The heat here in Kampala is a palpable, living thing. It wraps itself around you like a sloth around a kitten. Sometimes it is temporarily beaten back by a cool breeze that feels like the breath of God Himself. But mostly it surrounds you, clings to you, and refuses to release you from its greedy grasp. But I am slowly getting used to the heat, and as I do so, I grow progressively less uncomfortable. I still notice it, but it has become an automatic observation that sits neglected in a back corner of my brain.
The heat was not the only sensation that was rattling around in my mind when I got to Kampala. I also had a generalized feeling of discomfort, just as palpable as the heat. It began even before I got on the plane, and it has lingered (albeit in a weakened form) through my first day. In the days and weeks before leaving the States, I was on the receiving end of all kinds of well-meaning exclamations. “Oh that’s wonderful! You’re going to save the world!” “That’s so exciting! Good for you!” I always appreciated the well-wishes, and yet something about them felt off. To be honest, I can’t quite put my finger on what I find slightly disturbing about this attitude. I think it has something to do with how we as Global Justice students are cast. We are spoken of as the main characters, the protagonists of the story, the privileged white law students who generously donate their time to poor Third World countries. And when you excise the superlatives and the qualifiers, those underlying facts are true- we are using our summers to work for free in a developing country. But I think people are framing the roles of Westerners wrongly, and in a way that is ultimately detrimental to the development of true and sustainable global justice. The Pepperdine Law students are not the protagonists. We are the supporting characters, the quirky best friend in the rom-com or the gadget-master in an action movie. We are not here to “save” or “fix” the Ugandan judicial system. Our job is to listen to the needs of the people of this country, to their histories, both the tragic and the beautiful, and find a way to synthesize our tools and their realities. We are here not to judge, and not to unilaterally impose our legal practices on the Ugandan judiciary. That is not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t offer suggestions or opinions, born from the study of two and a half centuries of democratic experimentation. We are here to share the education and skills that we as law students and Americans have been blessed with, and to offer it as part of a dialogue with our colleagues in Uganda. As the Jesuits say, we are men and women for others.
Now that I am actually here in Uganda, however, I find that this kind of academic musing on language and framing, while by no means unimportant, must take backseat to the work that I am expected to do here. I arrived at the Court of Appeals/Constitutional Court at 9:00 am this morning for the first time. Walking around the building was incredibly nerve-wracking. I felt like I was playing dress up in my suit and someone would call me out for it. As I clicked down the halls with David Nary (the Nootbar fellow), I felt not unlike a kid being dropped off for her first day of school. As we walked, I mentally repeated to myself the proper addresses for the members of the judiciary, like a mantra: “Your worship, my lord. Your worship, my lord. Your lord, my worsh-shoot. Your worship, my lord. Your worship, my lord.” Of course, when it came time to use them, I promptly forgot which was which. But then Dave introduced me to Harriet, a magistrate, who is by far the warmest and most welcoming person I have met thus far. While we waited for a gap in the justices’ schedules, we chatted about her upcoming transfer to the Ugandan International Crimes court, and the cases she would hear there on human trafficking and, more generally, human rights. She was excited for the move, but she was already disheartened with its work, citing the lack of success in convicting high profile accused and the masterminds of the trafficking operations. She also expressed her hope that they would catch Joseph Kony, and prosecute him not in the ICC, but the Ugandan judicial system. I told her that Rios Montt, a Guatemalan general largely responsible for the genocide there was just convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison for the crime of genocide He was prosecuted and convicted in Guatemala. When she heard this, her eyes lit up, and she hoped for a similar outcome in Uganda. “It only takes one case to give people hope,” she said. (Update: the Rios Montt conviction was annulled on the basis of a procedural error).
Harriet showed me around the building, and introduced me to the four current justices, as well as what seemed like a million other people- registrars and magistrates, assistants and interns, librarians and guards. It was a blur of names and faces and corridors. Although the vague feeling of discomfort lingered as I spoke to each justice, its prominence slowly faded to the back of my mind. The feeling settled quite comfortably next to my awareness of the heat, which had already been relegated to a forgotten corner of my brain. Each of the justices was incredibly passionate about their country and their particular area of law. Justice Nshinye spoke to me about a parliamentary scandal that I would be working on. Lady Justice Arach spoke about mediation and women’s issues. Another justice spoke of Uganda’s struggle to balance free speech and security. And each person expressed the hope that I would be able to share my country’s experiences and practices with them. I was intensely surprised by their candor regarding the flaws of the Ugandan legal system and the areas they wanted to improve. But most of all, I was humbled by their fervent desire to learn from a first year law student. Many of the justices encouraged me to share any advice or proposals I might have to change the way things are done. They wanted the same thing I did- not a blanket imposition of American legal concepts, but a dialogue and exchange ideas and experiences.
Although I am exhausted by the barrage of questions and accents and new faces, I find that I am excited to be here in such a dynamic legal environment, where the rule of law is still being developed and established. I have no doubt that working in a laboratory of democracy will be challenging, and at times frustrating, but it is also an incredible experience, one that fires the imagination. I imagine that working in this judiciary is what it would have been like working in the era of the Founding Fathers, out on the frontlines of a burgeoning democracy. I am excited to be working with the men and woman who are building the foundations of democracy and justice in Uganda, and in so doing, charting the course for its future. As one judge told me, sweeping his arm towards the panoramic view of Kampala, “the people out there yearn for justice. We in here don’t have it all figured out, but we give them what we can. We work to give them Lady Justice.”