New York — Chimwemwe Ndalahoma first experienced the haunting reality of injustice as a young boy on a terrifying night in the southern African country of Malawi. Chimwemwe’s father, a police officer, took him to a police camp to observe an interrogation. “What I witnessed was something horrible because he was torturing a suspect before my very eyes,” Chimwemwe remembers. His father forced the suspect to make a confession by handcuffing him to a table and whipping him with a metal pipe.
Since that fateful night, Chimwemwe has joined a quiet revolution of community paralegals acting as frontline justice defenders throughout Africa. Chimwemwe now works for the Paralegal Advisory Service Institute, which has flooded Malawi’s criminal justice system with paralegals who monitor police interrogations of suspects, educate detainees on their legal rights, file bail applications on behalf of arbitrarily detained prisoners, and are increasingly recognized as allies by state institutions. “If my father was alive he would have witnessed a lot of change,” Chimwemwe notes with pride.
Many African countries face a dearth of lawyers, leaving poorer individuals to navigate the winding road to justice alone. Community paralegals, non-lawyers armed with legal knowledge and a sophisticated understanding of the mechanics of state institutions, use mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy to help individuals and communities demand and realize their rights. Community paralegals in Africa emerged as early as the 1950s in South Africa, helping black South Africans attempt escape from apartheid’s legal black hole. Since then, paralegalism as a method of legal empowerment has spread like a brushfire throughout Africa.
By addressing ordinary peoples’ daily justice needs, community paralegals are proving that justice can be a lived reality in African people’s lives. They handle cases involving such issues as domestic violence, child abandonment, property disputes, improper power wielded by justice officials, and corruption in government services. They also engage systems of legal dualism in which the State’s formal laws and the community’s traditional laws operate simultaneously.
Chimwemwe’s story was just one of many captured during an extraordinary July 2012 gathering in Kampala, Uganda of African paralegal program representatives from over twenty countries. The gathering was organized by the global legal empowerment organization Namati (where I serve on the Board of Directors) and resulted in a formal call upon African governments to increase access to justice by acknowledging and strengthening the presence of community paralegals.
Daniel Sesay of the Namati team in Sierra Leone was another voice of legal empowerment highlighted during this unique gathering. Following the brutal Sierra Leonean civil war that claimed 50,000 lives between 1991 and 2002, Daniel worked for the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission and learned how the systemic lack of access to justice can lead to societal trauma. “A good number of those [ex-combatants] we interviewed told us they took up arms [during the civil war] because of the injustices they suffered at the hands of traditional leaders and court officers,” Daniel explains.
Daniel was also drawn to paralegal work because of the gender injustices he witnessed in his native community where women are marginalized legally in part because most traditional justice adjudicators are male chiefs. Indeed, one of the most promising aspects of the growth of the African paralegal movement is its staunch dedication to women’s legal empowerment.
Judith Ochanda, a trained paralegal of the Nyando Human Rights Advocacy and Development Network in Kenya, reflected on a specific case that highlights how paralegals make women’s rights a reality on the continent. Judith spoke of a woman named “Ajia” whose husband had been a successful sugarcane farmer with a plantation that spanned many acres.
When her husband died, Ajia’s in-laws took over the farm, a common practice in Kenya and other parts of Africa that leaves many widows poverty-stricken. Instead of rectifying this injustice, the male chief in Ajia’s village abused his traditional authority by encouraging officials to freeze Ajia’s bank account, sealing her off from the farm’s proceeds.
Judith’s organization intervened in the case and appealed to a higher administrative official in the village who ensured that Ajia’s bank account was unfrozen. Ajia has since used proceeds from the farm to start her own business and put her children through school. Reflecting on this case, and others like it, Judith notes that: “Paralegal work has been very important to women in our community because…whenever they come to the justice center, we are there [for them].”
The unprecedented gathering of Chimwemwe, Daniel, Judith and 50 other representatives from African legal empowerment organizations resulted in the Kampala Declaration on Community Paralegals. The Declaration calls on African governments to acknowledge the importance of paralegals in legal empowerment efforts, invest in the scale up of paralegal services, and guarantee paralegal independence from state interference.
The spread of community paralegals in Africa is a homegrown, breathtaking effort. Increased government recognition of the essential role that paralegals play in resolving disputes and increasing unhindered community access to state institutions will strengthen frontline justice services, ensure their perpetuity, and reject the notion that it is the fate of the poor to swallow the bitterness of legal disempowerment.
To listen to more African voices of legal empowerment from the Kampala gathering, visit Namati’s media page. The Kampala Declaration on Community Paralegals remains open for signature. Interested organizations can sign the Declaration here.
Chi Mgbako is clinical associate professor of law at Fordham Law School and sits on the Board of Directors of Namati: Innovations in Legal Empowerment.