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The power of performance arts in legal education in Africa


The power of performance arts in legal education in Africa

In the prisons of rural Uganda, the drums are a constant rhythm; carrying the message of hope through legal education. Men stomp their feet, as they dance. Women ululate as they smile and proudly carry forward this important subject matter. The essence of the performance is steeped in culture; with the drums at the core. The engalabi – the long drum – and the embuutu – the big drum – set the pace, a mainstay of cultural education and entertainment. Legal education week is an indicator of the change a more accommodating legal education system can yield.

A poster made for a debate hosted at Kitwe Prison, Uganda.

Justice Defenders' Ivy Mang'eli reflects on the traditional forms of education across our in work in Uganda and a need to pilot it in other nations.

Picture having no say in the frameworks that govern how you live and interact with others. The elitist nature of legal education as we know it, does just that. Across Africa, many are excluded, cordoned off from discussions on modern law because they lack the ‘right’ class or stature. 

This is a time to strategise how the people often forgotten are educated and equipped with legal knowledge to create a more inclusive, fair future.

Legal education is in need of reform and localisation to truly have meaningful impact and function for a more well-informed and balanced citizenry.

Since the dawn of time, African traditional customary laws were integrated into daily life, regulating social interactions amongst members of the community. Across the continent, customary laws were binding, and varied slightly across chiefdoms and kingdoms. The law then served the individual as much as it served the community. The structure often had in place a tribunal or ‘baraza’ where aggrieved parties presented their complaints. In East Africa, this council of elders is still at play even after the introduction of modern law by colonisers.

In Africa, modern law was an instrument of the colonial masters to strike fear and implement order for their benefit. In many ways, the law was a means of controlling the masses; dictating how they lived their everyday lives from birth to death.  Before colonisation, education on customary law was part of daily life and cultural practice. Now those unable to read or write, too poor to attend law school, are secluded from truly understanding the law and its principles. Many remain defenceless, unaware of their rights before the law. The understated interplay between traditional customary law and modern law and its education continues to disadvantage many in society.

Traditional customary legal education was often instructed through performative arts. Through song, dance, and drama, the young in society would be told stories with practical examples of what embodied a good member of the community versus what did not. The tenets of customary law were often enforced in the home and spoken of often. Through the use of drums and percussion instruments, the rhymes and rhythms made the guiding laws easy to relate to and remember.

In the present day, modern law’s complex frame and details can be difficult to digest. Often presented in English, it is branded as exclusive and for the upper class. However, should its presentation and format of instruction be localised; it could be more easily integrated into African society.

A member of the Kitwe prison community performs a satirical song; kitted with handmade props.

A courtroom scene is performed during legal education week in Myanzi prison.

A more engaging form of education

In Uganda, Justice Defenders has taken on more traditional formats to educate the masses. Using song, dance, drama, and debate; the Justice Defenders education weeks held across multiple prisons in Uganda encourage the participation of people in prisons, as well as stakeholders in the judiciary and prisons service.

Court etiquette, and principles of law such as plea bargaining as well as sentencing are presented through performative arts. Possibly more entertaining, and definitely more memorable, this format is a reminder of the thousands who are more eager to understand the law, and how it relates to their lives. Aspects of criminal law come alive through various performances such as courtroom scenarios that present circumstances many in prison could relate to.

Language barrier a hurdle to legal education

In Kenya, the two official languages are English and Kiswahili.  According to research by UNESCO Institute for Statistics, data gathered as of June 2022 indicated the literacy levels in Kenya at 82%. This leaves 18% of the total population unable to fully engage in legal education. For the millions who don’t have the option of reading or writing, the current system does not grant them the opportunity to feel included in court, much less the judicial system as a whole. Though an interpreter may be appointed by the court; there is a need to awaken to the position of those often left behind.

Justice Defenders Kenya Country Director Miriam Wachira notes: “The court clerk is used as an interpreter and most times, the message is lost in translation since court clerks are not trained interpreters. We meet many clients in prison who say they do not know what transpired in court, this leaves them in the dark on the progress of their cases, resulting in injustice.”

Instead of ignoring that language is a barrier to access to legal knowledge; a more inclusive and progressive position could signal better legal awareness for all. Justice Defenders Uganda Law Tutor Milly Kakungulu noted that language was central to the success of our legal education weeks. She said the inclusion of local language, “simplified and was an effective means of communication, especially to audiences that are not very literate. They understand and communicate more than a lecture as the language is relatable to them.” For the sake of broadening legal education, language is being used as an instrument to engage and encourage the participation of people in prison across Uganda.

Participants prepare a rebuttal in a live debate at Kitwe prison.

Alex B. from Kakumiro Prison performs in a skit scene that highlights the need for legal education.

Public participation is a mark of any well-integrated society. With the complexities of culture and varied languages, modern law has much potential to harmonise people from all cadres of community. The use of various instruments of the law can be better understood and employed through local education techniques and languages in Kenya and certainly across Africa.

Perhaps it might be time to look back in order to chart a better way forward for all.  Reinstating traditional methods of education could steer legal education into a new, inclusive era. Much like my observations in rural Uganda, it could unite and enlighten thousands more. The possibilities are endless; education on the rule of law, and compliance with it can subsequently reduce the rate of crime overall. In due course, nations can experience a lessened state of insecurity, higher productivity and heightened sense of community.

Will you join us in breaking the chains of injustice?