wince in pain as the first -then second then seventeenth blow-lands on target.
In the midst of this brutal punishment, I try to protest my innocence but it falls on deaf ears. To make matters more complicated, I have a head full of healthy, long locs and people who look like me are often victims of cultural profiling and end up being erroneously associated with crime.
If only I had listened to that nagging voice that told me there was something off about the phone. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
But now I am staring death right in the eye.

Thankfully, it did not turn out that way. Luckily I cross-checked and realized early on that other people actually do own OnePlus phones and that you can never be too careful in situations like the one the hapless lawyer found himself in and that I almost fell into.
From now on, I will always be sure about what I put in my pocket because, like I said in the beginning…

I could have died today.

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Written by Konrad Okello (0)

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