Learning Uganda

Sean Crane

Every day in Uganda I wake up with a sense of excitement, I’ve been here since the weekend, and there’s barely been a day I’ve woken up past dawn. It could just be the jet lag, but there’s something absolutely intoxicating about Kampala. Everything here seems wide open it’s as if you’re on the frontier in the Wild West. The pure commotion in the streets, from the number of people to the lack of traffic lights to how painstakingly close they get to cars and pedestrians while driving- it’s all like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s a world unto itself, a culture as foreign as any I’ve come across, and I can’t wait to see what life in Kampala has in store for me.

Our first few nights in Kampala, we were spoiled by staying at one of the nicest hotels in city. We were able to enjoy the comforts of air conditioning and a scalding hot shower one last time. Since then we’ve been learning more and more what is to live like a native Ugandan. On my first night in my apartment my water went out, and didn’t return till early the next morning. The next night I arrived home from work to find the power was out, I sat in darkness for about an hour and half until it returned. Earlier that morning I had the pleasure of taking my first cold shower, which is a great way to learn how to conserve water as you don’t want that cold shower to last any longer than it has to.

Let me tell you though, there is kind of magic about Kampala and the people of Uganda that makes these inconveniences that are unacceptable in western society seem trivial and absolutely tolerable. I’ve never met a warmer culture in my life. Everyone goes out of their way to make sure you feel welcome, and they want you to love the city of Kampala as much as they do. The justices we have met so far have all expressed their gratitude for our willingness to come work in Uganda, and they have spoken volumes about the impact the relationship with Pepperdine has had on their court system.

The commercial court, which has now become the model of efficiency in the Ugandan court system, recently trained over 20 new mediators, and 9 of those have already begun to mediate cases. Justice Kiryabwire reports that since they have implemented mediation as a pre-trial measure, they have reported a 33 percent success rate in resolving conflicts in mediation, and this has made a considerable impact on their case load.

In the criminal court headed by Justice Lugayizi, they are already seeing the effects of plea bargaining, which they began using earlier this spring. Since the court is based in Kampala they will often take trips out into the country in less populated areas to service cases that are outstanding in other regions. Justice Lugayizi informed us of the substantial impact the use of plea bargaining had on a recent trip upcountry where 50 cases were to be heard. A trip such as this in the past had taken as many as 4-6 months, however, by using plea bargaining the cases were resolved in 20 days.

However, this is not to say that there are not tremendous obstacles in the Ugandan court system. The biggest obstacles they face are lack of funding, a lack of man power and resources. In the commercial court (which I remind you is the model for efficiency in Uganda) their case files are stacked on top of each other in small room located in the parking garage. The files date back to 1992, and due to past practices (that have since been replaced) not all the cases are accounted for. The files themselves are organized, but are compressed tightly by rope to ensure they fit in this small space. The simplest of copy machines with a scanner would go such a long way in Uganda. In America there isn’t a firm without such a machine, and even in our own Pepperdine library we have the ability to print and scan with ease- a privilege that currently eludes the Ugandan people much to their detriment. At this time I believe there is a single scanner in possession of the court, and I could only imagine what the capacity would be to update their system if they were able to have access to 3 or 4 machines that would allow them to computerize their files. However, in country not as well off as our own these are the struggles that you come across, and hopefully we can find ways to help alleviate the burdens the courts of Ugandan face in their struggle to fully modernize their court system.

However, I can’t emphasize enough how much of a privilege it is to take on this challenge with the Ugandan people. They go so far out of their way to make you feel at welcome and at home at times you forget that you’re the visitor. I have already met so many great people in Uganda and I have no doubt that I will meet more as my year here progresses. I only hope that I can make enough of an impact to help the Ugandan people get the justice system they deserve.

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