When training lawyers, it is important to teach them to be aware of the social, economic and political context within which the law exists. Lawyers should have the ability to craft solutions for Africa and beyond. This means that the curriculum in most law schools will incorporate a global perspective; elements of international law such as international criminal law, international commercial law and international economic law, among others. While this is laudable, there is a blind spot that exists in the teaching of law that ought to be addressed in all law schools in Kenya.
The African Perspective
The international law curriculum is taught from a European perspective with a lot of the textbooks lacking indigenous knowledge. The teaching of international law remains rife with exclusions of local knowledge, voices and scholars. The African voice cannot be heard in these books and many narratives remain distorted or one-sided.
A good example is the story of colonialism. Kenya was colonized by the British and western education was introduced by the missionaries as part of the “civilizing mission.” This was the thinking that African beliefs, customs and practices were barbaric and backward and needed to be “saved.” This is taught as the story of how “civilization” was brought to Africa. Here lies the danger of a single story. The African way of life existed before, during and after colonialism and remains legitimate. A law student should be able to understand this colonialism narrative in a more critical manner and be able to incorporate the African perspective into the story. What did the colonized think of colonialism? Did the colonizer have an agenda? What African culture pre-existed and survived colonialism? And so on. Law lecturers need to infuse critical thinking into the pedagogy when teaching international law.
How do we decolonize our classrooms?
Decolonization does not just mean political independence. It also means freeing the mind of misconceptions that everything African is inferior in some way or illegitimate. In South Africa, engaging the mark left by colonialism, and subsequently, apartheid, on South Africa’s higher education system was instrumental in understanding the policies subsequently created to remedy the inequalities that manifested as a result of these systems.
The idea was that students must have a critical understanding of the country’s history and the experiences of its citizens. Also, students must have a critical understanding of how current mainstream teaching of international law has prioritized European knowledge. It would be good to incorporate critical approaches such as the Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL), an approach developed by Harvard Law School graduates which incorporates a third world approach in the understanding of international law.
Wider Implications for the Society
The silencing of African voices and perspectives has wider implications in society and is not just a concern for law schools. Kenyans are always angry when they see a negative portrayal of the country in international media. This is part of the narrative that Africa is a continent only riddled with war, hunger and poverty. While the continent has its issues, there is danger in telling a single story.
While we should not throw away the existing curricula, let us add the African voice to them. Decolonizing the classrooms will mean that we will stop perpetuating the narrative that Africa is “the dark continent” and add African perspectives about our history and culture. George Kimble once put it aptly, that the darkest thing about Africa is our ignorance of it.