Showing posts with label colonialism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label colonialism. Show all posts

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Customary law undergirds justice systems in Africa: A-courting in Harare

Outside the "Harare Civil Court" buildings, a discarded sign reads, "Harare Magistrate's Court / Civil and Customary Law." Other court building in Harare are pictured below. All photos RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-SA 4.0.
The integration of customary law into national legal systems based on post-colonial polities is a challenge, and an opportunity, throughout Africa. I wrote recently about customary legal authority in the Casamance region of Senegal, and Zimbabwe is no exception to the norm.

The Zimbabwe constitution expressly preserves customary law, and federal enactments spell out the scope of customary law in sensitive areas, such as marriage and child care. The constitution creates customary courts and charges other courts, including the Supreme Court, with respecting and developing customary law, just as they do common law. For NYU Law GlobaLex, Saki and Chiware (updated by Pfumorodze and Chitsove, 2017) further explained:
The main reason for the existence of these customary law courts is to provide a justice system to ordinary people in rural areas which is consistent with African custom and values.  It is  realized that most ordinary Zimbabweans regulate their lives in accordance with customary law to the extent that the legal ideas and institutions inherited from the system has  preserved the authority of traditional leaders  to adjudicate in civil disputes by customary law.
In Zimbabwe, customary courts have jurisdiction over civil, but not criminal, matters. Common law controls in the civil sphere, while criminal law is strictly codified in Zimbabwe's mixed system.
Scales of justice adorn a high court building where criminal cases are heard.
Jehovah's Witnesses occupy the walk outside the characteristically modest legal aid office.

Your humble blogger stands before the highest court('s house) in the land.
Constitutional Court.





Monday, February 24, 2020

Oussouye king applies customary law in Senegal

The king and his attendants in the sacred woods. All photos RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-SA 4.0.
The king of Oussouye in the Casamance region of Senegal received me with my group earlier this week. The Oussouye are part of the Diola, or Jola, ethnic group, who populate a vast transnational area reaching from Gambia to Guinea-Bissau. Diola also span religious faiths, having Islamic and Christian adherents, though traditional African religious tenets run strong in tandem with colonial imports. The Oussouye tend especially to traditional faith.

The king dispenses justice in both criminal matters and civil disputes in Oussouye. Civil matters cover a broad range, from real and personal property, to domestic relations, to obligations. The king also operates a local social welfare system, growing a quantity of food to support needy members of the community.

Typical of the manner in which customary and "modern" law are integrated within African countries, the king exercises a jurisdiction of first instance. He explained that if someone takes a matter to the police or the courts of Senegal, the authorities will ask whether the complainant has yet consulted the king, and will refuse the matter if not. This system does not fully obviate conflict, as questions arise over when the national legal system should take precedence--especially in high-profile cases implicating human rights, including non-discrimination and the rights of children. But the great bulk of dispute resolution is managed uneventfully upon traditional principles.

Chosen according to a spiritual calling, not lineal heritage, the king is said to be supernaturally endowed with wisdom, notwithstanding a lack of formal training. The Oussouye king readily said that he had been a mechanic before the spirit moved him toward his royal role.

Oussouye kids head home from school.






Traditional impluvium house.
Local chief in the center of impluvium house.

Evidence abounds of Chinese investment in the Casamance region.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Cameroon human rights record prompting Washington to end trade preference includes internet shutdowns

The announcement that the United States will end trade preferences for Cameroon in response to the country's human rights record marks some good news out of Washington and exemplifies the kind of "quid pro quo" that foreign policy is supposed to leverage.

In a freedom-of-expression angle to the story, documentary filmmakers screened Blacked Out: The Cameroon Internet Shutdown at RightsCon 2019 in Tunis over the summer.  The presentation fit perfectly into one of the key conference themes, "#KeepItOn."  I was privileged to be there and to meet one of the filmmakers, who talked about the extraordinary risk of documenting the minority anglophone community in Cameroon today.  More at Quartz Africa and at the Blacked Out YouTube channel.  The film can be viewed on YouTube in its 43-minute cut or its 65-minute uncut version, below.


Of interest to legal comparatists, there's an interesting underlying story in Cameroon's civil law tradition arising from a merger of French and British political possessions.  That's not the subject of the movie, but you can imagine the tension of legal tradition running in tandem with tensions of culture, language, and history, and all of that overlaid on and obscuring, in classic imperialist fashion, pre- and still-existing tribal cultures and customary legal traditions.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Tragic legacy of conquest renders astonishing diversity on South America's northern coast today

The Guianas (ArnoldPlaton, CC BY-SA 3.0)
I spent time this summer exploring the Guianas--Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, on South America's northern coast--and Trinidad and Tobago, an island nation just off the coast of Venezuela.  This is a lesser visited part of the world, to be sure, though it boasts a rapidly developing touristic infrastructure that might be the envy of Caribbean and Brazilian neighbors in the decades to come.

As guides and new friends patiently explained across a mind-blowing array of geographic and historical sub-contexts, the story of this southern basin of the Caribbean is a tragedy of colonial conquest, yet yields today a triumphant range of blended cultural traditions.  Mixed ethnic backgrounds deriving identities from dramatically different parts of the globe informed the experience of the people I met more often than not, rendering a picture of diversity--and moreover of peaceful co-existence--like none I have seen elsewhere in the world.

Ruela Goedewacht is head of the Johannes Arabi primary school in Nieuw
Aurora, Suriname (CC BY-SA 4.0). The Peace Corps painted this world map,
and the school features many beautiful murals for the kids to enjoy.
European possession of these lands was itself a shifting game of Old World thrones, with the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish variously laying claims.  The Europeans then sought to exploit their possessions on the backs of slaves and indentured servants, who arrived in waves from China, India, and Africa.  All of these newcomers mixed violently and not, as usual in the Americas, with the people who now identify as Amerindians, themselves a diverse array of nations to begin with.  Later, in the twentieth century, America found ways to insert its cultural and political presence with the avowed aim of regional security, jumbling cultural allegiances yet again.
Anthony Luces of Trinidad Food Tours at left (CC BY-SA 4.0). At center
is my security officer and virtual nephew, Casey Bius.


As a result:  Churches, mosques, and temples of various kinds take up residence adjacently to one another.  Public calendars are speckled with holidays and cultural traditions, whether Ramadan, Christmas, Holi, or the solstice, which enjoy a surprising embrace of mutual observance--not to mention the universally beloved Carnival.  Many people are fluent in multiple dissimilar languages, from Marroon and Amerindian tongues traceable to African and indigenous tribes, to the curving script renderings of the Far East, as well as unique Creole blends of native and European tongues.  And to my mouthwatering delight, the food traditions have produced unprecedented and delectable blends, such as South American-cultivated beef (Western) in a cumin-rich sauce (Indian/Hindu), or pork ribs (Eastern) upon flatbread (Indian/Muslim).

Dino Ramlal of Travel the Guianas, center. At left is one of my steadfast
travel companions, Debby Merickel, who blogs at the Aging Adventurer
(CC BY-SA 4.0).


Ordinarily I travel independently.  But that's not easy in the Guianas.  Developing infrastructure makes local knowledge and a network on the ground essential, unless you have ample time to burn with missed connections.  If you wish to explore the Guianas, I cannot say enough about Dinesh "Dino" Ramlal and his team at Travel the Guianas.  Sign up before Dino realizes how much more he should be charging for his hard work.  Also, I am especially indebted to Anthony Luces, owner and guide of Trinidad Food Tours, for his mind- and  mouth-enriching street food tour of Port of Spain, Trinidad.  To tell you more would spoil the surprises.

Charcoal ice cream on the streets of Port of Spain (CC BY-SA 4.0).
OK, three words:  Charcoal ice cream.

I've said too much.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Terra Nullius: Named for legal doctrine, novel dives deeply into human identity

I'm not easily moved by fiction, so I don't make recommendations lightly.  And you need to read this book.

Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman (Amazon) has been a hit in Australia and thankfully was picked up for U.S. circulation by a small, Massachusetts-based publishing house, Small Beer Press.  The book has been shortlisted or nominated for a bunch of prestigious awards and won the Norma K. Hemming for exploration of themes of race in speculative fiction.  The book is a product of the Queensland "black&write!" indigenous writing fellowship.  Coleman identifies with the Noongar people of the southwestern coastal region of Australia.  A poet and writer, this is her debut novel, and she wrote it while exploring indigenous lands in a caravan.

The "speculative fiction" element of Terra Nullius is not immediately obvious in the telling of the story.  I won't spoil it here, and I urge you to avoid spoilers so that you can experience it yourself.  Even so, being married to a librarian, who recommended this book to me, I knew something of the novel's secret.  I was gripped early nonetheless, and the reveal was still richly enchanting.  For a while I had to ponder, why did Coleman tell the story this way?  But I got it, and the author interview in my Small Beer Press edition confirmed: Coleman's narrative delivers empathy for the indigenous experience in a way that I have never before witnessed.

There are countless parallels between Coleman's take on indigenous life and British colonization and the experiences of other marginalized groups, including Africans amid European colonization and First Nations in the United States.  The title, "terra nullius," refers to the Latin term and legal doctrine meaning "nobody's land."  Specifically the term was employed by the British to legally rationalize claim to Australia, as if the continent had been uninhabited.  The term turns up in American law, too, to justify claims to this continent and the displacement of native peoples.  Coleman states that she has not yet been to the United States, but would welcome the chance to compare notes on our reservations.  I would love to witness that conversation.  In ironic coincidence, I read Terra Nullius while exploring the reputed landing sites of Christopher Columbus on the Samaná Peninsula of la República Dominicana.  There are scarcely few more apt places on earth to consume this book.

While the focus might be on the indigenous perspective, this novel, in its sum, speaks even more ambitiously to the whole of our human experience.  It demands that we interrogate who we are as a species; that we ask whether confrontation and violence—might makes right—are intrinsic to our human identity, or a choice that we make, something we can change.  It comes clear that our survival may well depend on the answer.