A series of panels at the ASA meeting in November 1989 focused on sources and methods for the study of law in colonial Africa. At an informal discussion held afterwards, participants agreed that court records are potentially very valuable sources for historians, anthropologists, and other scholars of Africa but that they have not been used as widely as they might be. In an effort to alert Africanists to the existence of such documents and to encourage their use, those of us who had used court records in our research were asked to provide descriptions of them. This paper is a collection of the responses.
Courts were established in the African housing quarters in what was then Usumbura in 1938 as part of a broad reorganization by the colonial administration of the conditions of African residence in the city, one in the quartier of Buyenzi and the other in that of Beige (today Bwiza). These tribunals, which are still in existence, were granted jurisdiction over civil and minor criminal cases between Africans; each court had its own officials, advisors, and clerks, prominent residents of the quartier appointed by the colonial administration. Buyenzi's population was predominantly Muslim, and its court officials were men knowledgeable about Islamic law. Beige, in contrast, was a more heterogeneous community, and its court tended to be staffed by residents who had risen in the African ranks of the civil service.
Men and women of both housing quarters resorted frequently to the courts, with the Buyenzi court hearing approximately 9,000 cases and Beige almost twice that many in the years between their establishment in 1938 and independence in 1962. Their complaints covered a wide range of matters: debts, business ventures, bridewealth disputes, divorces, child rights, property transfers, and various quarrels between friends, neighbors, and family members. Procedure was relatively simple. A man or woman who wished to present a complaint went before the court and was given an appointment for the case to be heard. At the time the court considered the complaint, both accuser and defendant were present. Although the parties might bring with them supporters and witnesses, there were no intermediary personnel such as lawyers. Each individual argued his own case and answered questions put by the judges. A judgment was usually handed down immediately, and it was based on customary rather than European practice. As these courts were originally established, their autonomy was very great: in principle, unless the decisions violated colonial law, they could not be overruled by Belgian officials.