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Barefoot project out to teach Ugandans the law

Gerald Abila, 30, has an opinion on everything.

The Domestic Relations bill, the ailing education system, the controversial homosexuality discourse… idea after idea streams out. He pauses in between. Sometimes simply staring in reflective silence, other times looking over the horizon to take in the beauty that the veranda of his Naguru fourth-floor office affords him.

The picturesque expanse interrupted only by the few shanty kiosks meant to serve the posh neighbourhood. The flow of Abila’s intelligent conversation slowed down momentarily by the occasional truck pulling its load along the road. It is from this mostly bare office that he hopes to change a nation that most Ugandans have simply left to the gods. It is also in this office that he hatched the BareFoot Law Project (BFLP).

BFLP community initiative is a result of a marriage between Abila’s passion and intelligence. It was not enough for Abila to graduate at the top of his law class at Kampala International University. Neither was it for him to simply shelve the Bachelor of Statistics degree he had earned prior.

“The future of law is in fusions,” he says. “It is not enough to be that lawyer who carries books around. It is time for every lawyer to get a smart phone and to repackage.”

Abila believes that with technology, it is possible for every Ugandan to know the law. Through the BFLP, he and his colleagues use the internet to offer free legal services. He coined the word legalnology at the inception of BareFoot, to describe the long-overdue link between the law and technology.

Only six months old and reaching over 23,000 people every week, BFLP is certainly an interesting initiative. It has presence on twitter, skype and Facebook and is working on setting up a website.

Their Facebook page is the busiest of the three platforms. Students, other professionals, ordinary men and women, post their questions on the wall or send them in as a text. Within two hours, a BFLP member – or someone else – will have answered whatever legal question.

“Sometimes they are important questions and everyone is interested. This has grown beyond what we envisaged,” he says.

When his father, an agriculture professor, first brought home a computer, way back in 1997, it laid a foundation for the pedestal on which Abila would place technology.

“It was really big and it covered the entire dining table,” Abila recalls. We all slept near the computer. We had to set up a timetable to avoid fighting over whose turn it was to use it.”

Fifteen years later, BFLP was borne out of a tiny ipad. Now, thanks to generous donors, the group boasts of three iPads that have boosted efficiency.

“I have never lived without a computer since,” Abila says, caressing one of the solar computers he believes carries the promise of taking the law to even those who do not have direct access to computers.

Abila admits that his non-traditional view has a lot to do with the fact that, with his IT knowledge, he does not have to rely entirely on the law for his livelihood. He can afford to share the gift of legal knowledge free of charge.

Also, he grew up in a family he describes as liberal. Breathing in the fresh breeze of an agricultural research centre where they lived, he says there is no better place to bring up a child.

“We were somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, yet there were no fences to cage us in. We developed free minds,” he says.

His assertion that almost everyone knows someone who has presence online takes you rather aback, considering that statistics indicate that only about 10 per cent of the population have access to the internet. However, Abila is confident that BFLP can and will reach the common person.

This, he says, is possible once one local leader is identified and given internet and a computer which he or she can use to communicate community members’ problems.

“Within six months, we want to be able to reach the community. Now we use ordinary community outreach but this (technology) is the future.”

While most lawyers thrive on hoarding the law in a bid to protect their source of livelihood, Abila insists that everyone needs to know the law because: “Ignorance of law is no defence, you know,” and, “the more you give, the more you learn.”

He says that Law Development Centre lecturers are some of the people he admires the most because they give their knowledge “almost for free.”

To Abila, technology carries the solution to the backlog that is almost grinding the justice system to a halt.

Some cases are decades old and some people have died while still on the waiting list. Abila points out that knowing the law makes life easier for both lawyers and lay people. But his dream is bigger than that of simply informing people about the law. He believes there will come a time when judges will be able to hear and decide simple cases through video calls.

“People do not have to wait for when the judges make their circuits,” he says. “Technology makes everything so much easier and cost-effective.”

His greatest hope is that other professionals take up the BFLP model and spread their knowledge to as many people as possible.


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