7 Years

By: Ricky.

Playing lawyer in Africa is truly a game of highs and lows.

Often times you find yourself coming across some of the most breath-taking sights you’ll ever see. Yesterday, as we came into Fort Portal, we drove for quite some time on a dirt road with only the knowledge that we were on our way to lunch before heading to the hotel further in town. “Road” appears in that sentence as a term of generosity, as our bus driver deftly navigated the ruts and bumps in the apparently less-beaten path. About fifteen minutes after I started wondering whether the driver was, in fact, just choosing the most difficult terrain available to him at each junction with no regard for our destination, we arrived at Kyaninga Lodge. Pulling up and looking out the bus window…one can’t help but feel suddenly transported, like you somehow forgot that you were on some far-away safari and just happened upon paradise.

The lodge’s architecture is designed in such a way as to create a stilted African twist on what I’d otherwise call a Polynesian ambience. You hike up several flights of stairs to reach the main building, which has been crafted to appear from the outside as though it’s constructed of only natural elements. You walk in, however, and it has all the amenities that you’d expect from an extremely high-end hotel. And then, and THEN…you go out the back door. Ho. Lee. Crap. You find yourself on an expansive multi-tiered lanai overlooking a tropical lake within a crater born of volcanic origin. It was almost discombobulating to be so suddenly confronted with something so gawk-worthy. I had decided that I was just going with the flow this week with the team of Ugandans, so I hadn’t done any research on our various destinations. Looking back, that was an excellent decision.

We explored what might be the most beautiful hotel grounds I’ve ever had the fortune of happening upon, climbing half-finished building scaffolds down the slope a ways, taking pause to reflect upon the reflections dancing in the ancient pool beneath us, and preemptively immortalizing the vision of this unexpected treasure in photographs and journalistic words yet to be written.

Other times…you deal with lows. Shelby got her purse stolen while en route to surprise me at the airport upon my arrival. Because she’s the best. Being the best did not, however, prevent a thief from reaching through the bus window as they trudged through traffic to snag the majority of her valuable belongings (fortunately not her passport). Bad luck seems to have gotten swept up in our wake upon travelling here- Gash got his phone stolen, and Mark’s debit card got devoured for a day by an airport ATM.

What’s truly bedeviling, however, is when the highs and lows coexist without cancelling each other out. It’s baffling, really.

Today was our first day interviewing prisoners and negotiating plea bargains for those who have stepped forward to participate. We reviewed some number of case files last night, and today we were greeted by several high-ranking members of the judiciary into the folds of a Ugandan prison where inmates awaited trial on remand. Some of them have been there a few weeks, some several years. Clearly, interviewing them pro-bono to prepare case files or negotiate sentences for them rings as the very epitome of ethical law practice…if…that’s…the extent of detail you provide in verbally constructing the lens through which this project should be viewed. But that’s the thing about lenses- they function to intentionally distort perspective.

This project, the legacy of which we’ve all endeavored to strengthen, is inherently difficult for more reasons than time consumption and jetlag. We lack the luxury of time required to pick out the Henrys from the hoard of yellow jumpsuits in the prison- we’re confronted with his moral antipode in more situations than not. We get the rapists- the murders- the violent robbers- the assassination plotters and the human traffickers. What’s more- we help them. The moral underpinning that this project represents remains intact, but don’t let the convexity of the lens you look through before you’re here confuse you- you deal with some of the most difficult ethical aspects of law practice. The truth is- even these people, whose actions are nothing short of horrendous regardless of your cultural background- malum in se– they’re still human beings and have the same right to justice. In this regard, you take something truly valuable away from helping them resolve their cases.

The patina on the other side of the coin, though, unctuously sticks to the conscience in a way that quite literally keeps the hand sanitizer within reach at all times. In the pursuit of justice, you wade through grime that you simply can’t wash off. This afternoon, our team negotiated a sentence for a man who raped a six-year old. Instead of the still-too-light sentence of 17 years, we bargained down to 7. We did what we should do. We represented our client. But we also gave a rapist an extra decade of opportunity to repeatedly offend.

You end up with this high-low dichotomy predicated on a more-than-skin-deep sense of accomplishment, but that feeling somehow stands in stark contrast to this profound concern as to whether we’ve done the right things on a truly fundamental level. So here we are, unsure of how to feel, pushing forth, and doing our job. I don’t regret this, but I’m yet to reach any degree of relative certainty in terms of steeled resolve when it comes to my feelings about what we’re doing here.

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