Dear readers, when IJM asked me whether I’d go to Uganda to help out as a team doctor for the week, I was a bit nervous. And when the one person I knew on the team had to cancel, I had a small moment of brain snap. Not only was I going to participate with a team I didn’t know, THEY ARE ALL LAWYERS AND JUDGES.
Nope, not intimidated at all. Ha!
To enlighten you, daily discussions between GP colleagues invariably end with “You better do that, or you’ll end up in court.” Which is not to say anything about medical competence (or perhaps it does) but it definitely speaks to my uncertainty about spending a week with this “other” tribe. Never mind the lions or the hippos or the jungle – it’s the lawyers I wasn’t sure about.
Can I say that I have had an extraordinary week?
And can I also say that this has been due as much to the experience of being in Uganda as to the calibre of people on the Australian team.
From the first, they were generous with the Ugandan judicial members, with the IJM Uganda staff, and with me. They are robust advocates for justice. They passionately promoted the rights of women and children. They are very interested in truth and fairness. They were excellent educators, allowing the Ugandan experience to inform their teaching.
On a personal level, they were a hoot.
I was fascinated to get an insight into the demands of barrister practice back in Australia. The barristers are in court, measuring each word for hours at a time, allowing the best truth to come out, and trying variously to translate complicated legal jargon for their client and to create the most accurate picture for the magistrate or judge.
This is exacting and unforgiving work. It requires significant mental stamina and self-belief.
Sitting through the sessions of detailed evidence takes a great deal of patience. The environment that they work in is highly charged.
I have been particularly impressed with their work in the training sessions. In the magistrate and prosecutor training sessions, the Australian team has actively sought to be culturally sensitive and to provide useful education for the Ugandans. There have been challenges along the way to achieve this. Some significant. They were willing to account for the obstacles and issues that are relevant for the Ugandan judiciary.
One of the things that I liked most during the week was that as trust grew, the team was able to adjust sessions to respond to prosecutors’ specific questions. The magistrate was able to add a session about her perspective on best conduct in the courtroom and what happens when colleagues are bullies, which was invaluable. And they were open to continuing to collaborate to allow the process to continue beyond the scope of this week.
I spoke with them and they all commented that they learned a great deal from each other and from the Ugandans.
One reflected that she had a greater understanding of the pressures faced in the Ugandan system, and how overwhelming the change is that’s needed.
She was surprised and pleased that she had much in common with the Ugandan prosecutors and had developed a great sense of admiration and appreciation for them working within such a challenging system. She was excited that they had engaged so eagerly in the week of training.
After seeing first-hand the expertise of the barristers, magistrates and judge I spent the week with, I would still tremble coming in front of them in court. They are truly excellent at their jobs.
What’s changed is that now I’ve seen how much they care: about truth, about justice, about how their work affects real peoples’ lives.
The team that came here have given a great deal of themselves and their expertise to promote the rights of widows and orphans in Uganda.
Let’s just say I have a crush on them all. As we prepare to leave Uganda, it’s humbling to reflect on how deeply I have been impacted.
About the author
Dr Sara Townend is a GP with a young family living on the Northern Beaches in Sydney. On Friday 18 August 2017 Dr Townend departed to Uganda as IJM’s volunteer doctor for a week. The team of Australians judges, magistrates and barristers that she is travelling with will be training their local counterparts in how to prosecute the crime of land grabbing committed against some of Uganda’s most vulnerable.