Modern Languages, postcolonial studies

Singing the Law: Oral Jurisprudence and the Crisis of Colonial Modernity in East African Literature by Peter Leman

Book cover for Singing the Law by Peter Leman

Shortly before Singing the Law appeared in print but shortly after the staggering reality of the Covid-19 crisis was becoming clear, I received a phone call from a close friend in Uganda. He’d seen news reports about the pandemic’s spread in the U.S., and he wanted to know how my family and I were doing. He wondered why so many Americans were in such a state of panic. He didn’t deny the seriousness of the virus, of course, but wondered if some people were creating more problems by overreacting. “In Africa,” he said, “we’ve been through pandemics before—AIDS, cholera, ebola. We survived. We don’t panic.”

I’ve thought a lot about that call in the last few weeks. I was touched, but not surprised, by my friend’s concern. I was also struck by his steady reassurance and implicit point that America could learn a thing or two from Uganda and other parts of Africa. I agreed with him and, in fact, realized I’d tried to make a similar point in Singing the Law: namely, that the world has much to learn about crisis, law, and modernity from East Africa. Through readings of literary texts that respond to or adopt East African “oral jurisprudence,” Singing the Law reveals an ongoing effort on the part of East African writers and legal thinkers to challenge colonial law and its resilient cultural narratives; this effort, in turn, reveals how East Africa has played a much more central role in the development of modernity and modern law than the world has been willing to recognize. What would the world, and its laws, look like were we to recognize East Africa’s contributions to legal history and experiences with colonially-induced legal crisis more fully? More honestly?

I was, of course, limited in the number of examples I could include in the book to illustrate these phenomena—the literature of East African oral jurisprudence is incredibly rich—and had to leave out some of the more fascinating cases. My friend’s phone call and appeal for calm in the midst of crisis, however, reminded me of one more important of these: Shabaan Robert’s Kiswahili novella Kusadikika: A Country in the Sky (1951). Set on (and named after) an isolated, autocratic nation that magically floats in the sky above the East African coast, Kusadikika tells the story of Karama, a young lawyer who is arrested and put on trial for promoting legal education throughout the country. I couldn’t quite fit this in my book, in the end, but I hope discussing it here will stimulate interest in both Singing the Law and Kusadikika as well as the many other fascinating works of oral/literary jurisprudence that can be found throughout East Africa and beyond.

At the outset of Karama’s trial, Kusadikika’s Chief Justice insists that making the law accessible to all rather than an elite few is a threat to the nation. To defend himself, Karama employs an unusual strategy. He explains that many years ago, Kusadikika’s government sent delegates to bordering nations to the North, East, South, and West, as well as Heaven above and Earth below. Each day for six days Karama recounts the stories of the delegates, and each time the story is the same: First, a brave man ventures into the unknown (even to Heaven) for the benefit of his country. He then returns with invaluable ideas for promoting progress. Finally, the government refuses to adopt the ideas, choosing instead to imprison the delegate and bury his discoveries. On the sixth and final day of his defense, Karama explains that when a mistake is discovered, “it must be put right without delay” (51). It was a mistake that these men were imprisoned and their ideas rejected. “This is my reason,” Karama concludes, “for wanting the practice of law to be given a chance by being legalized in Kusadikika.”

This is not an entirely satisfying explanation for Karama’s legal advocacy, but one way of reading his unusual defense strategy requires us to consider the allegorical potential of Karama’s historical method. He is not simply calling for past injustices to be addressed, but he is unearthing past narratives that have been buried. His testimony is an act of remembrance and recuperation of historical truth against the mistaken grain of official history. Singing the Law is part of a larger project that resembles Karama’s but on a much more expansive scale: like the delegates whose potentially progressive ideas about modernity were lost because of a jealous and atavistic government, the stories of East Africa’s contributions to the development of modern law have been lost, neglected, or deliberately disregarded over time.

Like Karama, the authors I study in Singing the Law have sought to recover some of those stories and make them visible through the imaginative resources of orature and literature. Like Karama, in studying these authors and situating their stories in relationship to colonial and postcolonial legal history, I have also tried to lay out an argument (over the course of four chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion rather than six days) about the need for a kind of re-education in the law, or a revision in our understanding of modern legal history that more fully takes into account the diverse and complex contributions of the global south. In many ways, such a revision is consistent with the aims of postcolonial and critical theory more generally. However, the historical and cultural knowledge that can provide such insight and change the privileged narratives of modern law still needs Karamas—literary, legal, and scholarly advocates—to bring it to bear on questions of global concern.

This book is a small step toward recovering and understanding some of the forms of knowledge found in the story of East Africa’s role in the production of modern law as we know and practice it today. But there remains a great deal to be done. Karama told the stories of six delegates, but in terms of East Africa’s contributions to modern law and, indeed, in terms of the global south’s contributions more generally, there are many more delegates whose stories have been lost, forgotten, or neglected and need to be recovered or reimagined. And just as the delegates’ discoveries had, for Karama, important implications in terms of legal education and practice—to the point, ultimately, of providing justification for a radical restructuring of Kusadikika’s legal system—so too do the local histories of law and culture in the global south have significant implications for our understanding of modern law and crises of different kinds in the world today.

Peter Leman is an Associate Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty Member in Africana Studies at Brigham Young University.

For more information on Singing the Law visit our website.


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