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How My Law Degree Took Me to Malawi

Tyler Holmes

How My Law Degree Took Me to Malawi
Marc Henrion via iStock

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Since the summer of 2011, almost every message I write to a prospective employer includes lines about how an experience in my current home shaped me on the eve of law school. I have rewritten the paragraphs several times, but no matter how hard I try, there seems to remain the cliché: that summer was life-changing.

The fall before—my last year of undergrad—two things happened: (1) I took a class in African history since the turn of the 20th century; and (2) on a political science listserv, I received an email encouraging people to apply for US State Department internships for the following summer. Seven or eight months later, I was in Malawi.

The “Warm Heart of Africa,” Malawi is one of the poorest but perhaps friendliest places on earth. My 2011 internship involved taking notes at meetings about a stagnating human rights environment, struggling economy, and the decriminalization of homosexuality (still on the books in 2019) with stakeholders and government leaders. I visited small grant application sites and tracked social media during fuel queues and deadly protests. Struck by the apparent need for change across so many sectors of society, I left wanting to work on issues affecting the continent.

During law school at the University of Kansas, I used that direction to complete a concentration on international trade, commerce, and investment with a keen interest in Africa as well as its trade relationships with China. In my last semester of law school, I served as an intern at the Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek, Namibia, where I co-wrote an op-ed about domestic violence, contributed to a project to produce the country’s first publicly available annotated statutes, and researched matters of international and comparative law.

But I did not know how to translate my interest and experience into work related to the continent. I worked a short stint in Shanghai. I temporarily delivered packages for UPS. I worked as a civil litigator in my hometown of Kansas City. In the last stop, I got some sea legs, tried some cases, and saved money. When my gig as a trial attorney ended, I made (and funded) my own fellowship at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) in Johannesburg. Working on constitutional issues at SALC reinvigorated and excited me; supporting strategic litigation around the region was dream-like.

Paid work came in the form of a full circle. Though I lost out on the first position I applied for with Irish Rule of Law, I was encouraged to apply again to be the programme lawyer seconded to the Malawi Police Service. Seven years after my cliché, I was back in Lilongwe and surprised about how much I remembered.

In my current role, I desk at the Victim Support Unit at Lilongwe Model Police Station. Though I do not report directly to the police service, I have an honorary role in its ranks, as the office and the many jokes about my status as a constable show. More than 300 times in my 16 months here, I have visited jail cells, which exist at almost every police formation in Malawi. These range from closets (rare) to the size of a New York City apartment (also rare), hold up to 25 disheveled, beltless, shoeless people at a time, and are often only lit by a barred window opening roughly one foot high and five feet wide across the top of the cell. The temperature fluctuations, the wounds, and the smells—especially the smells—will never leave me.

Each visit has a purpose. Almost all of them are with child protection officers, who are supposed to visit each day looking for children (those under 18) in custody. We look first in the custody logs and then in the cells, talking to kids (sometimes adults) about their cases and finding the investigating officers to ensure the child’s rights are being observed. If the child’s case is non-serious and therefore eligible for diversion, we advocate that the investigator release the child.

When not in the cells, I administer training on the proper treatment of child suspects and diversion with a facilitator team of child protection officers. The cell visits have lead to a data collection effort to show how policing is conducted systemically in Malawi and an effort to build communities of students and professionals to examine and probe the data for improved service delivery. I still write legal memos, too, reporting back to the police on issues of legal compliance.

The work can be grueling, despite its promise. Time off, travel, and therapy sessions are all important. The key is that there is promise: I hope to continue to practice in this area, but also to give others—possibly as a clinical fellow or professor someday—their Malawi cover-letter moment.