In March 2015, a magistrate in Malawi made headlines after ordering two men charged in connection with violence and vandalism at a soccer match to report to a police station any time a match was taking place at the stadium, and remain there until it was over. Local newspapers and radio stations, intrigued by this unusual approach to setting bail, also noted that the magistrate was the youngest in Malawi’s history.
“No one goes the extra mile to make sure that the accused person isn’t reoffending,” observes Chikondi Mandala LL.M. ’19, who at the time of her ruling on the soccer incident was 23. “As a way of preventing that, I think we can be a lot more creative, not only with our sentences, but also with our bail conditions.”
As for her age, Mandala looks back with a smile. “People would come to court and say: ‘This girl? This girl is hearing my case?’ At first, I was offended, but eventually, they appreciate that you are just a person doing your job.”
When she was in high school, Mandala was more interested in business and entrepreneurship. “But my father said I should study law, and then I could open my own law firm,” she says with a laugh. Then, during her last year at the University of Malawi, armed robbers broke into her family home in the middle of the night. Shortly thereafter, she narrowed her career focus to prosecution or the judiciary.
After earning her law degree in 2013, Mandala completed a seven-month internship with the chief resident magistrate in Blantyre, Malawi’s second largest city and a commercial and financial center. She observed court proceedings and drafted rulings and judgments, and “the judiciary won my heart,” she says.
Mandala began her career as a senior resident magistrate at the Blantyre Magistrate’s Court. Her work bridged Malawi’s two legal regimes of customary and statutory law. Customary law often governs matters relating to land, divorce or inheritance; it is unwritten, and its tenets can vary from village to village, or among lineage groups. In a dispute about encroachment or trespassing, for example, the village leader meets with the parties in a formal hearing “pa bwalo”—the phrase means in “an open area”—and makes a ruling. If the dispute is continued in the magistrate’s court, this earlier judgment from a traditional authority is taken into consideration. “We look at it as primary justice, a step in a conciliatory process,” she says.
In 2016, Mandala was appointed to the Blantyre High Court, which serves as both an appeals court and a court of original jurisdiction. As an assistant registrar, she served as a judge in chambers, presiding over interlocutory matters such as assessing damages. She also handled administrative matters, including scheduling, staffing and finances, enabling her to see the inner workings of the court. Almost immediately, she became heavily involved in managing the logistics for a major resentencing project, one arising from a high court ruling that the country’s mandatory death sentences for murder and treason were unconstitutional. In the end, out of approximately 200 prisoners on death row, only one death sentence was confirmed; for many of the others, who had already spent years in prison, new sentences resulted in immediate release.
At Harvard Law School this past year, Mandala took courses ranging from trade and development to feminist legal theory. She was especially excited about writing her required LL.M. paper, in which she addressed customary landholding in Malawi, a largely rural country with an economy strongly based on agriculture.
“In Africa, predominantly, there are patrilineal systems of customary landholding, but in Malawi, it’s the other way—two-thirds of the land is passed down from mother to daughter,” Mandala notes. “I find that interesting, because it’s rare.”
Her paper focused on how this system is changing, often because of development or from political motivations. “If I have a brother, and we’re living on our mother’s land, he has to negotiate with me to even have somewhere to farm, or to build a house; he doesn’t have individual rights to the land. But when [developers] come in, they assume that the decision-maker will be my brother,” she says. “Things like this impact customary structures of land inheritance, and place power where it’s not supposed to be, to the detriment of women.”
Through her LL.M. studies, Mandala says she learned so much: “context, history, background, and even being able to think critically about the law itself, why it exists, and how we can make it better.” Another takeaway from her year at HLS is “that you are cared for by the institution, in terms of the resources and even the people that are available for you.” Mandala, who plans to return to Malawi and continue her work in the judiciary, says, “I think I’d like to emulate that as much as I can, to make the judiciary an institution that is actually there for people and not just a big watchdog that hands out sentences.”