Cordaid and the Van Vollenhoven Institute conduct a joint research project to explore the adequacy of primary justice mechanisms in South Sudan and Afghanistan. Mr. Bruno Braak works for the Van Vollenhoven Institute and within this research project is tasked for South Sudan. He wrote a personal blog based upon is last visit to the research area in South Sudan.

The rainy season is coming. The people of Yambio in South Sudan are clearing their gardens so that they can plant groundnuts, maize and sorghum just before the heavy rains start. These days the rain comes in the afternoon. First a heavy wind starts blowing clouds of red dust from the roads, and then the torrential rain starts drumming on the iron sheets and grass thatches of the houses of Yambio. People slow down and stay where they are. They know that it might take hours before it stops.

The rainy season means many things in this highly agricultural society.  For one, all products that are imported over the muddy roads that lead to this corner of South Sudan – water, gasoline, salt, rice – will double in price. But the rains also announce a peaceful season. There will be enough water for all –by consequence cattle from other areas is less likely to migrate. What’s more, warfare becomes more difficult when roads are muddy and transport takes twice as long.

    Warfare becomes more difficult when roads are muddy.

I am sitting in a circle with eight local colleagues on the ground floor of a half-finished structure of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Diocese of Tambura-Yambio. Over the past three months we have been cooperating closely on a socio-legal study of small-scale property and family disputes and their resolution. This is part of ‘Supporting Primary Justice’ – an applied research project of Cordaid and Leiden University.

    Land and family issues always come up. There are disputes to do with adultery, dowry and divorce.

We have been travelling to seven of the 10 counties of Western Equatoria State to ask people in courts, homes, offices and under mango trees what the most important disputes are in this area, and what people do to resolve them. Land and family issues always come up. There are disputes to do with adultery, dowry and divorce. And where land is concerned disputes often occur around the demarcation and ownership of land, but also between the largely agriculturalist Western Equatorians and the cattle keepers that migrate into the state during the dry season. To resolve these disputes, people turn to chiefs, witchdoctors, judges, police, administrators, spiritual leaders and family elders. How disputants find their way in this complicated patchwork, and to what effect, is the subject of our study.

Rather than looking at the written law, we observe how disputes are resolved in practice. Whose voice is heard, what rules are referred to, and which sorts of sanctions are used? Also, we ask people how they feel about existing judiciary processes. Are they fair? Transparent? Affordable? We have many questions, and people have endless answers. By getting a picture that is as complete as possible of the ‘pathways’ that people travel towards justice and the obstacles they face along the way, Cordaid and Leiden University will come up with context-specific ideas for improvement. For government, for aid organizations, but also for dispute resolvers and disputants themselves.

So far, I am very enthusiastic about the progress we make. I have seen how the eight local researchers have learned a great deal about the various legal systems in their own country, and how they are now better equipped to give advice to disputants. But also the people we speak to – chiefs, judges and disputants – have expressed their gratitude for having been heard, and for in turn learning from the exchanges they had with our researchers.

This was just the first research phase. Now it is time to turn knowledge into action research. From August, I will be back in Yambio for a longer stretch. As the rainy season will come to an end, people will start to harvest what they have planted in the rainy season. But they will also face the challenges that always come when the rains have stopped and water grows scarcer. I am honored to be there to learn from them and share my insights to improve dispute resolution in this beautiful part of our planet.

For any questions with regard to this research project please contact Rob Sijstermans: 



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