Uganda: An Overview

Unlike every other time I have traveled for more than 2 weeks abroad, I did not set unachievable goals that I would blogging about my experiences when I left for Uganda almost 6 weeks ago. However because I’m in law school and it follows you around everywhere (even when you try to run away to Africa) I was forced to write something about my experience for a job application cover letter. It was not easy to synthesize 6 weeks into 6 sentences for someone I’ve never met, but it forced me to process the experience and for that I’m a little grateful. (a little)

I am currently working in the Criminal Division of the High Court of Uganda for the Honorable Justices Lameck Mukasa and Albert Rugadya Atwooki. While our project for the summer consisted of some vague instructions to “research children and the law,” the majority of the summer has been spent helping Rugadya write opinions and observing his court sessions. It seems like my constant reaction to questions about how the Ugandan judicial system works is: “they don’t even have juries, its kinda crazy.” And I tend to leave it at that.

Aside from listening to exceptionally quiet voices translate witness testimony into mumbled English while sitting on the world’s most uncomfortable bench for 3 hours, I got to participate in one of the coolest experiences I can imagine as a law student in Uganda. Some of Pepperdine’s amazing faculty and alumni came over for a crazy week of plea-bargaining preparation. Plea-bargaining is new to the Ugandan judicial system and this was the first time it was being attempted with adult defendants. So, we took the 10+ hour bumpy ride to Fort Portal prison (on the West side of Uganda near DRC), to interview adults accused of capital crimes. That week was somehow simultaneously exhausting, exhilarating, and surprisingly emotional. Most of the people we interviewed had been on remand for over 2 years, this was the first time they had met any attorney, and here we were with one Ugandan defense attorney, a former U.S. federal prosecutor, two law students with macbooks, and a gracious Ugandan translator. Suffice it to say our presence probably intimidated them (regardless of prof Chase being a 5 ft tall woman and probably more because of Johnny’s appearing like a secret service agent).

Luckily, most managed to overcome any apprehension and tell us their stories. I don’t know what did it, their weak and sad demeanor or the extreme weakness in the case against them, but quite a few made my heart ache. Almost all were charged with aggravated defilement (raping young girls), which doesn’t usually allude to much sympathy, but regardless of the strength of the evidence against them, just knowing they’ve been sitting in an overcrowded prison for nearly 3 years without ever getting their day in court or even access to an attorney can really stir the pot of Due Process-fueled emotion. By the end of the week 70 prisoners had the opportunity to tell someone their story and receive at least a small dose of hope that they will not be waiting on remand forever. I have never felt more useful. All I wanted was for the few cases with really good plea-bargaining potential to tell us they’re in, but by the end my group only had one accused individual plead. I don’t know how the negotiation played out for him, but I can only trust that a just and fair solution will come in time (hopefully more “speedy” time).

I am still processing the magnitude of this experience and the impact it is having on my legal career, however I am confident I will be leaving Africa with even greater admiration for the rule of law and an aching heart for everyone around the world waiting in prison to tell someone their story. And in my moments of uncertainty and feeling small against the weight of the world, when there are more problems than solutions, I can be confident in the One who moves mountains.

“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The sovereign Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, He enables me to go on the heights.” Habakkuk 3:17-19

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