The unprecedented crime of the 1994 Rwandan genocide demanded an unconventional legal response. After failed attempts by the international legal system to efficiently handle legal cases stemming from the genocide, Rwandans decided to take matters into their own hands and reinstate Gacaca law, which had been the sole legal system in Rwanda prior to colonization.
Gacaca, a Kinyarwanda word referring to a type of grass or traditional lawn, is also a metonym for place and mediation. Gacaca law allows perpetrators and victims to resolve their differences before the community, and a panel of eminent persons, inyangamugayo. Gacaca seeks not simply to punish crime but to repair the social fabric rent by crime.
In his book Practical Challenges in Customary Law Translation: The Case Of Rwanda’s Gacaca Law
(Organization for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa, 2015), Telesphore Ngarambe
uses a fusion of cultural and translational studies, with emphasis placed on cultural contextualization, to make a unique contribution to the study of Gacaca law.
Ngarambe argues that as law is embedded in culture and society, of which language is an integral part, legal language of necessity reflects the culture and society in which it is embedded. Rwanda’s three official languages mean that Gacaca law, articulated in Kinyarwanda, must now also find expression in the colonial languages with which it coexists, namely English and French.
Though modern Gacaca law has come in for criticism, it has also been hailed as a model for indigenous responses to crimes of mass violence in Africa and other parts of the world.
Mireille Djenno is the African Studies Librarian at Indiana University. She can be reached at [email protected]
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