In Uganda, like the rest of Africa, storytelling is a highly valued and important part of culture. Consequently, conversations with Ugandans usually last longer than with westerners because they tend to add details that, while unnecessary to the story, provide additional color and flavor. Accordingly, when a lawyer asks a witness a question in court, the answer is often lengthy and larded with irrelevant asides and impertinent context. And when the lawyer’s questioning is being translated from English to Munyonkole, and when the witness’s answer is being translated from Munyonkole to English, and then from English to Luganda so the defendants can understand the evidence being offered against them, the trial can proceed unmercifully slowly.
Fortunately, the judge presiding over the J-FASTER Pilot Program runs a tight ship and did her best to keep the lawyers and witnesses on task. Nevertheless, due to a lack of training among the lawyers, and a lack of discipline among the witnesses, trial on Monday proceeded painfully slowly. We got through two witnesses over the course of three hours in a murder case against two adults – the juvenile had already been dismissed.
On Tuesday, the lone trial (among fifteen cases) against a juvenile was dismissed by the prosecution because they were unable to locate any witnesses who could place the juvenile at the scene of the crime. From my review of the police report, however, it appeared that there was plenty of reason to believe the child had been involved in a robbery that went wrong such that the victim ultimately died. Accordingly, after the case was dismissed, I asked the probation officers if I could speak directly to juvenile, whom I knew spoke English. I had also been told he had been a leader at the Remand Home, serving as a pastor (of sorts) for the others over the past year.
I asked the prosecutor, who is also a person of faith, to join me as we first congratulated the boy on having his case dismissed. He was naturally quite pleased and accepted our congratulations gratefully. The conversation then turned serious. I explained to him that we had read the file and that it appeared to us he had actually been involved in the crime. He looked down in apparent shame, not at all contradicting my suggestion. I proceeded to tell him I believed the had been given a second chance at freedom and now had an opportunity to distance himself from the life he had previously led (apparently involved in a gang). I told him I also believed he had been given this chance for a reason, that he was meant to be a leader for good in his community, and that he needed to live like the man of God he had become. The prosecutor chimed in with her own words of admonition and encouragement. The boy’s response was exactly what we had hoped – he agreed and accepted the fact that he needed to live differently and promised us he would. I pray he will do just that.
Before heading to the airport, I met with Abby, the Regent Law school student I am working with who is interning at Sixty Feet in Kampala this summer, and with Mark Riley, the Welshman working for UNICEF with the Ministry of Gender. Mark and I have become rather close friends over the past six months as we work toward the common goal of helping Ugandans implement a system for ensuring that orphaned Ugandan children are not improperly/illegally/unethically placed into inter-country adoption. To be fair, Mark has been doing this work and I have been trying to connect him with the lawyers who practice in this area so that a consensus can be reached on how to accomplish this task without shutting down the entire process. But our meeting was not about inter-country adoption. Instead, we met to discuss a project Abby and I have been working on that would create a database to track all children in conflict with the law in Uganda so that no kids would ever slip through the cracks again in juvenile prisons. Abby has taken and run with the project, and Mark has been very helpful in guiding us on how to navigate the governmental bureaucracy so we can get the Ministry to sign off on it. He has also connected us with an organization who has agreed to create the interface for this database free of charge. We hope to launch this pilot program at the Naguru Remand Home in July.
Later Tuesday evening, I flew to Kenya to join my family for the remainder of the week at the compound of a Christian Organization called “Made in the Streets” (MITS). MITS recruits kids living on the streets of Nairobi (typically living as thieves, drunks, and/or glue-sniffers) who want to have a different life. After demonstrating their seriousness by attending church and other gatherings over an extended period of time, the children are allowed to come and live at The Farm in Kamulu (outside of Nairobi), where they resume school and are taught a trade – catering/hospitality, sewing/tailoring, woodworking/carpentry, computers/information technology, salon/hair care or farming/agriculture. The lives of these otherwise hopeless children are transformed in amazing ways.
On Wednesday morning, I joined the University Church of Christ youth group and a few of the parents on a trip to the streets where the children in MITS used to live. We accompanied one of the graduates of the program, who now works for MITS, to his childhood home. To call it sobering would be embarrassingly Pollyannish. The jagged nail-laden metal roofs hanging over the narrow pathway between the aluminum-sided shacks adjoining each other rendered the labyrinthian walk through the mud rather precarious. The stench of urine and feces as it meandered along the nearby ditch was thick enough to taste. When we finally reached our destination, the ten of us passed through the curtain into the 8 foot by 10 foot shanty. Nine people lived there when our guide was growing up. The rent is 1,000 Kenyan Shillings a month — $12.50. Even that pittance seemed like highway robbery for this “home,” which had no electricity, running water, or toilet facilities. Inside were a couple beds, a few chairs, a bench, a table, and a pot for cooking over a small wood-burning stove. I have seen grinding poverty in Uganda, but Mathare Valley here in Nairobi (where 2.5 million people live in three square-mile area) eclipses what I have observed by a comfortable margin.
Meanwhile, back in Uganda on Wednesday, the last two juvenile cases were resolved without trial, and two of the remaining kids received their plea-bargained sentences. Next week, everything will be wrapped up and I will begin frantically compiling the final report, which I intend to distribute before we head home . . . three weeks from now.