The past few months have seen several seminars in community legal education take place in both Maputo and Beira with a diverse array of participants including pre-school teachers, NGO staff, women’s groups, pastors and other church leaders. These seminars are crucial in raising awareness of the different ways rights can be realised and conflicts resolved within the community. We recently completed a week long training session with the Christian NGO Oasis Mozambique. This particular training involved teaching law and rights to a group of 15 women who are respected members of their communities. They are then charged by Oasis Mozambique to spread their new-found knowledge within their respective communities, situated within the locale of Manga-Laforte, one of the most impoverished and under-resourced areas in Beira.
The challenges in undertaking these seminars are striking. To start with being a man, educated in the British system, speaking to African women with little in the way of formal education, I am aware that my background could not be further removed from those of the participants. In addition, law finds its meaning in the very precise language that defines it. The use of language is crucial to any legal system in the respect that lawmakers typically use language to make the law, and courts typically use language to state their grounds of decision. Taking a legal principle and turning it from a construct of language into something practical and relevant is difficult, and requires multiple strategies including stories, illustrations, discussions, drama and more. Yet even with knowledge of the law and their rights, the vulnerable and marginalised are hard pressed to receive justice in legal systems marred by corruption and lacking resources. This may lead you to wonder why all this hard work is worth the bother.
We like to describe community legal education as a set of tools that can be added to the existing tools people use in the resolution of their conflicts. The legal awareness tools may not work in all situations for all people, like trying to use a hammer when a saw is required. However, for some it is the right tool at the right time, a hammer for a situation when nothing other than a hammer will do. During one legal education session a young lady approached Annet to discuss the father of her child, who was refusing to pay any child maintenance. Following the session, she found the courage to initiate a complaint in the court against the father. The court ruled in her favour, ordering the father to pay child support for his son. The right tool was used at the right time, and the young lady had the confidence to use it. Another woman who recently received help stood during a discussion to address her church women’s group, saying “I am hurting, my heart is injured. My reputation has been spoiled in my community because of the accusations of witchcraft that have been made against me. I am a believer and I have never been involved in witchcraft. I went to AMAC and now they are helping me with this problem in court”. Knowledge is power, and a little learning can help to amplify the voices of those at the edges of society.
The key protagonists in legal education seminars are our “illustrious” friends, as they are referred to within legal circles here. The Mozambican legal professionals and staff of AMAC who contribute their knowledge and expertise in a way us mission workers cannot. Their valuable input ensures that the tools we are bringing appear familiar to local people, using local language and lending context to difficult concepts through anecdotes and examples. A legal concept thoroughly explained in Portuguese still often results in perplexed participants glancing at each other in confusion. Fortunately, this is often remedied by a few well chosen words in Sena or Ndau and the collective enlightenment that follows is palpable. The Christian lawyers are passing on the tools they have acquired through years of study and experience, in an environment where people often jealously protect their own knowledge in order to gain influence and status.
AMAC is looking forward to further community legal education seminars in the coming months and we are well aware of the challenges and opportunities before us. The sustained contribution of Mozambican Christian lawyers is essential in what lies ahead. Please continue to pass the hammer, saw, spanner or whatever other tools you may have, my illustrious friends.