Family wrangles are no strange thing. It gets even worse for step brothers or sisters. But for Patricia Banda, a thorny relationship with her step-sister Gladys, it was just too much.
She recalls that bad blood flowing between them was getting out of hand and she feared something bad would come out of it someday
“We tried to take our case to the chief’s bwalo, but that only made matters worse. The chief was biased. Besides, the court was always crammed with people who were curious to hear our juicy story and mock us later. It was difficult to reconcile us,” asserts Banda, who hails from Likomba Village in T/A Machinjiri in Blantyre.
Things changed for the better last year, she says: “With the help of village mediators, we are now in good terms and all the problems we were facing have vanished.”
The magic village mediators, known among locals as amkhalapakati, is a concept devised by the Paralegal Services Institute (Pasi).
According to Watson Shuzi, a trainer of trainers under the village mediation programme (VMP), mediators help settle disputes before they are taken to the chief’s court or the formal justice sector.
According to Shuzi, 175 mediators were trained in Traditional Authorities (T/As) Mpemba and Machinjiri in Blantyre. When a conflict between two people ensues, they visit a mediator who calls another mediator so that they can hear the case and help accordingly.
In Banda’s case, it worked well for her and her sister.
“Unlike at the chief’s court, the mediation took place secretly. There was only me, my sister and the two mediators. They were impartial and unlike at the chief’s court, we paid nothing at all,” says Banda.
Shuzi says the mediators are trained to keep four cornerstones of confidentiality, impartiality, no judgment and volunteerism.
“They are not supposed to take sides. They have to keep the cases secret while at the same time passing no judgment and expecting nothing in return. All they do is facilitate dialogues to get to the cause of the dispute,” says Shuzi.
According to him, the system, which only looks at civil cases, has helped bring justice closer to the people as they do not have to go to a police station or court, some of which may require walking long distances.
“Prisons are congested because of cases that may have been resolved at the grass roots. Mediation can help reduce that congestion,” observes Shuzi.
A mediator, Bester Miliyoni from Nancholi in Blantyre, says secrecy is the basis of their work.
“When there is a case in the village, I hook up with a fellow mediator at Kubaluti. We know we are neither judges nor chiefs, but just exist to ease conflict and tension. We meet the conflicting parties at a neutral place, either at a church, school or an orphanage,” said Miliyoni.
The system, according to village head Chiimire, has eased their lives.
Visit village head Chiimire of Nancholi in Blantyre on a Wednesday afternoon, you will find her processing fertiliser she makes by mixing organic fertiliser with ashes, maize bran and other components.
As chances are high that most of her subjects will miss out on the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp), the fertiliser she has taught them to make will make life easier.
On the other hand, she muses over the court she has now constructed to hear deeper cases, and provide a venue for developmental meetings.
Before 2013, when VMP came into her village, if you visited Chiimire at 2pm you were likely to find her trying to resolve a case of one nature or the other. If not, you would find her trying to reconcile two women after a quarrel over who was first to be at village borehole.
“Such cases were taking much of my time. I could hear over 10 such trivial cases a day. Now that I have more time on my hands, I can concentrate on development. We have managed to construct a court and become more innovative in agricultural endeavours.
“Besides, we found time to organise a mock wedding, which helped us raise money for sinking of boreholes,” says Chiimire.
But is this not taking away chiefs’ powers?
“Not, at all. No chief can be promoted for hearing trivial matters. The mediators do not get anything for resolving cases as is the case at the chief’s bwalo. The mediators are not involved in resolving land disputes since it is only chiefs who know how land is demarcated,” says Chiimire.
A magistrate at Ntonda Court in Mpemba, John Nsomba, says he has referred some cases to mediators.
“Some disputes are better resolved in the village setting. As magistrates, at times we have lots of pressure and some of these civil cases take a lot of time so mediation helps,” says Nsomba.
According to Pasi paralegal coordinator Chimwemwe Ndalahoma, currently there are 1 120 village mediators in Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mchinji, Mangochi, Zomba, Salima and Mzimba. Each district has 50 villages and 150 mediators.
Ndalahoma believes the programme helps avert criminal offences rising from escalating conflicts. Such criminal acts can attract prison terms and protracted remand.
“The system is promoting settlement of conflicts outside the formal justice system, which otherwise would lead to prison. This community-based approach helps back-stop influx of petty offences which overburden courts and prisons,” says Ndalahoma.