Catching Up

This is a long overdue quick summary and catch up of the last few days of my trip to Uganda just over a month ago.  I will do better in the future, including on my maiden voyage to India later this week for a global justice trip.

During the January Uganda trip, the goal was to get a few things rolling and to plan for the ambitious summer we have waiting for us.  As part of our ongoing efforts to assist Uganda in delivering justice to those detained and awaiting trial, we are in the midst of helping them launch a public defender system, pursuant to which all detainees would be guaranteed access to a lawyer shortly after arrest.  In the developed world, such access is hardwired into the system.  Not so much in the developing world.

Thursday (January 19th) was a day of meetings about the public defender project, plea bargaining advancements, and the upcoming anti-trafficking conference we are hosting in Uganda.  We started out at the home of the Chief Justice, where we discussed all of the above, plus our plans for a Women in Leadership conference this summer (which is coming together nicely).

With CJ and John Richmond

With CJ, Andrew, and John Richmond


We then moved to the office of the Commissioner General of Prisons, who was quite animatedly excited about how plea bargaining was decongesting his prisons.  He insisted on having a speaking role at this summer’s national plea bargaining conference, and further reported that in his role as president of the African Jailer’s Association, he has been spreading the word about the success in Uganda around Africa.

At the office of Commissioner General Dr. Johnson Byabashaijja

At the office of Commissioner General Dr. Johnson Byabashaija

The day closed with a dinner with John Richmond (Human Trafficking Institute), Kelsey Galaway (Willow International), and Moses Binoga (head of Uganda’s Anti-Trafficking Task Force) to plan the two-day conference this summer.

On Friday, Henry took a bus to Kampala from Bushenyi, where he is in his second semester of his third year of medical school.  He is thriving, and it was so good to be with him and his younger brother Joseph, who is in his second semester of law school.  As depicted in my book Divine Collision, I met these wrongly accused brothers in January of 2010 when they were teenaged prisoners wasting away in a juvenile detention center.  I could not be more proud of the men they are becoming.  We spent much of Friday together, and Saturday morning before John Richmond and I headed to Jinja to meet up with a friend.

Dinner with Henry, Joseph, and friends

Dinner with Henry, Joseph, and friends

At the Source Café, I ate something so life changing, so “Who’s Your Daddy?” that I temporarily forgot the identity of the man who sired and raised me.  It was that good.

Banana Nutella Chapatti

Banana Nutella Chapatti

The trip home on Saturday and Sunday was nearly 42 hours due to weather delays.  It is good to be home.  I did, however, leave behind something in Uganda that will remind them of me – during the month of June, the entire judiciary structure will be looking at my mug every day, and they will be admiring our students for the month of July.

Uganda Judiciary's Official Wall and Desk Calendar

Uganda Judiciary’s Official Wall and Desk Calendar


Surprised Again

After my nearly disastrous boneheaded maneuver on Tuesday morning, I was relieved when Andrew (Technical Adviser to the Judiciary), Shawn (IJM Uganda Country Director), and I touched down at noon in Rwanda after barely making the 45-minute flight from Uganda.  I had inserted this day trip into my week-long itinerary after an intriguing call I’d received from an American lawyer, telling me about a conversation she’d recently had with the Rwandan Chief Justice.  The American lawyer, Emily Gould, proceeded to tell me that in conjunction with a dispute resolution training program she was planning in Rwanda, the Chief Justice indicated to her that the adoption and implementation of plea bargaining was a high priority for the judiciary.  He recounted to Emily that an American professor and leaders of the Ugandan judiciary had come to Rwanda in early 2015 for a presentation about plea bargaining, and, in the wake of that meeting, the Judiciary had added this innovation to their national priority list.  Her follow-up questions led to her call me to discuss Pepperdine’s work in Uganda.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the seed we had planted in the April, 2015 meeting at the Chief Justice’s office had sprouted.  During my call with Emily, we agreed that we would all benefit from meeting in Rwanda to discuss further collaborations.  When we arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that joining our lunch meeting would be two Rwandans I had previously spent some time with in Malibu in conjunction with their mediation training programs at Pepperdine’s top-ranked Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution.

Bernadette, Judge Mutabazi, me, Emily, and Andrew

Bernadette, Judge Mutabazi, me, Emily, and Andrew

Following this lunch, Emily, Shawn, Andrew, and I went to the Chief Justice’s office for a meeting him, the incoming Prosecutor General for Rwanda, and his predecessor, each of whom had attended the 2015 meeting about plea bargaining.  We discussed the Pepperdine internship program (doubling in size in Rwanda this year) and we delved deeper into Uganda’s ongoing successful implementation of plea bargaining.  Whereas I did most of the talking at the 2015 meeting, I mostly listened this time as Andrew described in detail the effort he is leading in Uganda as the Technical Adviser to the Judiciary.  It pleases me to no end that the Ugandans are assuming a leadership role in the criminal justice reforms in their country.  It also warms my heart to hear the Rwandans’ plans to follow in their neighbor’s footsteps.  I anticipate that further collaboration will follow between Rwanda, Uganda, and Pepperdine as the implementation begins.

Emily and Shawn bookend the Ugandan leaders moving toward plea bargaining

Emily and Shawn bookend the Ugandan leaders moving toward plea bargaining

Rather than heading back to Kampala after my return flight from Rwanda, I stuck around at the airport to greet a friend of mine, John Richmond, who was scheduled to land about two hours after I did.  John is a former IJM field office director in India who helped pioneer IJM’s anti-human trafficking initiatives.  He then served as a federal prosecutor of human traffickers, before recently partnering with a colleague to found The Human Trafficking Institute – an international non-profit aimed at attacking human trafficking at its root.  John’s trip to Uganda stemmed from a conversation I had late last year with Kelsey Galloway, who runs an anti-trafficking organization called Willow International that dedicates its efforts to rescuing and rehabilitating trafficking victims in Uganda.  During that conversation, Kelsey and I conceived of partnering for a national conference in June about human trafficking in Uganda, and John was the first call I made.  We all agreed to meet in January in Uganda to explore deeper the trafficking challenges faced in Uganda and to begin crafting the training agenda for the conference.

John’s arrival on Tuesday evening provided yet another opportunity for me to display my utter incompetence.  When John told me he was arriving on Tuesday night, I leapt into “erroneous assumption mode.”  I am such a regular in this mode that I have my own designated parking space.  In my defense, I am an idiot, so it isn’t my fault.  When I fly into Uganda, I arrive at night on the KLM flight at 10:30.  When John flew into Uganda a couple years ago to join our first national plea bargaining conference, he arrived at night on the KLM flight.  So . . . I assumed . . .

Yep, I was wrong.  He came in on an earlier flight on Brussels air.  So when he arrived, I wasn’t there to greet him.  I was in the lobby restaurant . . . writing a blog post about how much of an idiot I was for nearly missing my flight that very morning.  If it wasn’t so ironic, it might be sad or, perhaps, funny.

Fortunately, John is well traveled, so, after scanning all of the signs held by taxi drivers and finding none that said “Richmond,” he figured out how to get onto the internet and sent me an e-mail: “I just exited the airport. Where shall I meet you?”


Fortunately, I had my e-mail open.  More fortunately, he was gracious about my incompetence and didn’t actually have to wait too long for me to extract my noggin from my caboose.

The next day was a whirlwind of meetings, starting with an early breakfast with a friend from the State Department based in Kenya who was in Kampala to assist with training police and prosecutors in personal security in the wake of the assassination of a Ugandan prosecutor about two years ago.  I previously wrote about my departed friend Joan, here.  John and I then met with the country’s lead prosecutor about the human trafficking problems in Uganda, and then I attended a six-hour session of the Sentencing Guidelines Committee – a project we have been assisting Uganda with for about five years.  We topped off the day with a dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in Kampala – Nawab.  John, Kelsey, and I were joined by Pepperdine’s year-long Nootbaar Fellow, Joanna Brooks, and last year’s Nootbaar Fellow, Nicole Banister.  Nicole arrived back in Uganda on Monday and will be spearheading a new joint initiative between Pepperdine, IJM, and the Judiciary as we establish the first-ever public defender office, providing timely representation to those charged with crimes.  The pilot program will likely launch in March.

My final post about this trip to follow soon . . .

Further Evidence

Those acquainted with me even in passing know I am an idiot.  I can’t help it.  My parents aren’t idiots, my siblings aren’t idiots, and my kids aren’t idiots, so it doesn’t appear to be genetic.  My wife isn’t an idiot, and most of my friends aren’t idiots, so it doesn’t appear to be contagious.  Whatever its source, what I have is bone deep – it infiltrates my marrow, as I have proven time and time again.

As demonstrated below, I provided further evidence of my imbecility yesterday here in Kampala, Uganda where I had arrived on Saturday evening on my 20th trip in the past seven years.  And this, after I was so proud of myself for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat just before I departed on Friday.

As I searched for the elusive balance between price and sanity in scheduling the body-punishing, soul-denting trip from Los Angeles to Uganda, I had settled on an itinerary that took me from LA to Portland to Amsterdam to Kigali (Rwanda) to Entebbe (Uganda).  It was “only” 28 hours of travel time (32, when measuring door to door) and shaved about $400 off a (slightly) more direct route, which would have been 23 hours.  The problem is that if either of the first two legs were delayed, I’d be hosed and lose an entire day.

Well, you guessed it.  A “ping” on my cell phone while I waited in the frequent flyer lounge (membership has its privileges) notified me that LA to Portland had been delayed 40 minutes.  Because my layover time was only scheduled to be 65 minutes, I knew I was done unless I acted quickly.  Having previously exhaustively researched the various alternatives, I convinced the nice lady at the computer in the lounge to route me through Salt Lake to Amsterdam where I could resume my original itinerary, assuming nothing else went wrong.  A little hustle between planes in both Salt Lake and Amsterdam got it done.  To top it off, I snuggled up with my Ambien BFF (magic sleeping dust conveniently packaged in a little white pill) at all the right times and arrived without feeling like I had been hit by Brian Bosworth (like when he played for OU . . . not like when Bo Jackson made him his girlfriend).

I felt so smart.  So I decided to stick with the good decision making and got up five hours later on Sunday morning to go to church with Justice Kiryabwire and his family, including grabbing lunch at their place and playing with my God son Mark and his siblings Kirabo and Matthew.

Mark Kiryabwire (God Son)

Mark Kiryabwire (God Son)


Kirabo, Mark, and Matthew with "Uncle Jim Gash"

Kirabo, Mark, and Matthew with “Uncle Jim Gash”

A couple hours later, I had the privilege of attending a birthday party for Andrew Khaukha’s two-year old.  (Andrew is the Ugandan project manager on the Memorandum of Understanding with Pepperdine).

Birthday barbecue

Birthday barbecue with Andrew’s family and friends

I went to bed feeling good, and things went quite well on Monday.  I met with our Pepperdine Nootbaar Fellow, Joanna Brooks, at her mediation chambers and had several other productive meetings about ongoing and upcoming projects.

Introducing Pepperdine Nootbaar Fellow Joanna Brooks to Principal Judge Bamwine

Introducing Pepperdine Nootbaar Fellow Joanna Brooks to Principal Judge Bamwine

Tuesday morning started off swimmingly.  Andrew and I made it from Kampala to the Entebbe Airport in 90 minutes – unusually quick for the morning rush hour.  We arrived at 9:30 for our 11:50 departure to Rwanda, where we were scheduled to spend the day with Rwandan justice sector leaders and Uganda’s IJM country director, Shawn Kohl.

As we walked from the parking lot to the terminal, I developed an uneasy feeling that something was terribly wrong, but I couldn’t place what it was.  I slowed my stride and eventually came to a frozen halt.  My blood pressure spiked into the danger zone as my metaphorical head emerged from my metaphorical tailpipe with what had to be an audible suction “pop.”

“You have got to be kidding me . . .” I gasped as I stared at the back of Andrew’s head.

“Yes, Jim?  What is the problem?” he replied.


“Yes, Jim?  What about it?”

“Um, it’s in the safe in my hotel room . . .”

“That is a problem, Jim.”

I quickly glanced at the fitbit on my wrist (the function of which, as my belly can attest, is only to tell time) – 9:47.  Two hours and three minutes until the scheduled departure of the ONLY flight to Rwanda that day that would arrive in time to attend our meetings.  And Rwandair is never late.

Let’s see . . . 90 minutes each way, five minutes to run to my room, and twenty minutes to get through security, check-in, and immigration.  If I started right now, I could get to the departure gate just under two hours after my flight left.  I might have mumbled something that rhymes with “spit.”  I might have.

As he is want to do, Andrew sprung into action.  “Now, Jim.  You call your friend Tango and have him go the hotel straightaway.  I will call my friend who can help us.”

As I am want to do, I stared back at him blankly, then finally said, “We don’t have time.  Even if Tango could get my passport, he will never make it in time.”

“He will make it.  I have an idea.  Just call him and tell him to go to the hotel.”

I did as instructed.  Fortunately, Tango has been driving me for seven years now and is a good friend.  He happily did as I requested.  Meanwhile, Andrew had tracked down one of his friends (he knows virtually everyone in the country) who worked at the hotel where I was staying.  She was off duty, but she agreed to call one of her friends who was working.  After several conversations and an e-mail to the hotel authorizing them to go into my room and retrieve my passport, Tango had it in hand at 10:15.

Rather than getting into his car and driving the 90 minutes (at best) to the airport, he hopped on the back of a motorcycle taxi and sped away from the hotel, weaving in and out of traffic.  In the midst of the frenetics, Shawn arrived at the airport and jumped into the planning, calling his friend to meet Tango at a gas station near the airport where he would dismount the motorcycle and jump into a taxi because motorcycles aren’t allowed near the airport.  At 11:00, we were still waiting and getting increasingly nervous.  Tango was close, but still hadn’t yet transitioned from two wheels to four.  Shawn then had the idea of going ahead of us with the plan of delaying the flight through some charming fast-talking.

Ten minutes later, Shawn had convinced them to wait a few more minutes for us before the check-in process shut down (which is normally one hour before boarding on Rwandair).  They would give us five minutes.  At 11:10, Tango came running up the road from the parking lot and thrust my passport into my hand.  I almost gave him a wet kiss, but settled for showering him with Ugandan Shillings.  When Andrew and I finally arrived at the check-in desk, Shawn was sharing family stories with his new best friend behind the ticket counter.  When the plane pulled away from the gate and onto the tarmac, we were on it, with about five minutes to spare.  I think I aged four years during the process.

Had we not made the flight, we never would have had such an encouraging set of meetings in Rwanda.

The Roar of Silence

It has been four days now since I saw the new Martin Scorcese film at a special preview screening, and yet the sounds of Silence are still ringing in my ears.


I have been eagerly awaiting the release of this adaptation of a 1966 novel of the same name since I learned that my friend Dale Brown was teaming up with Scorcese to finally get this project to the big screen. Another friend, Tyler Zacharia, is Dale’s right-hand man and has been updating me periodically as the film wound its way through the seemingly interminable production process, including a preview screening in November at The Vatican.

In order to render it eligible for the 2016 movie awards, Silence was released in four theaters on December 23rd. This weekend, it expands to 51 theaters, and then expands further to 750 theaters next weekend. On Tuesday of this past week, Dale invited me and some other folks at Pepperdine to join a special screening in Hollywood at the Landmark Theater. My oldest daughter Jessica accompanied me on this father-daughter date.

Having not read the book (but knowing the 2:30 run time), and knowing that the plot revolved around the persecution of Portuguese priests in 17th century Japan, we knew we were in for an evening of active education and contemplation, rather than the usual passive special-effects-driven, car-chased-fueled entertainment. We were right.

My hope in writing this review is to convince you to see the film, so I won’t spoil it for you. I will, however, provide you with some questions to ponder in advance. And while the movie was made by Christians and tells a story about Christians, the themes and questions raised by the film are most certainly universal.

Question 1: Why do some people laugh heartily at the recidivism of Kichijiro, while others squirm and wince? Both responses are, in some ways, appropriate, depending upon how one views human nature and how one sees oneself.  I tended much more toward the wincing, as I saw myself too clearly in this superbly acted supporting character.

Question 2: “What would I do if I were in the shoes of Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield)?” After thinking about this for a few hours after you see the film, then ask, “What should I do if I were in his shoes?” Are these answers different? If so, why? Because of weakness, or because of strength?

For me, my body tells me I probably would have ultimately made the same choice; my mind tells me I would aspire to make a different choice; my soul is conflicted. It seems to me that this all boils down to how one views intense human suffering and the lengths we are called to go through to relieve it here on earth. My experiences over the past seven years in African prisons informs my view of this, but probably not in the way I would have assumed.

Question 3: What did the last scene mean? Should I be happy, angry, relieved, disappointed, or just dumbfounded? All but a few of those in the packed theater on Tuesday night started out with the latter, as we sat in stupefied silence and watched the credits roll. I will confess to wrestling with the other four above-listed emotions in the intervening days.

I had a chance to talk the next day to a good friend who had read the book, and he assured me that the book left the reader in a similar state of wonderstruck limbo.

I still don’t know exactly what I think about the movie, but I do know a few things: (1) I will see it again, and soon, (2) how and why a story about Portuguese priests four hundred years ago has strong relevance today, and (3) my Christian and non-Christian friends will be glad they invested the time, money, and mental energy in this important film.

Aiming for Superfluous

Our Global Justice Program’s goal for our work in the developing world has been, is, and always will be to educate, equip, and empower our friends to create, implement, and sustain the needed reforms to their justice system themselves.  In a very real sense, we seek to become superfluous.

Measurable progress rarely comes easily or quickly.  But when it comes, there is little that is more gratifying.

Within the past week, I received three separate confirmations that brought profound satisfaction.  The first was in an e-mail to my wife from a prosecutor with whom we worked in the Mbarara and Bushenyi prisons – more on that in my prior post.  She informed Joline that the day after we left, the prosecution and defense returned to the prison and continued working together to reach plea agreements for prisoners who were interested in resolving the charges against them.

A couple days later, the warden of one of the prisons e-mailed me to offer some kind words of gratitude and to tell me that (i) our work had given the prisoners confidence that the new plea bargaining system could be trusted, (ii) a flood of additional prisoners had registered to participate, and (iii) the lawyers had returned to move these cases forward.

The third piece of good news requires a brief explanation.  Due to high demand and administrative ease, our Global Justice Program has always been limited to Pepperdine law students.  Earlier this year, however, we re-evaluated this limitation after conversations with Baylor University about the possibility of helping their law school start a similar program in a nearby African country.  Consequently, we accepted a stellar Baylor law student (Megan Pepper) into our program this summer, and she was stationed about four hours from the capital city.  (She, and Baylor Law Professor Brian Serr, joined our team on the prison project).  So, just a couple days ago, I learned from Megan that, in the wake of the National Plea Bargaining Conference (described below), the justice for whom she worked in Mbale just completed a large group of plea bargained cases this week.

Confidence is growing and implementation is scaling up in my beloved adopted country, and I could not be more proud of my Ugandan friends and colleagues.

What follows is a relatively quick overview of our third week in Uganda, which revolved around two national conferences.

After a Saturday evening BBQ (the goat in Uganda is to die for (sorry Shelby)), we left for Kampala on Sunday morning, but not without two important stops.

Hugely valuable logistics helper Avery Wood and her souvenir panga

Hugely valuable logistics helper Avery Wood and her souvenir pangas

The first was nominally to drop Henry off back at his medical school so he could complete his final week of exams after joining us for the weekend.  The bigger purpose for this stop, however, was for us to meet his NEW GIRLFRIEND!

Henry and his new girlfriend

Lillian is from Kampala and is in her third year of nursing school, also at KIU with Henry.  We mobbed her with hugs and questions before returning to our buses and cars to continue back to Kampala.

Our second stop was at the Mbarara Prison where we had spent the prior Wednesday and Thursday.  After presenting the prisoners in Bushenyi with a cow and three goats to eat, we thought it only fair to do the same for these prisoners.  They were immensely grateful, but, unlike those in Bushenyi, they didn’t insist that we initiate the butchering process ourselves.

Eight hours later, we arrived back in Kampala.  Joline, Aaron, Austin, Brian, Jon, and Avery took quick showers and then headed to the airport to return home, as Mike, Brad, Darren, Jenna, and I began preparing for Tuesday’s national plea bargaining conference we were co-hosting with IJM.  We spent Monday finalizing the conference program (incorporating what we had observed the prior week about challenges Uganda still faced in plea bargaining) and meeting with Ugandan prosecutors to help them better understand the plea bargaining process.

As is unavoidable in Uganda, the conference started nearly an hour late on Tuesday with numerous speeches, including by the Deputy Chief Justice and by me.  I kicked off the substantive part of the conference with an interactive fifteen-question quiz on their own rules, and then we moved into two sessions on special issues encountered in plea bargaining.  IJM’s Gulu Field Office Director Will Lathrop led a session on land grabbing (huge problem in Uganda), and Los Angeles Public Defender Brad Siegel led a session on juvenile justice.

The highlight of last year’s first national plea bargaining conference had been a re-enactment of the plea bargaining process, so we spent about ninety minutes doing a similar presentation this year.  Kirkland & Ellis associate Darren Gardner played the juvenile defendant, who was accused of engaging in land grabbing with the aid of a panga (machete).  Brad Siegel played his lawyer, while Will Lathrop played the prosecutor.  Utah Judge Mike DiReda donned the Ugandan wig and technicolor robe to play the judge.  Pepperdine Law student (and theater major in college) Jenna King played the aggrieved victim.  Over the course of six scenes, which I narrated, we walked the Ugandans through the first client meeting up through sentencing.  Once again, this was the highlight of the conference.


Catherine Price, Missy Griffin, Andrew Khaukha, Saba Ahmed, Judge Mike DiReda, Brad Siegel, and Will Lathrop

Jim and Andrew -- brothers from other mothers

Jim and Andrew — brothers from other mothers

Will and Jenna re-enacting the victim interview

Will and Jenna re-enacting the victim interview

After lunch, we divided the hundred-plus attendees into groups of four – one defendant, one defense lawyer, one prosecutor, and one judge in each group.  We provided all four with a one page list of the allegations, and gave the defendant an additional page of facts.  We then dismissed the defendant (played by prison officials) and the defense lawyer for an initial interview to see how much of the additional facts the defense lawyer could elicit through questioning of the defendants – a huge challenge in Uganda is the lack of personal engagement and investment in the criminal justice system by the defense lawyer, so we were doing our best to help reprogram this shortcoming.

While the defendant and defense lawyer were meeting at separate tables in the ballroom, Judge DiReda took the judges and prosecutors through his typical process of taking pleas in the wake of completed plea agreements, helping them streamline the process – some of the judges had been taking nearly an hour with each plea bargained case, rather than the five-ten minutes that is actually necessary.  During this session, we singled out for special recognition, Justice Batema, who had, over the course of three days, taken nearly one hundred pleas in cases we had completed the prior week.  A national newspaper in attendance ran a story about him and our work the following day.

A little while later, we dismissed the prosecutors to their respective groups to see if they could negotiate a deal, and then subsequently sent the judges to the groups to take the plea.  We closed the conference with a lengthy discussion about how this process went (quite well) and to answer whatever questions arose.  As is customary in Uganda, we held an awards ceremony at the end during which each participant received a certificate memorializing the eight hours of training received at the conference.  We also surprised the Principal Judge, Dr. Yorokamu Bamwine, by naming him Pepperdine Global Justice Program’s Person of the Year for his vision and leadership in implementing plea bargaining.  We presented him with a beautifully engraved crystal plaque to commemorate the process.

That night, Mike, Brad, and Darren flew home.  (After Mike returned home, a large Utah newspaper ran a nice story about his involvement in our program).  The following morning, we kicked off the final aspect of our three-week trip.

Two years ago, we brought a contingent of Ugandan judges to Pasadena to meet with judges at the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  During that visit, the Ugandans were introduced to a new concept called appellate mediation.  This process uses mediators to try to assist the party appealing an adverse verdict to reach an out-of-court settlement with the prevailing party in the trial court, rendering moot the pending appeal.  This doesn’t work for all cases (not applicable in the criminal realm), but it is effective at reducing the number of cases that go for a hearing before the court of appeals.  This visit intrigued the Ugandans, and Justice Kiryabwire (very involved in the Pepperdine/Uganda relationship) commissioned two of our interns to write a feasibility study.  The following year, Ninth Circuit Judge Clifford Wallace and Ninth Circuit Mediator Claudia Bernard traveled to Uganda separately and prepared recommendation reports.

This all culminated in a two-day training session hosted by Pepperdine and led by Ninth Circuit Mediator Peter Sherwood.  The vast majority of the Ugandan Supreme Court and Court of Appeals attended the training program, as did numerous court officials and a few private lawyers.  After two days of theorizing and role playing, the room was unanimous – Uganda was going to take a shot at reducing the huge backlog in appellate cases, which has resulted in a five to six year delay between filing the appeal and receiving a ruling.

Certificate Ceremony end of appellate mediation training program

Certificate Ceremony end of appellate mediation training program (Deputy Chief Justice Kavuma, Justice Wangutusi, Peter Sherwood, Justice K)

I had experienced that myself in Henry’s case – we filed the appeal in the summer of 2010 and received a ruling in the summer of 2015.

Even as I write this post, the Ugandan Court of Appeals, under the leadership of Justice K, is in the midst of a pilot appellate mediation program!

One final note – I received word from Henry today that he passed all three portions of his final exams – written, practical, and oral.  Of the 500 who started the program two years ago, only 175 remain.  In September, Henry begins his third year, which will allow him to start interacting with actual patients.

Reaching the Goal

Because the opening ceremony had occurred in Bushenyi prison the day before while most of our team was in Mbarara, and because the prosecutors and many of the defense lawyers from Mbarara traveled the sixty minutes to Bushenyi the next day to keep the momentum moving, our final prison project day hit full stride right out of the blocks.

And it was a good thing.  Bushenyi’s prison population is just under nine hundred, fifty of whom are civil debtors and six hundred of whom are “on remand” – arrested and just waiting for a lawyer and a trial date.  Many have been on remand for five years, just waiting for someone to do something.  (Before plea bargaining got started two years ago, many were waiting seven years on remand – lots of work still to do, but progress is being made).  As we walked in, well over a hundred prisoners crowded in toward us, hoping and praying their names would be called.

When the prosecutors arrived at around 8:45, we quickly distributed among the seven teams the thirty-five files they had brought with them.  By 9:15, we had a Ugandan lawyer for each team and things were rolling.  Over the course of the day, a driver repeatedly returned to the prosecution’s office to retrieve more files, as we devoured each new batch.

All of our American lawyers were fantastic and led their teams ably.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two in particular, however.  Utah trial Judge Mike DiReda (my law school classmate) and Los Angeles Public Defender Brad Siegel brought with them a wealth of plea bargaining experience, and, over the course of these ten days, substantially improved the country’s understanding of the practical aspects of criminal case preparation and plea bargaining.  Not only did they provide hands-on training for the thirty-five prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges with whom we interacted during the prison project, but (as will be discussed in a subsequent post), they helped lead the Second Annual National Plea Bargaining Conference attended by more than one hundred top judicial and legislative officials.

At one point during last Friday’s work in Bushenyi, an inmate assigned to one of the teams told them he wanted to plead guilty even though he wasn’t guilty and even though the court file contained no substantive evidence against him.  He had been on remand for four years and had no confidence that his case would ever be called for trial.  I had remembered hearing the prosecutor the day before mention that a group of cases were going to court on July 15th.  A few follow-up questions later, we learned that this prisoner was on the list.  When he was informed of his impending trial date, he was overcome with emotion, and gratefully withdrew from the program.

Nine hours after we arrived, our team had reached agreements in fifty-six of the sixty-four files we had been given.  In fact, Mike DiReda’s team reached an agreement for an inmate who hadn’t even signed up for plea bargaining.  This happened when one of two co-defendants reached an agreement and informed the team that his co-defendant was also in the prison.  Mike asked if he could speak to the co-defendant, and twenty minutes later, the co-defendant had also happily reached an agreement on his case.

Those of you who have read my recent book, Divine Collision: An African Boy, an American Lawyer, and their Remarkable Battle for Freedom, might remember that Henry is in medical school in Bushenyi – the western Uganda town containing the final prison on our summer program.  Providentially, the prison project week coincided with Henry’s second of three final exam weeks as he completes his second year of medical school.  After his last exam of the week concluded at around 3:00 p.m. on Friday, he made his way to the Bushenyi prison.  Having a large group of Uganda Christian University students on our team made it somewhat easy for me to get Henry into to the prison by simply declaring that he is a student who is on our team.  False?  No.  Misleading?  Of course.  Sue me.

Joline hugged him like a son she hadn’t seen in four months, and our students – most of whom got to know Henry during his six-week trip to the United States earlier this year – mobbed him like he was a pop star.  We had initially hoped to insert him into one of the groups to serve as an interpreter, but he wasn’t fully confident in his ability to accurately translate the local language spoken by most prisoners – he is still mastering this, his eighth language.  For me, I can speak English reasonably well and can order with moderate precision off of a Taco Bell menu.  That’s the extent of my language skills.

As the 4:30 p.m. lock-up time approached, we convinced the warden to extend the deadline by two hours as we were still making excellent progress.  By 5:45, we reached the end of the files the prosecutors had been able to locate, and yet there were still nearly a hundred inmates who still wanted in.  Once again, promises were made (and subsequently kept) to the prisoners that the Ugandan lawyers would return and resume where our teams had left off.

This left only two things to do.  The first . . . was a USA vs. Uganda soccer match.

Earlier in the day, Andrew (my Ugandan counterpart), the prison warden, and I conspired on how we would end the team’s week of tireless work.  I conscripted Joline into the plot, and she went around to each group covertly recording what she guessed were the team members’ jersey sizes.  I sent one of our drivers off to track down four new soccer balls, and purchased a beautifully woven trophy/cup made by one of the inmates.  For his part, the warden sent a couple guards to buy a cow and three goats.

Somehow, word of the impending soccer match leaked to the inmates who ringed the makeshift playing field at 6:00 and waited anxiously for us to join them.  As our team members changed into shorts and donned the Ugandan Cranes jerseys Andrew had acquired for them, the excitement swelled.  When the respective players lined up at mid-field to shake hands, Team USA consisted of attorneys Aaron Echols, Austin Watkins, Darren Gardner, and Mike DiReda, Global Justice Program Manager (and all-around prison project MVP) Jenna DeWalt, and students Greg Lewis, Matthew Chung, and Megan Pepper.

Even though the Ugandans were the home team, they graciously ceded the decidedly downhill slope to the visiting Americans.  They also generously agreed to allow us to wear shoes while they played bare-footed (only a few of them even have shoes).  Just before kickoff, I yelled to the assembled masses that the match would last about fifteen minutes, with the winning team being awarded the prized cup I held high.  The warden translated.  The crowd roared.  The whistle blew.  The game started.

About a minute in, a full volley from a Ugandan midfielder struck Aaron full in the face.  Such a blow would have killed a lesser man, but Aaron brushed it off like a lazy jab from a drowsy fourth-grade girl.  A minute later, Austin tangled with a Ugandan striker and spilled headlong onto the hard red dirt like Michael Phelps entering an Olympic pool.  His knee opened up like a Wal-Mart at 6:00 a.m. on Black Friday.  Not to be deterred, Austin staunched said bleeding with a handful of said dirt and soldiered on.

Clearly sensing both soccer talent and prison project value, the already boisterous crowd punished their vocal cords every time Jenna DeWalt got the ball, which was quite often.

Defenses held strong and neither side seriously threatened to score for the first eight minutes.  Then it happened.

Judge Mike DiReda, who, even at the tender age of “fitty,” knows his way around a soccer pitch, beat the left fullback on the outside and bore down on the keeper from the keeper’s right.  Rather than taking a shot from a sharp angle, Mike crossed the ball to a streaking Darren Gardner (half Mike’s age) who punched the brand new ball between the aging posts into an invisible net.  The goal instantly spiked the decibel level to that of an Ozzy Osbourne concert the moment he bit the head off a rat.  The Ugandans were more excited than we were.

The last few minutes witnessed several shots on our goal, but Greg Lewis defended our net as if he were the secret love child of Hope Solo and Jim Craig.  When the final three whistles trilled, the thrilled crowd rushed the field to congratulate the gladiators on both teams.  Before I awarded the cup to Team USA, I allowed the keepers to swap jerseys.

Keeper Shirt Swap

Keeper Shirt Swap


Shirt Swap 2

Greg will forever treasure the fraying, formerly white tank top he received.  (Greg gave the Ugandan keeper a Pepperdine law shirt, which will serve as an enduring reminder to the inmates from whence we came).

After the crowd noise died down a bit, I previewed the final event of the day while the warden translated.

“We are grateful to you for allowing us to come and visit you here at the Bushenyi Prison.  We thank you for your sportsmanship in the soccer match.  We pray that your cases will move forward quickly and that you will be reunited with your families soon.  Even though we were awarded the cup, we would like to award you the prize.”

I turned and pointed to the large cow and three goats tied to a tree about thirty yards beyond the field and continued.  “Our team of lawyers and students gathered money together and bought for the men’s prison a cow, and for the women’s prison, three goats.  We will slaughter them now and you will have meat tomorrow.”

Standing ovation.

We had previously been told that the prisoners would be honored if we were the ones to usher our animal gifts into the great beyond.  I briefly considered wielding the panga (machete) myself, but thought better of it when I realized that the butchery would be forever memorialized on the interweb.  Two of our lawyer members stepped into the gap – Darren Gardener and Austin Watkins.  Two of our students had initially also volunteered, but one backed out in deference to his animal-loving girlfriend (good call, “Ricky”), and the other got squeamish once he witnessed Darren kneel next to the pinned down bovine and open up its tonsils to ready inspection, which, in turn, unleashed a crimson firehose that sprayed the shins and shoes of those within a twenty-meter radius.

When Darren finished with Bessie and stood to face the assembled onlookers, one could not be blamed for flashing back to any of the recent slasher films – he was straight out of central casting.  Blood misted his face, stained his shirt, flowed down his arm, and dripped from his panga.

I will spare you the details of how Bayou Austin transformed a bleating goat into a bleeding goat.  Suffice it to say that this wasn’t Austin’s first rodeo.  And since Darren was already stained by his new profession, he dispatched the other two goats with quick precision.  Within moments, a team of prisoners had assembled to begin the process of transforming cute and cuddly into nutritious and tasty, something the prisoners only otherwise get on Christmas.  (Several of our team members were befuddled by the scene of a dozen inmates charged with murder, aggravated robbery, and other serious crimes wielding razor sharp machetes in the presence of other inmates, guards, and guests.  None of us felt even a little bit afraid.  This would NEVER be the case in the United States).

After a quick plea bargaining session with the warden, I secured the offending panga as a souvenir for Darren, as you can see prominently displayed in the team photo below.

Team USA

Prison Project Week, Team 3 (Austin, Missy, DT, and Ugandan students)

Prison Project Week, Team 3 (Austin, Missy, DT, and Ugandan students)

While we were gratified to provide the inmates with a memorable day and a free meal, our prayer is that our efforts will free them from both their physical bondage in prison, and from their spiritual bondage as those whose poor choices landed them in prison seek forgiveness from their victims, from their Creator, and from themselves.

Bushenyi Team Photo (with cup)

Bushenyi Team Photo (with cup)

With week two of our three-week trip in the books, we turned our attention to an enjoyable weekend of appreciating the beauty and majesty of God’s creation in Africa.

Kicking off safari (Matthew, Megan, Henry, DT, Saba)

Kicking off safari (Matthew, Megan, Henry, DT, Saba)

Safari Elephants from our rickety boat

Safari Elephants from our rickety boat

Lion Around . . . (that was bad)

Lion Around . . . (that was bad)

A mom and her adopted son

A mom and her “adopted” son

A report on the final, conference-filled week will be coming soon.

Silent Lucidity

Déjà vu enveloped our team on Wednesday morning during last week’s prison project, as we started the day’s activities in plastic chairs under portable tents once again.  This time, though, we were in Mbarara rather than Fort Portal.  After gathering into our seven teams and beginning the process of interviewing the assembled inmates in a prison designed to hold 350 prisoners, but which housed over 1,200, we paused at around 9:45 a.m. for the opening ceremonies.  One of our students covertly distributed a sign-up sheet where we all placed 1,000 shillings (30 cents) into the betting pool on when the ceremony would end.  I went with 11:15.  I lost.  Badly.

Once again, there were several speeches, including one from me.  This time, however, I remembered to introduce my lovely wife.  After an inmate choir performance, the reading of an inmate grievance letter, and a few other speeches, the Principal Judge took the microphone.  Fifteen minutes later something really bad happened.

Before I tell you what tragedy befell the ceremony, let me tell you what I ate for breakfast that morning.  I started with two eggs, a sausage, and some pineapple.  My mistake was then taking a piece of toast and slathering onto it a thick layer of narcolepsy.  At least that’s what it must have been.

As the Principal Judge delved into his speech, I slipped through Queensryche’s door into silent lucidity, drifting in and out of consciousness with the frequency of a hyperactive metronome; I could have easily been mistaken for a life-size bobble-head doll.

At least I was on the third row and shielded from the view of the 1,200 prisoners and others in front of me.

Oh, wait.

I was actually on the front row, wasn’t I?  Yep, just a few feet from the third-ranking judicial officer in the country.  How could it get any worse?

Two words.  Jimmy legs (aka Periodic Limb Movement Disorder).

In an effort to fight off Mr. Sandman, I pinched my wrist, stabbed my palm with my thumbnail, fiddled with my shoes, and constantly adjusted my posture.  All of this left me about as effective at fighting off sleep as if I had eaten a fistful of Ambien thirty-seven minutes earlier.  At one point, I decided to cross my legs at the knee because my ten knee surgeries (yes, ten) has left them a little, shall we say, sensitive to pressure.  Didn’t help at all.

As I once again skateboarded down a steep ramp into a magic new dimension, Jimmy popped in for a surprise visit.  Like an auditioning Rockette, I nearly pulled a hamstring as I catapulted back into consciousness.  Thinking quickly, I made an exaggerated show of re-crossing my legs rather deliberately in a vain attempt to make it appear that I always kicked my legs when I crossed them.  I fooled exactly no one.

Seated directly behind me, Joline was doing her best to keep me from embarrassing myself (and her) by jack-hammering me in the back and neck, and gave me what can generously be called a smack after my kickboxing display.

Mercifully, the speechifying ended at 12:45.

We spent the rest of the day in our seven groups (American lawyer, Ugandan lawyer, two American law students, two Ugandan law students, and a prisoner).  The success rate mirrored the first day in Fort Portal – the process of explaining this new plea bargaining system to a new set of defense lawyers and prosecutors is laborious and time consuming, yet well worth it.

Team Photo at Mbarara Prison

That evening, a few of us joined the Principal Judge at his nearby ancestral home for an hour of reflection and strategizing on the next steps for plea bargaining.  On the two-hour drive back to the safari lodge, Andrew (Ugandan project manager) received a call.

“Yes, my Lord.  Thank you, my Lord.  That is very good, my Lord,” was all we could hear before Andrew hung up.

“That was Judge Batema, the resident High Court judge in Fort Portal,” Andrew reported.  “He took forty pleas today and entered sentences on them.  The prisoners met the team on Monday, reached plea agreements on Tuesday, and received their sentences on Wednesday.  Nothing like this has ever happened in this country.”

Needless to say, we were quite pleased.  Over the course of the next two days, Justice Batema took pleas from another fifty.

The team left before dawn on Thursday morning and returned to Mbarara for the second day at that prison.  As was the case in Fort Portal, the second day was much more productive as the local lawyers got the hang of things and as the prisoners developed trust in the seemingly foreign process unfolding before them.  Because we were moving to the Bushenyi prison for Friday, Andrew and I separated from the group and accompanied the Principal Judge to that prison for the opening ceremony.  Fortunately, I managed to mostly fight off the sleep demons during this re-run of Wednesday’s events.

There is no such thing as fast food in Uganda, particularly outside of Kampala.  So as we travel around the country on the prison project, we bring with us our own cooking team.  Each morning, they set up their makeshift kitchen outside the prison to cook two kinds of rice, beans, matooke (cardboard flavored banana-type thing that is boiled and mashed), gonja (plantains), chapatti (flat bread), and ground nut sauce (made from grinding and boiling small nuts), chicken, and beef.  At around 1:30 p.m., they set up buffet tables under the tents so we can eat quickly and resume work.  When Andrew and I finally made it back to Mbarara, the team was just finishing lunch.

As the afternoon wore on, the crowd of prisoners waiting to have their cases added to the program swelled.  With the help of a prison guard, we prepared a list exceeding 100 of those we didn’t have time to meet with and left it with the Ugandan lawyers who promised to continue in our absence.  (We have since learned that this was largely done).

As we were working for two days under the shadow of soccer goalposts, it seemed only fitting to leave behind a few soccer balls.  I rarely have brilliant ideas, but lightning struck as the driver returned with the four balls I asked him to buy.  We hadn’t brought a change of clothing and didn’t have time for a full-scale soccer match, but we did have time for a penalty-kick sudden-death shootout – five alternating 10-meter penalty kicks for each side.

Suffice it to say that this idea was well received by the inmates and our team.  One of our students, Greg Lewis, was selected as our goalkeeper, and he blocked their first shot.  The crowd on our side erupted.  I took the first shot for our side.  Big mistake.  Not only has my thigh been throbbing for a week now since my attempt to pull my team into the lead, but the Ugandan keeper added insult to my substantial injury by batting my shot away like a hovering mosquito.

Back and forth we went with the keepers dominating the strikers.  The prisoners’ fourth shot snuck just inside the post, just under our diving (in his suit) keeper.

When the Ugandan keeper deflected the final shot by Austin Watkins, the prisoners erupted and started singing and dancing with the wooden cup we had secured from a local wood craftsman – a fitting end to two days of intense case preparation.  The Ugandan prisoners could use a bit more winning in their lives.

Tomorrow, I will report on Friday’s day at the prison, which included a visit from Henry, who is in medical school just a few miles from the prison.

Photo Processing

Uganda Prison Project 2016

Uganda Prison Project 2016

A picture is worth a thousand words, right? This one is worth more than that to me. I am still processing it, but when I see this photo, I remember the surreal week I just experienced in Uganda. Without this photo, it is hard to believe I was actually there. The day after I returned, my still-packed bags looked the same as the day I left. So I could pretty easily have been convinced that I never went. It only took me a day to physically unpack, but I am still mentally unpacking. I wanted to share this photo with my family and friends to help explain my experience. But now as I look at the photo, it seems to ask more questions than it answers. What’s with all the barbed wire? Why the Uganda soccer jerseys? Is that a trophy?

This photo was taken at the end of our last day of a week-long prison project. Our team of American lawyers and law students and Ugandan lawyers and law students, plus a couple of helpers like me, went into three different high security adult prisons to try to help speed up the justice process through plea bargaining. Over one hundred men and women who had been awaiting trial were interviewed. Many were able to receive their sentence, bringing them hope because now they know when they will be released. So that explains the barbed wire. What about the jerseys and trophy? These are from the “2016 Prison World Cup” that some of our team competed in against the prison soccer team. For many it was the highlight of the week! In the end, the final score was 1 – 0 and team USA received the trophy that had been made by the prisoners, and team Uganda received a cow and three goats that will provide a meat dinner to the prisoners who usually only have meat on Christmas day.

The highlight of my trip was getting to spend a week with Jim during his month in Uganda. I was glad I could come and help him in his work. My role was not defined until I arrived and figured out what was needed. I quickly became the den mother as the oldest woman on the team. My time was spent making copies of documents, organizing files, providing sunscreen and snacks, handing out toilet paper and hand sanitizer, giving hugs and tissues for the tears, bandaging boo-boos, and dispensing medication to those hit by the Africraps. I was happy to provide support to our hard-working team. Every now and then, I would look up from my make shift desk in the middle of the prison yard and realize that I was surrounded by over a thousand prisoners, some of whom were chopping wood with axes, but I had no fear. Until you walk into a Ugandan prison, this won’t make sense.

It was an emotional week of highs and lows, long work days and long car rides, and team bonding. When you are thrown into a week like this, you become fast friends. Whether I had known a member of the team for 25 years or five days, it felt like we had always known each other. I can’t imagine spending the week with any other group. I will forever be grateful for the experience.

Ugandan Wife?

Those who have spent any significant time in the developing world well understand the wide range of emotions Westerners experience when engaging deeply and personally with the local culture and citizenry.  Our student interns in Uganda this summer have developed a highly cathartic practice of gathering together over a meal nearly every day to share with each other the “highs” and “lows” of each day.

Last night, as our team of twenty-six reflected back upon the week-long, just-completed whirlwind through three adult high security prisons, we gathered in groups to share our “highs” and “lows” for the week.  Many tears were shed during this much-needed emotional exhale, but not nearly as many as were shed during the week.

When it came my turn to share, I started with my low for the week, which brings me back to last Sunday afternoon as the project metaphorically kicked its legs as it anxiously climbed into the starting blocks and waited for the clap of the starter’s pistol.  (My next blog post will provide a fitting bookend to the week with a description of my “high”).

My biggest concerns going into the prison project centered around (i) the availability of Ugandan lawyers to represent the prisoners, and (ii) the production by the prosecution of what Ugandans call “disclosures” – a copy of the evidence against the accused person from the court and police files.  Both of these critical ingredients for plea bargaining to be successful have been in short supply in prior projects, which is why I have been begging, pleading, and cajoling our Ugandan counterparts to ensure this advance work was done before we arrived.

On last Sunday afternoon, however, my morale was residing just a few meters north of the Mariana Trench.  After lunch, Joline and I accompanied Andrew Khaukha (project manager on the Ugandan side) to the Katojo Prison in Fort Portal for a pre-project scouting trip to ascertain (i) how many prisoners were interested in plea bargaining, and (ii) what type of facilities would be available to us.  We were heartened to learn that more than one hundred had registered to participate, but disheartened to discover that no public address system, chairs, tables, or tents had been secured for our work at the prison – this, even though the Chief Justice (top dog) and Principal Judge (third-ranking judicial officer in the country) would be traveling the four hours from Kampala to Fort Portal to ceremonially launch the week-long program.

That lack of preparation foreshadowed what quickly became my low for the week – we had no files waiting for us and only a couple Ugandan lawyers were confirmed for the next day.  This left me with a piercing sense of foreboding as I imagined having to tell the seven American lawyers who had paid handsomely for the privilege of devoting a week of their lives to trying to help a judicial system that struggled to help itself.

“Don’t worry, Prof, it will be fine.  Let me take care of it,” Andrew said on Sunday afternoon with orders of magnitude more confidence than I could even imagine at that point.

And yet, over the course of about three hours, Andrew had Harry Pottered into existence everything we lacked.  We rented four “hundred-person” tents and one hundred plastic chairs from a local hotel (they didn’t have any spare tables), and “hired” a reasonably effective PA system from a kid who met us at a gas station.

A handful of diplomatic calls to local lawyers produced a half-dozen promises to be at the prison at 8:30 the next morning, and a stern (though respectful) call to the lead prosecutor in the area led to him coming to our hotel that night during dinner.  While most of us ate, our “Secretariat” designed both electronic and paper systems to ensure that the thirty-five sets of disclosures were properly catalogued and evenly distributed to the seven teams that, by this time, consisted of (i) one American lawyer, (ii) two Pepperdine law students (one is actually a Baylor student who has joined our program for the summer), and (iii) two Uganda Christian University law students (we have been including UCU students in our prison projects for several years now).

Not only did the prosecutor deliver to us thirty-five photocopied files, but he also stayed and reviewed his copy of the files, and then wrote out initial plea offers for each of the thirty-five prisoners.  This would enable the teams to convey these offers to the prisoners during the interviews the next day.

For the next few hours, the teams reviewed and discussed the files in preparation for their work.

Austin Watkins  and team

Tennessee lawyer Austin Watkins, Missy, DT, and UCU students

LA Public Defender Brad Siegel, Cat, Jenna, and UCU student

LA Public Defender Brad Siegel, Cat, Jenna, and UCU student

Baylor Professor Brian Serr, Baylor student Megan Pepper, Mark, and UCU students

Baylor Professor Brian Serr, Baylor student Megan Pepper, Mark, and UCU students

Utah Judge Mike DiReda, Emily, Morgan, and UCU students

Utah Judge Mike DiReda, Emily, Morgan, and UCU students

We arrived at the prison just before 8:00 a.m. on Monday in an effort to get things started before the CJ and PJ arrived, along with their retinues and the press corps.  Our Nootbaar Fellow, Nicole Banister, is in Uganda for a year as a mediator in the Family Division of the High Court and is with us this week.  She and I (along with one of our students) were the only of our American team of twenty-six who had ever been in a prison in the developing world.  (Three years earlier, Nicole had been a student intern in Uganda during our first-ever prison project in an adult prison, which had actually taken place in this very prison).  Our team members’ wide eyes started to water a bit as the reality of the prison conditions bum rushed them.  As we walked in, the warden informed us that there were over 1,200 prisoners, even though the capacity was 318.

We were escorted into a concrete courtyard where all 1,200 prisoners were mingling with even wider eyes as the “mzungus” set up shop under the just-erected tents.  After we assembled into seven groups at around 8:30 (the agreed-upon starting time), we looked around in vain for the lawyers.  Though the ceremony was scheduled to commence at 9:00, no one besides us could be found.

This was completely expected, though, as a Ugandan event starting on time is a winged unicorn.  Not wanting to lose any time, we conscripted a guard to locate and sequester those prisoners for whom we had files so we could begin interviewing them.  By 8:45, we were rolling.

At around 9:30, local governmental figures began arriving, along with a few local lawyers, three of whom had participated in the project three years ago.  Fortunately, I recognized them, and they recognized me.  As they arrived, I briefed them on what we were doing and placed them into a group.

Finally, at around 10:00, the guests of honor, the press corps, and PA system arrived.  Fifteen minutes later, the speeches began.  Two hours later, they mercifully ended.  Among those speaking were CJ, PJ, me, the local mayor, the local High Court Judge, and a few others.  During his speech, CJ introduced his wife to thunderous applause from all present.

Soon thereafter, I spoke.  And yes, you guessed it – I completely forgot to even acknowledge my better half, much less ask her to stand to be recognized.  After I spoke, the emcee joked (in the local language) that I had been to Uganda so many times that I needed to get myself a Ugandan wife.  Everyone laughed heartily at this except, of course, Joline and me.

A few minutes later, the emcee called me and the CJ up to close the ceremony, telling me that CJ had some gifts he wanted to present to me.  These gifts were copies of the Ugandan constitution, the plea bargaining rules, and the sentencing guidelines – the tools we are using in this project.  After receiving these gifts, I seized the opportunity to seize the microphone to thank CJ and to take a shot at redemption.  “Thank you, My Lord,” I said because that’s how judges are addressed here, “we will use these tools as we assist the Ugandan advocates in delivering justice to these assembled prisoners.  For a moment, I feared you were going to present me with a Ugandan wife!  But my wife, Joline, is actually here with me, and I would like her to stand for recognition.”  I got the laugh and applause I sought from the crowd, and I think Joline will let me come home next week.

Phew.  Better late than never, right?

Eventually, six Ugandans advocates showed up, completing all but one of our groups.  In the afternoon, about five prosecutors arrived at the prison.  This allowed any group for which the prisoner accepted the plea offer – or who wanted to present a counteroffer – to move toward complete resolution right then and there.  In fact, about a dozen plea agreement forms were filled out, signed by the prisoner, signed by the Ugandan lawyer, and signed by the prosecutor.  All that remained was the taking of the plea in court, and sentencing by the judge in accordance with the plea agreement.  In Uganda, however, that last piece can take a really long time.

That night, several prosecutors, most of the Ugandan defense lawyers, and the local High Court judge joined us for dinner.  The prosecutors brought with them about fifty new files.  They hadn’t yet made photocopies, but they agreed to allow our teams to look directly at the original files – something that rarely happens – in order to allow the team members to prepare for the next day’s interviews.  This case preparation continued late into the night.

The next day, a crowd of prisoners who had been skeptical of plea bargaining assembled and asked to be added to the program.  There were over a hundred of them.

Case preparation continued in earnest until about 2:30, when we had to wrap things up and get on the road to our next destination.  At one point, I looked around and saw about seven hundred prisoners watching us from within a thirty-yard radius.  Not a single guard was around, yet we didn’t feel even a modicum of fear to be unprotected so close to so many accused of murder, rape, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, etc.

When the dust settled, the teams had completed settlement agreements on close to seventy cases.  While the American members of our teams were quite pleased with these individual outcomes, I was elated that the Ugandans (prisoners, prison officials, prosecutors, and defense lawyers) all seemed to understand the process and pledged to continue without us after we left.

Just after nightfall, we arrived at a safari lodge on the lip of Queen Elizabeth National Park, which is where we would be spending the next five nights.  Unfortunately, however, we weren’t able to enjoy the stunning view of the Park for several more days, as we routinely left before sunrise and returned after sunset.

More in a day or two.

Lemon Chicken and Chocolate Chip Cookies

I’m a really slow eater, and I’ve always been that way. Especially when I don’t like whatever food I’m eating. From about age 5 to 10, I would often be the last person at the table; the rest of my family would rinse their dishes and then go do something else. Sometimes my mom would stay with me, but usually there was something else she needed to do. This didn’t really bother me—it often worked to my advantage.

One night, we were eating lemon chicken, and I thought it was the grossest thing my parents could have possibly fed me. I knew that if I poked at it for long enough, they would all leave and eventually one of my parents would come back and say “well, at least you tried it” and my dad would finish it for me. That night, however, there was something riding on that lemon chicken. My dad bought chocolate chip cookies from Mrs. Fields that day, and I was only allowed to eat one if I ate all of my chicken. In all fairness, my parents probably gave me the smallest piece of chicken they could to still make sure I was getting enough protein. However, the chicken seemed like an insurmountable obstacle at the time.

So, being the devious 6-ish year old I was, I waited until everyone had left the table, wrapped the chicken in a paper towel, and plopped it in the trashcan to hide the evidence of my crime. Soon after—just like every night we ate something I didn’t like—my dad came to check on me. Now I’d have to ask my dad about this, because I’m not sure if he somehow saw what I’d done from the other room, knew I might try something like this, or if I was nervously glancing in the trashcan’s direction, but he knew what I had done. He asked me I’d eaten my chicken, and I said I had, likely almost in tears at this point from the guilt. I’ve never liked lying, especially to my parents.

Yet I had attempted to deceive them because I really wanted a cookie. I’m still not quite sure why, but I remember my dad laughing a little bit at this point. I was so scared of being punished that the cookie no longer mattered nearly as much as the prospect of getting in trouble. Then, my dad surprised me. He gave me a cookie anyway, even though I’d lied and tried to hide what I had done. Yes, he was disappointed and I was strongly advised to not do it again, but he didn’t hold it against me. I tell you all this not simply just to make your laugh, though this is humorous—there’s a deeper message.

I see this as comparable to God’s grace. Sometimes, there’s something going on in our lives that we’d rather not confront. This could be a temptation, resentment towards someone, or a lifestyle you’re living. Instead of speaking about it with a mentor or bringing before God so He can help us metaphorically cut it up and teach us how to overcome it a piece at a time, we like to hide things. We wrap them up and put them in the trash so we can pretend there’s nothing wrong in our lives. Unfortunately, pretending a fire isn’t burning doesn’t make it go out. As much as I wanted to believe the chicken had disappeared and that I deserved the cookie, it was still there. It had to put out in the open in order for my dad to teach me a lesson from it and for me to move past it.

I am by no means trying to stay that my chicken sin is anywhere as painful to uncover as some of the things others, including those who are reading this, are dealing with. I know that many sins are buried so deep under metaphorical paper towels that it may seem impossible to dredge them up. But look to my dad’s reaction as an indication of how the Father will respond. Yes, we’ve messed up and the Lord won’t be overjoyed about it, but that does not mean He loves us any less! Remember, “the Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Psalm 103:8).

We try to deceive ourselves, others, and God because we want to appear like we have it all together from the outside. I wanted to deserve that cookie as much as my siblings who ate their chicken did. Often we are afraid we won’t be worthy of Christ’s love anymore if we are open about our struggles. In reality, no one is worthy of God’s love! I’m sure my siblings didn’t think I should be allowed to have a cookie since I didn’t finish my chicken. In the same way, we can be quick to judge our brothers and sisters for their sins. We too often forget that “all have sinned at fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Grace is not based on how many mistakes we make but rather how many times we fall at the feet of Jesus, truly penitent, and recognize that we are in need of His forgiveness. I firmly believe that His grace is available to all who seek it.

I think that my dad may have laughed at me because of how foolish I was to think that he wouldn’t realize what I had done. If God laughs at us, it’s never out of malicious intent but lightheartedly because we thought we would be able to hide something from an omniscient God who knit us together in our mother’s wombs (Psalm 139). God loves all of His children, no matter how often we disobey him and get caught up in sin. Like David did, we are invited to come before God and pray “create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit in me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me” (Psalm 5:10-12).

Lastly, we are called to be in community with one another and bear each other’s burdens. I believe that no one is too “spiritually mature” to seek out a mentor who will hold him/her accountable and walk alongside him/her through life. I know this metaphor doesn’t match up perfectly, but I hope it helps you to see the magnitude of God’s grace and the value in bringing your sins before Him to ask for forgiveness.