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Peter Leman

Singing the Law: Oral Jurisprudence and the Crisis of Colonial Modernity in East African Literature (Postcolonialism Across the Disciplines LUP)

Liverpool University Press, 2020

Singing the Law is about the legal lives and afterlives of oral cultures in East Africa, particularly as they appear within the pages of written literatures during the colonial and postcolonial periods. In examining these cultures, this book begins with an analysis of the cultural narratives of time and modernity that formed the foundations of British colonial law. Recognizing the contradictory nature of these narratives (i.e., both promoting and retreating from the Euro-centric ideal of temporal progress) enables us to make sense of the many representations of and experiments with non-linear, open-ended, and otherwise experimental temporalities that we find in works of East African literature that take colonial law as a subject or point of critique. Many of these works, furthermore, consciously adapt orature as an expressive form with legal authority. This affords them the capacity to challenge the narrative foundations of colonial law and its postcolonial residues and offer alternative models of temporality and modernity that give rise, in turn, to alternative forms of legality. East Africa’s “oral jurisprudence” ultimately has implications not only for our understanding of law and literature in colonial and postcolonial contexts, but more broadly for our understanding of how the global south has shaped modern law as we know and experience it today.

Review by Aaron Eastley at Faculty Book Lunch

This review was given in a powerpoint format. Below is some of the information it contained:

What I love about this book

  • The fantastic chapter titles, and the perfectly-chosen prefatory quotes
  • The dozens of insights about temporality in relation to colonialism
  • The notion of artists as law-makers and orature as normative wisdom
  • The depth of understanding gained about Kenya, Uganda, and Somalia
  • The in-depth analysis of key literary-legal moments: the Kyama compensation dispute in Out of Africa, the question of allowing audio testimony (and challenge of interpreting a curse) in the trial of Jomo Kenyatta, the timelessness of the traditional vs modernist cultural critique of p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino compared to the temporal limitations of Kony 2012, the ways that ‘emergency law’ was mustered to control land and labor in Ngugi’s Kenya (and the reappraisal of Mau Mau revolutionaries), insights into the impact of cassette tapes in Somalian society in the early 1970s, thoughts on the pessimism of these authors (or is it courage?)

Temporality and Tragedy

“The evolutionary model of progressive time allowed colonizers to divide the world temporally and move backward on a continuum from present to past by moving spatially from Europe to Africa.”

“The settlers who made indirect rule difficult to implement and who, like Dinesen, would later project the crisis onto Africans as a way of eliding the disruptive effects of colonial modernity, were themselves in a state of crisis. Many European settlers, particularly those of the upper class, witnessed their status in Europe being threatened by modern progress and, unable to adapt to such rapid changes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, saw Africa’s supposed otherness as a promising refuge.”

“Orature belonged to that part of African culture seen as pre-modern by colonialism, but by demonstrating orature’s vitality in the play—by bringing the past into the present in a tangible way—Ngugi and his co-authors disrupt colonial time; they shatter the barrier between formal and infinite time. Basically, they make a mess of time: they shatter, blast apart, and constellate the fragments of past, present, and future on a horizontal plane in such a way that will allow innovative ways of defining, or exploring definitions of, modernity that do not depend upon or take part in a discourse that opposes ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity.’”

“As much as we may desire an immediate solution to the immediate crisis, most problems of the kind Farah is interested in take time to resolve. Some myths and crises, like those of colonial modernity, are so deeply entrenched that many years must pass before their influence begins to wear away.”

“These texts are also about failure. The failure of justice in the face of superior power. The failure of action in the face of a world unwilling to change. But failure in these texts does not necessarily mean closure and surrender. Because all are formally open-ended, pausing narration or performance in ambiguity, they offer a question rather than an answer: what, if anything, can we do now?”