Uganda dispatch: learning languages and teaching law in Bundibugyo Dispatches
© JURIST / Lawrence Alado
Uganda dispatch: learning languages and teaching law in Bundibugyo

Lawrence Alado is a JURIST Staff Correspondent in Uganda. This is one in a seasonal series of columns by JURIST law student staff and correspondents discussing their summer work in support of justice, human rights and the rule of law, in their own countries and around the world.

The first week of my internship in western Uganda’s Bundibugyo District was a mixture of curiosity and adapting to the picturesque environment and vibrant community there. Over the course of the week, I had the humbling privilege of working with experienced legal professionals, engaging in impactful community outreach programs, and gaining a profound understanding of the challenges and triumphs within the local legal system.

My week started on a high note. During our first meeting with the leadership at Child Concern Initiative Organization, one group we are working with, Executive Director Rev. Kyomuhendo Geoffrey told us that community visits would form an integral part of our internship experience.  At this point, it struck me that coming to Bundibugyo meant that I had to learn either the local Rutooro, Ruhwisi or the Rukonjo language as soon as I could. I needed to prepare to interact directly with the community. I knew I had a lot to learn. At the very least I needed to learn a few of the greetings in the different languages that were necessary for effective communication in the communities where we were going to carry out the legal outreach.

The District is the largest producer of cocoa in Uganda and cocoa farming is the only economic activity that nearly 98% of the population carry out. It therefore goes without saying that more than nine-tenths of legal conflicts in Bundibugyo are related to cocoa. It accounts for most of the theft cases, contractual conflicts, family wrangles, struggles between children and their parents, and fraudulent transactions among others.

Bundibugyo’s legal system is additionally peculiar because the District just received a Chief Magistrate two months ago and by the time we came to the District, he was still preparing to travel officially. The place initially had a Grade 1 Magistrate who handled both criminal and civil matters in the two districts of Bundibugyo and Ntoroko. Therefore, having a Chief Magistrate means that most of the cases in Bundibugyo and Ntoroko will be handled in the District instead of complainants and parties having to travel several miles to Fort Portal City in order to access the High Court at Kabarole District.

We started with a Baraza (the local name for community outreach) to Bundinamandi Trading Centre in Bundingoma, a sub-county at the Ugandan border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The population was predominantly Bandingoma, a clan group in the Babwisi Tribe. The community outreach was organized by Justice Centres and was mainly concerned with teaching about succession and women’s rights with a particular focus on domestic violence, gender-based violence, and sex-based violence.

During the outreach, I was shocked at the high level of disdain the men had toward women’s empowerment. The majority of men could not admit that their wives have the right to own property separately during marriage, let alone bequeath or inherit property.

We also had another Baraza at Bundimugayo village, Bundinyama Parish in Tokwe Sub-county. The area is by and large for the Bandimugayo clan of the Bamba tribe. The Baraza was organized by the Uganda Network on Law, Ethics & HIV/AIDS (UNAGET) and we taught the group about the different forms of marriage, and the rights before, during, and after marriage.

Through the outreaches, we aimed to empower the local marginalized and vulnerable populations by providing them with access to justice that they might not have otherwise had and also equipping them with legal knowledge and skills, especially in Alternative Dispute Resolution. We actively interacted with people from many backgrounds. I got the opportunity to have a first-hand understanding of the legal problems that the locals in the areas face. The visits allowed me to establish a direct connection with the local population and gain valuable insights into their unique challenges and legal needs.

During the outreaches, we also taught and used Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms. ADR served as a cornerstone of our efforts to resolve conflicts in the communities we visited. I actively participated in mediations, negotiations, and conciliations, acting as a facilitator to ensure fair and impartial proceedings. The most inspiring aspect of ADR was witnessing how ADR not only resolved disputes efficiently but also fostered stronger community cohesion and trust, empowering individuals to take ownership of their conflicts and find sustainable solutions.

The first week of my internship was filled with invaluable lessons and meaningful encounters but it was not without its challenges. The biggest challenge for me was the language barrier.  It was extremely hard to address the community entirely in English because some of the salient legal terms could not be perfectly translated by the interpreters. Sometimes, the few interpreters we had traveled with had to also help my other teammates so I had to wait for them before I could interact with the people who had approached me seeking legal remedies. On one occasion, I had to wait an entire 30 minutes before I could speak to a lady whose uncles had denied her inheritance to her father’s cocoa estate.

Nevertheless, these challenges fueled our determination to adapt and find creative solutions, enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of our work. We decided to use some of the locals who could understand some bit of English as interpreters for others. I had to learn the most common cardinal legal terminologies in the different languages and for some of the vital cases that needed someone who understood the language, I referred to my supervisors or other legal practitioners at the outreach.

I learned that sometimes the biggest hindrance to people receiving legal remedies in Uganda is language. In the provision of legal services, language serves as an extremely fundamental tool for effective communication and comprehension. Many of the people from marginalized communities struggle to articulate their legal issues or understand the complex legal proceedings due to language differences yet at the same time, some legal terms are so vital that once misinterpreted, the person seeking a legal remedy gets entirely misdirected or misguided.

At the end of the week, I am excited that I will have a truly robust experience in the District. The communities are extremely welcoming and eager to gain the legal knowledge I’m prepared to offer them.  This experience has taught me the importance of resilience and adaptability to diversity.