Glancing around at the curios on display my eyes alighted upon a striking wooden mask with smoothed yet well-defined features, cheeks and forehead etched with a bi-coloured pattern of triangles. I turned to the shop attendant, “Excuse me, do you know what type of mask this is?” The girl hesitated a moment, then tapped something into a computer. “Says here it is a replica of a mask from Gabon or Equatorial Guinea used by the Fang people” she said in a distinctly Afrikaner accent. I thanked her and went away to think.
I have always found masks fascinating, yet it is wise to heed warnings about certain masks being used for sinister purposes. A little online research revealed the mask to indeed be a replica Fang, of a type used by the Ngil society, and then it got really interesting. The original masks were worn during ceremonies by those with policing power, and also by the local judge when handing out a sentence to wrong-doers. It struck me that, for the Fang people, the mask was literally the face of justice in their communities. When the French arrived in Gabon they swiftly proscribed use of the Ngil mask, due to its association with ritual murder and witchcraft. Having lost access to traditional forms of justice, the face of justice imposed by the colonial powers offered little relief to the Fang.
Recently I have been doing research into the myriad forms of community justice here in Mozambique and the Ngil mask returned to the forefront of my mind. It is estimated that around 80-90% of people in African countries go to informal institutions within their communities to resolve their legal problems, whether that be the chief, informal courts, pastors, priests, imams, elders, traditional healers or even witch doctors. Each of these actors present a different face of justice, and each community has its own unique blend of actors, influences and relationships, which provides a very complicated and varied legal landscape. Yet, if the Mozambican Christian lawyers are to have an impact here, these faces cannot be ignored. I heard about a successful lawyer here commenting that he did not believe that traditional forms of justice still exist. Yet I’ve heard far more talk of the community courts and chiefs that dispense justice outside of the formal legal system, and pastors recounting stories of church members who come to them for advice about disputes and legal problems. Such respected individuals as pastors can find themselves in the centre of justice provision, often with little knowledge of legal matters. In addition to providing legal assistance through official channels, there exists an opportunity for Christian lawyers to step into this informal world and equip pastors and others with the skills needed to help people with their disputes.
God’s vision of justice in the Bible is something certain and enduring. Yet the Ngil mask serves as a reminder that the face of justice that people see in Africa varies with context, appearing different according to the environment, history, gender, age, ethnicity and social position of the beholder. I consider it my solemn duty to understand that context, to familiarise myself with the different masks that justice can wear within Mozambique. Then maybe God can shine a light behind the mask and reveal ways in which we can work alongside people with very different experiences of justice, both to promote rights and bring them closer to Him.