African justice making, rather than an occasion to inflict punishment, is an opportunity to teach, learn, reemphasize social values, and reaffirm the bonds of our inherent inter-relatedness. It is also an opportunity to identify and redress problematic social conditions that may have given rise to interpersonal harm.
In African indigenous justice, vindication of the person harmed is prioritized. The person responsible, and often their family, is obligated to offer apology, recompense, and reparation to the harmed person and community. A wrong can be made right by subsequent actions of the responsible person and other community members. Community is central. The concept of family in Africa embraces the nuclear family and the extended family as well as people who do not share blood or marriage relationships. Also, the African family extends beyond the living to include the realm of the ancestors.
Indeed, in the African worldview, when something happens to one, whether blessing or burden, it happens to all. A newborn baby is good fortune for family and also the entire village. Marriage unites two clans, not just two individuals. The deeply communal ethos among African and other indigenous traditions also holds true when wrongdoing occurs. If an individual steals from or kills another, they damage the relationship between their respective lineages or villages. In the wake of harm, making it right is not solely the responsibility of the individuals directly involved; it also the responsibility of communities. The focus is on repairing and rebuilding relationships with the intent of bringing social harmony. African indigenous justice seeks to strengthen relationships by fashioning win-win outcomes.
In keeping with the worldview and principles of African and other indigenous justice systems, restorative justice invites a paradigm shift in the way we think about and do justice—from a justice that harms to a justice that heals. Our prevailing adversarial system [of justice] . . . harms people who harm people, presumably to show that harming people is wrong. This sets into motion endless cycles of harm. Restorative justice seeks to interrupt these cycles by repairing the damage done to relationships in the wake of a crime or other wrongdoing, and do so in a way that is consonant with indigenous wisdom—Africa’s and that of other traditions. Justice is a healing ground, not a battleground.
– Fania E. Davis, The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice: Black Lives, Healing, and US Social Transformation (Good Books: 2019), 14, 23-25, as quoted in fr. Richard Rohr’s reflection in 9 Sept 2020.