On a fresh, cool early morning, we left the capital, Lusaka, in a big USAID SUV with a driver and the Mission’s democracy officer, a Zambian attorney, to see how the court system in a small town operates. As we drove away from the hotel, the government buildings with their tended grounds, the shopping mall, the big old trees and the neatly stucco-walled compounds of upper- and middle -class housing complexes gave way to dozens of one-story storefronts lining the road, with litter blowing on the bare packed red earth. There were no trees. Women with lengths of brightly-patterned cloth wrapped around them for skirts carried large flat round baskets of fruit or vegetables on their heads, and men pushed wooden gurneys loaded with enormous burlap bags of produce or grain. Along the railroad tracks, people spread cloths on the red muddy ground on which to display all kinds of goods: clothes, cell phones, shoes, bars of soap, CDs and CD players, coat hangers, baskets of straw and plastic containers. There were women cooking over open fires, offering hot food for sale.
In less than an hour, we came to Kafue (ka-few-ee), and turned off the main road where a white metal sign announced “Kafue Subordinate Court”. We drove, very slowly, over a deeply rutted road, and parked on marshy land in front of three small white stucco buildings – the courtroom, the jail, and the court offices. There were no other cars in sight. People walk here – the state of the roads demand it, among many other reasons.
We picked our way over the wet ground, stepping a small stream on the way to the court administration building, where the chief judge awaited us. His office held statute books from 1995; he had never received any supplements. When he needs to know if the law has changed in the last 14 years, he calls lawyer friends in Lusaka who can help him. His court mainly hears criminal cases, primarily rape and incest, with some robbery and theft.
Once a week, he hears civil cases: debts, inheritance, and defamation. He showed us the record of appeal from the local (customary law) court decision that he was deciding that day: it was handwritten by the local court judge and held that the divorced woman in the case could not share in the property from the marriage because she had not worked outside the home. It’s a wrong decision, the judge said; we had a Supreme Court case years ago that said women are entitled to half of all property acquired during the marriage, but the local court judges don’t know it. I try to train them, but there are so many other things to take care of. He had a kind face and a gentle manner; he was humble too, about his role deciding the fate of thousands of people every year. I would have wanted him to judge me, were I in the dock in Zambia.
After we met with the chief judge, we walked to another building, the courtroom, to see a trial in progress. There was a double-size foam mattress in the very middle of the courtroom, on the floor. It was covered with a tattered, torn, and very dirty sheet, and a big blue carpet was heaped on it. There were three prisoners in the dock, the judge at the bench, and a police prosecutor at the counsel table. There are no state prosecutors for local and subordinate courts, which hear at least 95% of the country’s criminal cases. People were seated on the benches for the public; we quietly walked in and took seats at the back. Of course, we stood out, and the whole room, including the judge, stopped and looked at us before the judge continued.
The accused, two women and a man, were charged with stealing the mattress, the carpet, and some documents from a house. The man was in jail, but the women were out on bail. There were no bailiffs in sight, no handcuffs, no shackles. The accused were not represented by counsel, which is the case in nearly all criminal cases here. The judge asked if the accused were ready to go forward in their own defense; no, the prisoner said; the case was continued until March 25. He’ll stay in jail for another week, until then.
There’s so many problems in administration of justice in Zambia that donors (or as we say, “international cooperation”) have stayed away in droves from it, mostly because the leaders themselves don’t seem to want change or think it’s possible. Everyone in the justice system here is aware of the grave deficiencies but throw up their hands about leading for change.
So I wasn’t prepared for this courtroom trial. I thought I’d see grave miscarriages of justice, and put one more stroke down in my notebook against Zambian judges and police, with notes about police brutality, forced confessions, overcrowded court systems, untrained and unprofessional judges, lengthy pre-trial detentions, unconscionable delays, and on and on. Yes, all that may be true, but I didn’t see it here. The continuance was for a short time; the proceedings were translated into the local language, Nanja; the judge read the accused their rights; and the evidence was hauled into court. There was no sense, at least to me, of us-versus-them, we the good people, you the despised prisoner. It did seem to be a judgment of peers, a gathering of the people. At least what I saw that day fits with the traditional goal of justice here – to restore harmonious relationships, not to break them beyond repair. After the judge left the courtroom, the prisoner did too. He walked on his own back to the jail, tailed by a policeman.