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 criminal law, commercial law and economic law.
While this is laudable, there is a blind spot in the teaching of law that ought to be addressed in Kenya: the African perspective.
The international law curriculum is taught from a European perspective with a lot of books 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 colonised by the British and western education was introduced by the missionaries as part of the “civilising 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 “civilisation” 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. What did the colonised think of colonialism? Did the coloniser 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 decolonise our classrooms?
Decolonisation does not just mean political independence. It also means freeing the mind of misconceptions that everything African is inferior 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 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 given priority to European knowledge.
It would be good to incorporate critical approaches such as the Third World Approaches to International Law, an approach developed by Harvard Law School graduates in the understanding of international law.
The silencing of African voices and perspectives has wider implications in the society and is not just a concern for law schools.
Kenyans are always angry when they see negative portrayal of the country in international media.
While the continent has its flaws, there is danger in telling a single story.
The writer is a lecturer at Riara Law School and an Advocate.