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Center for Global Justice Intern – Palmer Hurst

Palmer Hurst, 2L
Intern at Land and Equity Movement, Uganda

The law grows in the shade of the mango tree

 This blog post is slightly over due, but here I am in north-central Uganda. My town is called Lira, and is the center of the Lango Region. Lira is a small city in the center of a low-laying, marshy area; the last stop before the highlands rise to Gulu and the greater Acholi region. The native language is a dialect of Nuer, a language who’s speakers span the majority of northern Uganda, South Sudan, eastern Kenya, and parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.

I am interning at Land & Equity Movement Uganda, a Ugandan organization dedicated to protecting individual and community land rights through legal recognition and representation. Its important work that the staff embrace with their whole hearts and minds. We laugh, pray, rejoice, encourage, and console one another. The job is not done until all Ugandans have secure access to their lands.

In East Africa, it’s not an official meeting unless it is conducted in the shade of a mango tree. Symbolism aside, the practical result of this custom (other then at least one mango tree in every village) is the burning attachment to consensus. In other words, democratic law.

Ugandans want law. After so many years of lawlessness during the reigns of Milton Obote and Idi Amin, after the long brutal war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, and with so much in flux in daily life, the people of northern and central Uganda want a legal system that creates stability and safety. As one clan elder put it to me recently: “We just want to know we will be secure to live our lives.” To these people, particularly northerners that have suffered so much for so long, the law represents stability.

They aren’t wrong in this assumption. They envy the freedom and persistent peace of the United States and Europe. If only, many exclaim, we can have that too. Then all will be well.

So then, what law to have? Here is where, as Chenue Achebe[1]wrote, things fall apart. In a country with 36 million people, made up of five major tribes, more languages then you can count, rampant illiteracy, and an economy struggling to take off, it is hard to see what could unite the people of Uganda. Proposed law is opposed on tribal lines, or ignored all together. Elections (including that of the president) are questionable at best, and government is seen as ineffective, uncaring, or corrupt. It is hard to see how to create law in a place where government workers and officials are only in their offices 35% of workdays.

It might seem that Uganda, as with most of Africa, is doomed to an existence of poverty, violence, and pain. But there are bright spots. First, the majority of communities recognize the importance and positive role the rule of law can have in their lives. The hearts and minds of the average person are compatible with the rule of law, but experiences with the law and the people who make and enforce it have left them soured. Second, groups like LEMU show us (in Uganda and in the West) that Africa can in fact govern itself and resolve disputes without resorting to tribal or ethnic warfare.

It may sound as if I’m some bleeding heart romantic, gazing through rose-colored glasses and seeing only the positive and potential of this tragic place. I assure you I possess no such naiveté. To be sure, there are problems here that every society encounters. Uganda has its share of thieves, predators, hucksters, and corrupt politicians. But for as many reasons there are to give up on Uganda, and Africa as a whole, there are more reasons to not give up. There is life here, fighting to exist and straining to succeed.

[1] Chenue Achebe was a Nigerian writer, most famous for Things Fall Apart, a novel describing the colonization of Nigeria from the African perspective.

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