African cultures and traditions

Ugandan court puts widow's rights ahead of cultural practices

In a judgment that strikes a blow for women’s equality in the face of strong cultural practices, the Ugandan high court has ordered that a widow may decide where her deceased husband may be buried. This despite the wishes of the man’s family, who wanted him laid in an ancestral burial ground and who wanted the woman to be barred from in any way ‘interfering’ with the burial. Before making its decision, the court asked for expert witnesses to provide evidence about the burial traditions of the Ndiga clan.

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At the centre of this court dispute is a family divided over where Christopher Kyobe, who died of Covid in Switzerland during October, should be buried.

His wife of 28 years – they married in Uganda in 1993 – brought his body back from Switzerland where they had lived, because she said he had told her that he wished to be buried at his matrimonial home in Mukono.

A women’s month win in Kenya – court finds ban on female genital mutilation constitutional

Since 2011 female genital mutilation has been illegal in Kenya – though too late for the 21 percent of girls and women in that country, aged between 15 and 49, estimated to have undergone the practice already. Though the ban was widely welcomed, and was introduced to the National Assembly as the brainchild of the cross-party Kenya Women’s Parliamentary Association, it has not been accepted by everyone. In fact, some traditionalists feel so strongly about it that they have gone to court with a claim that the law banning FGM is unconstitutional.

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At first a reader may think that the judgment in this case is some kind of practical joke. How can it possibly be, as the judges’ first lines say, that the applicant in a case testing the constitutionality of Kenya’s ban on female genital mutilation (FGM) is a ‘Dr Tatu Kamua … a medical doctor’?

Citing outdated colonial attitudes, Zambia's Con Court dumps laws on chiefs

Contemporary Zambian laws allowing the President to regulate traditional chiefly appointments have been declared unconstitutional. The laws, based on colonial-era ordinances, were tested when a prominent traditional leader disputed the President’s power to legitimise a chief’s appointment through ‘recognition’. The court found that these presidential powers infringed the amended constitution saying ‘no law’ could allow anyone the right to ‘recognise or withdraw the recognition of a chief’.

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Is it possible for the institution of chieftaincy and its associated traditions to fit comfortably under a system of democratic constitutionalism? Many African countries are working out how the two can coexist. One of the most recent examples comes from Zambia where three judges of the constitutional court have just had to resolve something of a conundrum.

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