AiW Author: Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire
Sophie Alal founded Deyu African, a non-profit that publishes folk tales, literary work, commentary and journalism about arts and culture. She is an accomplished writer of short stories, poetry, and flash fiction. Her work has been published by the Uganda Association of Women Writers (FEMRITE), Lawino Magazine, Global Press Institute, African Colours Magazine, Kalahari Review, among others. In 2010, she won the Beverley Nambozo Poetry Award with her poem, Making Modern Love. A year before, another poem of hers, The Rebel Fell emerged runner-up for the same award.
Sophie studied Law at Makerere University, and during her time at the institution joined three of her friends to start what has become the Lantern Meet of Poets, among other literary and creative endeavours she followed up then. She is one of the important lawyer-writers whose perspective on law and literature in Uganda should be paid attention to for purposes of reforming legal education. This interview was conducted via email exchange in February 2015.
Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire for Africa in Words: Why did you study law? Did you have options that you ignored in favour of the law?
Sophie Alal: Long story. Honestly I have no convincing idea of my own.
Wow. Did you think you could be a writer by the time you joined law school? Did you consider joining the department of Literature for a BA instead?
I started writing when I was young. Without a doubt I was first consciously nudged into writing in Primary 6, with my selection into the KTV Writestuff competition.
I did tour the Literature department several times and even had lovely chats with professors like Susan Kiguli. But seeing is believing, there’s something very eerie about grey corridors that bear ageless dust and cobwebs.
As we now know, you joined the law school instead. How was your experience there? What did you find interesting, and boring?
It was fairly turbulent to say the least. I felt like Osuofia in London the whole time.
Musomesa Nyanja Musoke always eloquently made the case that we were being educated in a less than ideal manner. After classes we’d mob him as he passionately talked about liberating the mind. I guess it was his course that was more literary of all our lecturers; he introduced us to Paulo Freire, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Ngugi Wa Thing’o and W.E.B Du Bois.
It’s a shame that we neither learned how to reason nor cultivate critical consciousness. It was deeply worrying to realise that we were committing intellectual suicide on a grand scale.
Overall law school was enlightening. And I’m grateful that I had the support of the most amazing, hilarious and intelligent friends.
Were you writing while at law school? Did you consider dropping out to focus on writing?
Dropping out was never an option after being honoured with a scholarship.
I wanted to do art the whole time. Yet when I experienced the facilities, by hanging out at the gallery and studios next door, it was quite shocking that interest crashed.
I had to sit there and deal with it. Everything was still new and possibilities seemed infinite because I was still growing up. I took risks aimed at expanding my mind.
If I were not going to be an artist –painting, sculpting or making fashion, I had to verbalize all the beauty that I wanted to communicate. So, I spent a while hanging out with my Medical School friends and became a certified counselor, studied creative writing and communication (with Dr. Jack Smith).
Did you proceed to pursue the bar course as most graduates of law do? Why or why not?
This is a difficult question. It’s quite sad, the assumption that every LLB graduate ought to pursue a legal career. We already have loads of lawyers, we could do with more musicians, public intellectuals, writers, actors and so on. There is so much work to be done to contribute our share to humanity.
When I was 23, my mental health was not in the right frame. And I believe I made the right decision based on all the information I had then. It’s always been very important for me to be honest with myself.
When one looks at our country, there is systemic blatant disregard for the rule of law. That, coupled with the increased militarisation of civil spaces and a culture of impunity makes the ends of justice rather farcical. When a public institution prides itself in nurturing the best minds to practice the legal profession, and yet it’s also riddled with fraud and a failure rate of 80%, it’s not difficult to make judgments on its merits. The bar course is always open, and I don’t rule out exploring whatever wonderful or challenging opportunities it may offer, when there is reform.
Do you think there are ways your literary interests could have been incorporated in your legal studies?
Absolutely. Storytelling is the basis of all human communication. It’s terribly funny that every case starts with a story, and each story has a counter narrative.
A legal practitioner must have critical knowledge about their field of expertise. Jurisprudence, which is the science or theory of law, teaches us that. But when all the facts and evidence have been presented and thoroughly argued, it’s the critically conscious judge that can dispense meaningful justice. Only an erudite judge will do.
Too often in our legal studies, an insidious doctrinaire logic means that practical wisdom is left behind in favour of cut and dried facts. This is problematic because we are trained to work within a legal framework whose default position is entirely Eurocentric. But our lived reality forces us to look elsewhere to cultivate this critical consciousness. Take Family Law where culture is very informative, allowances are made for the cultural sensibilities of the parties during the contraction of marriage and divorce proceedings.
We’re living in a country where Mato Oput is culturally prescribed as a form of justice, yet we still selectively defer to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Lawyers will defend the merits of the ICC, but only an anthropologist or writer may justify the full benefit of indigenous forms of justice. Perhaps as an expert witness.
A legal system is a compendium of a people’s cultures and values. And it can be incredibly alienating when these values are foreign. It causes confusion. And this confusion has many layers. On a basic level, imagine you Bwesigye, you take your excellent degrees to the UK, America or China. What will become of you? You’re more likely than not to start your legal career from scratch. For as long as you try to function within a culture that is not your own, you’ll always be marginalised and not privileged to the extent of your assimilation. It’s a power thing.
At a more complex level, consider Dominic Ongwen, formerly a child soldier abducted by LRA, and also a Commander in the LRA. He has been handed over to the ICC. Can a victim also be a criminal? What is his status compared to an American alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity? It’s very different. The American Service-Members’ Protection Act protects US military personnel from prosecution before the ICC and empowers the American government to use military force to free any American citizen detained by the ICC, including raiding the Court in The Hague.
The above implies that other criminals from the West may not be brought to justice. If we can uphold this kind of morality in a globalised system that upholds different strokes for different folks, then we really need to think deeply about where we are headed as a country and as a continent.
Wisdom is abundant in literary work. When you break it down to fiction and creative non-fiction, then it makes even more sense. I recall that when we were studying Development Studies, our reading lists had names like Amartya Sen, but I’d never seen his books in the Book Bank. How might a young scholar’s mind have been enriched had they encountered the Nobel prize-winning Development As Freedom?
It’s just not enough to be a lawyer anymore. Mark Twain argued in his biography that there has always been a struggle between morality and intelligence. And the more intelligent one is, the more cunning they are at rationalizing their amoral positions.
Recently I was reading William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts, in which Ugandans in Mubende featured for unfortunate reasons. A British Company had evicted an estimated 20,000 people to plant trees. And guess what, it’s our most brilliant lawyers who draft these contracts at the behest of powerful interest groups. Tufudde!
It is not enough that a lawyer is intelligent, a lawyer must also be sensitive to the notion that interpreting the law is a public duty. And that requires moral clarity.
Thank you very much, Sophie, for sharing with me.
This is the first in a series of interviews by Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire with Ugandan writers concerning law and literature in Uganda. Look out for more in this series on Africa in Words over the coming months.
Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire until recently was teaching Law and Human Rights at various Ugandan universities. In the same period, he was Programs Director at Writivism, a pan African initiative of the Centre for African Cultural Excellence, that promotes and connects African Literature to reality.