Judge Judy – Africa Edition

Do you recall my blog post of January 9th entitled “This land is your land, this land is my land“? Remember that slice of “surprise pie” that I keep being served? Well, the waitress (dressed as an officer of the court) brought me the entire “surprise pie” yesterday in the guise of a “Writ of Arrest”.

While loading soil for making blocks, an officer of the court drove up on a motorbike to issue an arrest warrant for Mr. Winston Dean (aka “Chief Dean” mentioned in prior posts) and anyone involved in the ongoing construction on the property (aka “Jon and his construction crew”). Apparently there is an ongoing court case regarding property boundaries and encroachment and the parties are being charged with “contempt”. They/We were to go to the courthouse in Gbarnga immediately and halt all building work. The officer attempted to take our contractor, Lavela, but I persuaded him that I hired him so I should go instead. Fortunately, James Woods was present at the work site at the time. James, Sumo, and I accompanied the officer to the Gbarnga Highway where we needed to flag down motorbikes to be transported to the courthouse (since they have no vehicles). I told him I wasn’t paying cab fare for a situation I (and Gbarnga Mission) were not involved with.

We arrived at the courthouse, met Mr. Dean and his associate, then filed into a room that reminded me more of a small claims mediation room. IMG_4797.JPGThe Judge entered as another court officer demanded we stand.  I was yelled at for having my hat on (the other officer reprimanded him for not being polite to me and said, “This is not war time! Be courteous to the man.“). The plaintiff parties were present as the Judge began discussing the issue at hand. Both parties claim to have professional surveys and legal deeds. The LCL purchased the land from Mr. Dean and I had a copy of the surveyor-stamped plot plan on my phone (thanks to a timely email from Pastor Schultz), which I shared with the Judge. There appears to be come embarrassment having us involved. As the courtroom deliberations wavered between benign and malignant, it was clear no progress would be made regarding the specific charges. These Africans can be extremely hot headed and I think embarrassment is their biggest personal affront- male ego at its finest. It was clear, nevertheless, that the disagreement was between two individual parties and the LCL, Gbarnga Lutheran Mission Project, and the school construction were not part of it but simply collateral damage being dragged into the land battle. The Judge allowed us to meet outside the courtroom to attempt some sort of mediation. This is where James was critical – the only calm voice of reason among the Liberians. He was an expert mediator, in my opinion. Although they did not come to an agreement, small bridges were built with the help of James. We met with the Judge again. Fortunately, he understood the school was a community development project with substantial outside investment benefiting Liberians and this outweighed any dispute. It was agreed to meet the next morning to try and work out an agreement that would allow the school construction to continue. Unfortunately, that meant work did need to cease (at least for one day).

After a flurry of emails to Bishop and other significant LCL stakeholders, I went to bed hoping this was some bad dream about a strange African soap opera that I was thrust into and I’d soon wake up in a cold sweat. Alas, I was not dreaming but surprisingly my sleep was sound except for the phone ringing at 3:30am as one of the leaders back at St. Paul’s called to discuss the situation with James.

This morning, James, Sumo and I met the parties to discuss a compromise. I was happy to see that Bishop had requested representation by a man named Yarpilu Sampson, a prominent Lutheran and businessman in Gbarnga (he owns the Passion Hotel where I’ve eaten and attended the Rotary Club meeting). He was an excellent mediator-calm, respectful, intelligent, and had a keen sense of the core concerns on both sides. After about an hour of mediation time outside the courtroom, we were called in to meet with the Judge once again. In a repeat performance from the previous day, the din of disagreement was deafening at times. Eventually, sanity ruled and the Judge even stated that if no final agreement could be made, the school project would continue and he would petition the government to take the land by eminent domain in order to keep this investment in the country’s school children intact. Our goal was to hear a compromise that allowed us to start work again. It sounded like both parties were amenable-I stood and asked the Judge to allow a “verbal agreement in his presence” so we could depart to get our contractor back to work (they wanted lawyers to write up an agreement to be notarized…who knows how long that could take!). He agreed, they said yes, and we were dismissed…I practically ran out of there to get the project moving forward again.

I called Lavela, Sumo contacted some of the block makers, and work began for an abbreviated afternoon shift.

The block makers are doing well. As you see in the photos, we have a large block yard developing after only a couple of days. The guys are working together and I love hearing them teach each other techniques for carrying the blocks, mixing the soil, or running the machine. (check out this YouTube video…WARNING: The machine is LOUD so turn down your volume first!  https://youtu.be/H3_skRO50dI) Meanwhile, two very cute daughters of Sando were hanging around under a tree where I was enjoying some shade. Giggling as they called me Uncle Jon, they wanted to be held and played with…the perfect remedy for a stressful morning in court! After all, that’s who I’m here for!


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