When a community unites against a giant…

Mbamba Bay

Paralegal Jacob Ngonyani, fourth left, who worked with Lundo villagers and successfully helped them win their right to the land celebrates with them in the rice fields they wrestled from the hands of a church organization that had reneged on a contractual agreement with the village on use of the farmland.

In numerous cases paralegals provide legal aid to individuals with very successful outcomes, in Lundo we have come across a situation, where the efforts of paralegals have led to a collective communal effort to accomplish a positive end.

The granite strewn hills around the shores of Lake Nyasa in southwestern Tanzania provide a backdrop to the remote village of Lundo. Here stories of crocodiles in the deep streams that meander around the rice fields can make the hairs on one’s back stand, however, tragic incidences are few and far between.

On a hot Sunday afternoon, we arrived at Lundo village, where our host, Jacob Ngonyani a local paralegal, welcomes us and introduces us to the group, who are some of the residents of the village.

Their story is one of triumph against a giant with more influence and deep pockets. Over twenty years ago, the Anglican Diocese of Ruvuma entered into an agreement with the village to hire 101 acres of its communal land to farm sugarcane and build a sugar factory.

This agreement remained favourable to the villagers until the point down the road, where the diocese figured out that its plan was no longer feasible, and opted to change the use of the land into a hire scheme.

Under this new direction, villagers who had anticipated employment opportunities and substantial loyalties to the village were suddenly being offered the same land for hire at an annual fee of Sh.75,000 that every farming individual was now required to pay to the diocese.

The local paralegal organization aware of the conflict, especially because it was a major development sought to extend legal education to generate broad awareness among villagers, with the aim to galvanize sufficient public strength to enable the village to reclaim the land.

Zakaria Kambanga, a leading figure in the effort recalls the process, “Following the enlightenment we received over time by way of legal empowerment, we made the conscious decision to come together and begin our struggle from the village level right up to the District Commissioner’s office. When the District Commissioner took up the case and reviewed its entire course, he came to the conclusion that, the land must be returned fully to the village;

“From that point onwards, every farming villager was allocated a portion for which they pay a royalty of just Sh.10,000 a year, money that goes into communal development initiatives including the building of a new village office. Crucially, we now harvest an average of 20 rice bags per portion, which sell for up to Sh.200,000 each, thus enabling us to not only provide for our families, but also have sufficient money for our children’s school fees,” he calls.

This collective approach spearheaded by paralegals is commended by Stahimili Ngongi, the local social development officer, who in addition to tracing her involvement in the efforts to return the land into the hands of the villagers points to the constructive and tireless legal awareness work the paralegals have been engaged in over the years.

“If you examine the statistics from seven years ago when I started work here, you will notice a significant decline in domestic cases, where from five cases a week, we now receive about two in a month. This is attributed to the widespread empowerment they impart on our community on a regular basis that sheds light on our social and economic rights;

“Perceptions of equality have also changed drastically, if today were a working day you would have seen men working alongside women here, something that was never easily possible a few years ago,” she explains.

On-going legal aid and education services around the country that have been more robust since LSF initiated its program that provides access to justice to everyday people, who normally cannot afford such services have uplifted many communities both socially and economically.

The opportunities that now are accessible to the residents of Lundo provide them with a more solid foundation upon which they will be able to confront poverty head-on, and crucially transform their fortunes. This speaks loudly to the vital role that paralegals play in the lives of ordinary people, giving them a real chance at a better future for them and their families.

“We have traditionally worked closely with our community and local leadership, and a case like this one is the fruit of everyone’s sweat. The fact that, our services are free means more people can access them and our commitment to increasing legal awareness remains steadfast, because we see the remarkable impact of this noble work,” concludes Ngonyani.

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