The twenty or so faces in the room are serious, the mood is tense. Judge George Kulangu sits facing Lonjezo Nkopeka, 14 who insists that he never impregnated Stella Chinkango, 18. Stella however actually tells the court the very date that she had sex with Lonjezo: 25 December and 2 January.
The defendant, fourteen year old Lonjezo is unmistakably his age: He has a baby face and it is only just starting to know adulthood pimples and acnes.
|Stella and Lonje listen to 'Judge' Kulangu|
He dons a cream shirt that used to be white and can no longer ignore the dust of Phalombe. Behind his shirt juts below his collar, Lonjezo has written ‘DJ. BY,’ not a strange thing for a recent Standard Eight drop out. He is in a jeans a piece of which he steps on as he walks in his flip-flops.
Right next to Lonjezo sits the complainant, Stella. She would pass for age 13 but guess the official story wins. She is clasping a cute and cuddly baby wrapped in several cloths despite the midday October heat. Her breasts are still firm and the baby has made them fuller.
After the facts of the case are presented, and Lonjezo asked to plead, he takes his kinsmen outside and returns to plead not responsible.
Kulangu then reads from the constitution that according to the law, nobody can force an underage person to marry, he then reasoned with Lonjezo that the son he is turning down might end up as anybody and that he resembles him.
Apparently touched, Lonjezo asks for another recess and comes back a different person, an elder relative who spoke on his behalf said Lonjezo would financially and materially support the baby but was unsure about the mother since he needs to go back to school.
Stella showed no expression. She was not impressed. She herself and her relatives took their own recess.
As the trial progressed, the two try as much not to look at each other and instead focus their attention at Judge Kulanga who scribbles some notes as the two parties stated their arguments. Then his phone rings; he has an Orga Family ringtone, so much for a judge.
Well, George Kulangu, 35 is not a judge, he has never been to law school and the building he sits in is not a court. Kulangu is a volunteer, the building he sits in is actually an organisation termed Ufulu Wanthu Community-Based Organisation. (CBO)
The CBO sits at Chiringa in Traditional Authority Nazombe’s base about thirty minutes from Phalombe’s administrative centre. It was built by the community itself with support from Action Aid Malawi.
Kulangu is the director of the CBO and his team see an average of thirty cases per month. He does not get a salary and insists helping the community live in harmony makes him happy.
“We do not pass judgement here, we only counsel – we intend to build not divide people,” said Kulangu.
As Kulangu sits in his ‘court’ Chiringa’s real magistrate court is also hearing cases and it is just 35 meters from Ufulu Wathu. T/A Nazombe’s court is also a stone throw away and yet there seems to be no-one aggrieved or feeling underrated.
“They are helping us with cases, we had an influx of cases and we are working well together and I am not aggrieved because these people are easing my burden,” said T/A Nazombe.
Nazombe also conceded that it is only fair because as chiefs they demand some token to hear cases while at the CBO the cases are heard free of charge.
Ellen Mbulaje who mans the Victim Support Unit Desk at Chiringa Police Unit also hailed the CBO’s efforts and said she sometimes actually refers cases from the police to the CBO. She says since the arrival of the CBO cases of domestic violence have gone down.
One woman to attest to Mbulaje’s assertion is Adalina Tambwali, she told Nation on Sunday that her husband was irresponsible abusive and usually battered her and in some cases would have used knives, mortars to harm her over domestic issues.
“I chased him and he went to Ufulu Wathu to protest, I came and we resolved our issues and after the counselling he changed his behaviour and we are now living happily together, we just had our son. All along we had tried chiefs and elders but they failed to resolve our issues,” said Tambwali
A group of men and women Nation on Sunday talked to pointed at the advantages of going to their own creation (the CBO) by pointing out the weakness of the other justice systems in the community. They said Police demand money to offer bail, they said the court requires a fee to get summons and chiefs also demand tokens.
Ibrahim Nthalika is Action Aid’s programmes coordinator for Phalombe. He said his organisation takes a rights-based approach towards everything it does.
“We mostly work with CBOs, it’s the community that knows their problems well and therefore able to define their destiny and it is proving to be true.
Ufulu Wathu CBO is working because people trust their own people unlike the civil servants at the court who are taken as elites and there is no imprisonment,” said Nthalika.
Nthalika’s expose explains why the community at Chiringa respect Kulangu and his mates. The CBO’s decision can easily be disregarded but the fact that the community itself created it to handle minor disputes confers salience at the organisation as a source of justice.
Stella came in from her time-out and told the seated that she had accepted the decision but was unsure that Lonjezo would follow through with his pledge. Kulangu asked Lonjezo twice and got verbal assurance. He said sometimes he makes the parties sign for their pledges.
If Lonjezo feels aggrieved, he can go to a real court; after all he went all the way to Phalombe District Hospital to prove that he is not the father of the baby, meanwhile he has categorically admitted that it was him that planted the seed in Stella after all.
The CBO falls under Action Aid’s broad theme of Human Rights and Good Governance, the NGO also supports other causes such as HIV/Aids, women’s rights, Rights to food and education.
Nthalika says the fact that the community took part in the setting up of the primary justice structure means that they own it and likely to sustain it even if the K5 million grants dried up, the CBO will keep grinding.
“We only provide finance and technical assistance, the rest is done by the community,” said Nthalika
Kulangu says most cases that come to his files are those of domestic violence and husbands neglecting their wives after harvesting. With the country struggling with domestic violence where women fail to report cases for fear of losing breadwinners to jail, structures like Ufulu Wathu might just be the panacea.
Kulangu and his team have been trained in proposal writing; paralegal services and only time will tell if what they have in their hands will mean a harmonious future.
As for Stella and Lonjezo and whether their early sexual debut is any hurdle to their future is a story for another day.