Court session at the criminal court/tribunal de grande instance in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, with interpreter sitting in chair second from left, defendant standing, lady witness sitting, prosecutor far left, court clerk writing by hand on far right and three judges.  ©

Drawing by Caro van Leeuwen 

Natalie Tarr is a PhD researcher and lecturer at the Center for African Studies, University of Basel, Switzerland.

Observations of an anthropologist

The courtroom at the tribunal de grande instance in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, looks like a stage to me – audience on one side of a wooden fence, court on the other. The members of the court perform a well-rehearsed choreography here at the criminal court. This feeling arises because the procedure is exactly the same every time I come to observe a day of trials. First, a clerk moves busily back and forth between offices and the courtroom, bringing in an impressive pile of files – les dossiers – and a huge, black ledger for today’s court session. He places the ledger on the prosecutor’s desk. Why, exactly, this book needs to be so huge I do not understand yet. Once this task has been accomplished, the clerk turns on the air conditioner and fans, pushes chairs into position and reprimands those individuals in the audience, who seem to not follow the etiquette as he sees it. With a snap of his fingers and a swiping hand gesture he orders one man to take off his hat. Satisfied, he then checks if the five members of the court, who are waiting in the hallway off of la salle d’audience – three judges, one prosecutor and one court scribe – are ready to enter the courtroom. If they are, he can finally ring the bell and loudly announce «La cour !» which is the sign for everybody to get up. So far, he is the uncontested boss in the room. Then the door opens and the toga-clad, serious looking members of the court enter, moving towards their designated seats and sitting down. Now the clerk transforms into the court interpreter, in turn taking his designated seat. Who is this person who is first clerk and then interpreter? What is his role, exactly?

Is the language of justice a just language?

Everybody in the salle d’audience here at the criminal court in Bobo-Dioulasso only sits back down when the presiding judge has opened the proceedings, giving us all permission to do so. The courtroom of the tribunal de grande instance is a contact zone, or rather, and to further develop Pratt’s (1991) concept, a zone of struggle – a space where different languages and cultures meet and grapple with each other. The mandatory language for the court, i.e. judges and prosecutors, is French, while defendants, witnesses, victims and the court interpreter are permitted to use other languages. It seems like an unnecessary detour that judges have to use French since they could simply speak to defendants directly, using Jula, the language everybody in Bobo-Dioulasso speaks at least as a second language. This constellation calls for an interpreter.

At the palais de justice in Dakar, a country where the inherited French justice system persists as well, criminal trials get interpreted, too. But judges also use Wolof – in fact, entire trials are conducted in Wolof – a language 80% of Senegalese speak. Why is the use of French mandatory for the court in Burkina Faso but not in Senegal? Who decides this and how? And who are the interpreters? Who hires them and upon what criteria are they recruited? Since there is no training for court interpreters in Burkina Faso, how do interpreters translate the technical legal language? How do they interpret faithfully, while at the same time assuring defendants understand? 

In this choreographed performance in the contact zone a struggle is going on between those in charge of the proceedings – the court – and those who are being brought to trial. It is a struggle not only of understanding, but also about who is in charge and how this power can be maintained.