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“Many took up arms because of the injustices they suffered”

An interview with Daniel Sesay

Daniel Sesay began working as a paralegal when he joined Timap for Justice following his involvement with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the early 2000’s.  He is now a Program Officer with Namati-Sierra Leone.  Daniel is playing a leading role in the national scale-up of paralegal activities across the country, training community paralegals and providing technical advice to a range of organizations doing legal empowerment work.

“MY PASSION for working for a paralegal organization is based on my work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, because a good number of those ex-fighters that we interviewed said they took up arms because of injustices suffered in the hands of traditional leaders, court officers, and other people.  I was very excited to join Timap as a community-based paralegal, to be working for an organization that was addressing the causes of the war.

I will take you back to where I started working.  That is really my native home, where I was born.

I worked in the northern part of Sierra Leone where women were seen like that kind of pushed aside category of status. In the north, women are not encouraged to be chiefs.

And in this part of the country the chiefs were very powerful.  Everything will be the chief, everything will be the chief, everything will be the chief.

All the cases taken to the chiefs, especially divorce cases, they would not allow that to happen.  In fact, the women who would take a complaint there would in turn be the person apologizing to the man–for something the man had done to them.

At the beginning we had a good number of cases.  Family cases affecting women, those cases you see as very small, but like the bread and butter people.

It was a huge challenge because the chiefs saw us to be rivals.  They saw these cases as a chance to get some money, but we were there to offer a free service to people.

It was a huge challenge because the chiefs saw us to be rivals.  They saw these cases as a chance to get some money, but we were there to offer a free service to people.

Women are not allowed to divorce in the customary setting. When the men go for divorce, it’s easy; but when the women go in for divorce, it’s not possible.  And there were a lot of forced or early marriages that were going around.  Children were taken from school, and given to men against their will.

Well, we were able to change that a lot. We had a huge campaign against early or forced marriage, and we started getting back these cases, these small girls from these marriages, and taking them back to school.

We were able to change that and make sure that the chief would send it to the appropriate local court, instead of the chief sitting on some of the cases.

That was a big change, in that the chiefs ended up understanding our role as paralegals.  Now the chiefs actually work with paralegals.  That’s a very huge change, with the paralegal office going to that community.

After two years there was need to have somebody who would supervise and I was promoted to position of Lead Paralegal, that means supervising the other paralegals.  It was a very big stretch, from some parts of the south to the extreme north of the country–and always we were supposed to do it on a motorbike.

Rain, no rain, I would be on the road.  And the roads!  After the war, the civil war, the roads in Sierra Leone were very bad and they were not at all bike-friendly.  You would have to ride through pools of water and at times you would have to get the bike on a canoe to cross over a river.

And all the time you would be on the phone, because other paralegals from other offices would want to get first time information, would want to get advice for a client sitting right in front of them.  So you had to stop at any time to give advice to these paralegals.

All the work we have been doing for the past years – I will say the past nine to ten years now – has been very informal, because paralegals were not recognized in any way.  We would go to the police stations and just by collaboration with the police, like quietly talking to them, that is how we were doing our work.

The court knows the paralegals are recognized now, and so do the police.  So we will have easier access to the court, to the police–and we will do our work without fear.

At that time it was very difficult, especially when the police are very bad police and corrupt police in our country.

About two months ago, after a lot of advocacy meetings and advocacy work, we finally got a legal aid act passed in Sierra Leone and this act actually recognized the work of paralegals.

I feel that this recognition of paralegals now is really going to be a very important thing.  It will make the paralegals do their work with some respect now–now that every sector of the community knows that the paralegals are actually recognized.

The court knows the paralegals are recognized now, and so do the police.  So we will have easier access to the court, to the police–and we will do our work without fear. And by that I mean we will be able to work in the courts, at the police, and in other places more effectively than before, and we will able to make people in the rural areas and other places actually access justice.

We are working now towards having a Legal Aid Board, a board that will regulate the activity of civil society organizations and also government agencies working on legal aid in the country.”

Daniel Sesay, as told to Bremen Donovan.

Read Daniel’s memoir of his first ten years as a paralegal in Sierra Leone.

 

Related Links:

Organization: Timap for Justice

Article: Timap for Justice Launches Community Paralegal Manual

Tool: Timap for Justice Community Paralegal Manual

Article: Sierra Leone Parliament Passes Landmark Legal Aid Law

Petition: Kampala Declaration on Community Paralegals

Article: Bringing Justice to Health Services: A Role for Community Paralegals

Namati Theme: Grassroots Legal Advocates

 

 

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