Zoom Image

Naomi Chebose after being admitted to the bar

Photo: Korir Abel

Behind the car, the transformation begins. First the robe, then the bow on the neck, finally the highlight at the end: the bright wig on the head. Pluck it a few times, adjust it until it fits perfectly. Lush white-blonde hair on black bald head, curls flowed on the side and back. Just as the English lawyers carried it in court when Uganda was still part of the Empire. The colonial power has disappeared, the wigs have remained.

John Mary Mugisha, the lawyer, enters the courtroom in northern Uganda with his wig, a few beads of sweat already emerging from under his blond synthetic hair. An inheritance dispute is being negotiated, and several widows of a rich deceased man are fighting for their share. Mugisha is one of Uganda's most respected lawyers, holding the title of Senior Counsel, like only 19 others in the country. He stands upright, argues eloquently, wears the headdress with dignity. "It's a sign of prestige," he says, "it's an uplifting feeling to wear the wig." If it were up to him, it could stay that way forever. After all, his hair cost almost 600 euros, imported from England, made of real horse hair.

Zoom Image

Lawyer John Mary Mugisha before a court hearing in Masindi, Uganda

Photo: Issac Kasamani / DER SPIEGEL

Almost 60 years after independence, British wigs are worn in courtrooms in numerous states of the former empire, in Ghana, Zambia, Kenya or Uganda – at least in the supreme courts of the countries. Almost everywhere there are debates about whether the colonial remnants should finally be banished. But they persist. Why?

In Kenya, Uganda's neighbouring country, Willy Mutunga sits in a café and sips his tea, prepared in English style, with milk and sugar. The pensioner was Chief Justice in Kenya until 2016, Chief Justice and thus head of the entire judiciary in the country. In addition to fending off constant attempts at political influence, he had one goal above all: to get rid of the wigs. For him, it's about more than a structure made of stinking horse hair, it's about a justice system at eye level, about approachability.

Mutunga still remembers his first day at work well, the traditional inauguration was on the agenda. A man had led him into a kind of anteroom, introduced himself as a professional dresser. The wig was already ready. "I immediately told him, 'We're looking for a new job,'" Mutunga recalls. Then he went to the president in a green suit and pink shirt to take the oath of office, without artificial hair.

"The wigs and red robes were worn by English judges who sentenced freedom fighters to death in Kenya. You can't expect anyone to do that," says Mutunga. He traveled around, including to the German Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, to get inspiration for a new, modern judiciary and even had hip design artists design new robes in the national colors of Kenya. Above all, however, he banned the wigs, "there was also a consensus on this among the chief justices," Mutunga recalls.

The anti-wig decree thusapplied only to the Supreme Court, Mutunga's power did not extend further. In all other courts, lawyers were free to decide whether they wanted to wear a wig or not. "Manycontinue to put them on, they insist on the status symbol," says Mutunga. The Association of Lawyers in Kenya is considered to be traditionally conservative and concerned about formalities in this matter. Quite a few lawyers carry the wigs with them in a chic box, including powder for the scalp.

During his term in office, Willy Mutunga initiated a debate on colonial relics throughout Africa. "On the continent, justice traditionally works differently, people gather under a tree, everyone is allowed to have a say, and in the end a decision is made. It's much less threatening than British symbolism, and that's where I wanted to go," says the former Chief Justice. But: "Power is tempting, which is why many see no need for reform."

In a small shop in downtown Nairobi, saleswoman Irene Awino tries to monetize the colonial tradition. In her boutique, she sells cosmetics – and wigs for lawyers. The blonde artificial hair is also made of horse hair, but does not come from London, but from China, and costs the equivalent of 170 euros each. The hairpieces sell rather poorly, on average just one wig per month goes over the table. Most of the clients are prospective lawyers, they need the headdress for the ceremonial admission to the bar association. "Many don't have much money and prefer to rent," says saleswoman Awino, and the wealthier lawyers import directly from England. The rent costs 20 euros per day, and adorns the head on the souvenir photo.

Naomi Chebose also has such a photo, it's even her profile picture on Twitter. Smiling, she sits on a leather chair, legs crossed, dressed in a robe and blonde wig, revealing her black natural hair. Chebose was admitted to the Kenya Bar last year, it was a big celebration, bigger than ever. There were 766 young lawyers, but there was a problem: "Because there were so many of us, it was hard to find wigs, they were all sold out," says Chebose. In the end, she was lucky, a lawyer friend lent her his.

"For me, it was a great feeling to wear the wig, it's every lawyer's dream, after all, it symbolizes the completion of a long training," says Chebose. "It's an old tradition that is supposed to exude authority." The young lawyer is against abolishing this tradition, it should be up to each individual to decide whether he or she feels comfortable with it, she thinks.

Willy Mutunga has now finished his tea, he is now talking about his successor, who appeared at the inauguration again in the colonial red robe and a lavish wig, "such an ugly huge piece," as Mutunga says. It visibly annoys him, he sees it as a cultural setback.

When the Supreme Court had to rule on the legality of the election results in Kenya last year, almost all lawyers wore a wig. But even in retirement, Mutunga wants to continue his fight against the artificial hair, 60 years after the independence of his country.

This article is part of the Global Society project

AreaWhat is the Global Society project?expand

Under the title "Global Society", reporters from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe report on injustices in a globalized world, socio-political challenges and sustainable development. The reports, analyses, photo series, videos and podcasts are published in a separate section in SPIEGEL's foreign department. The project is long-term and is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).

A detailed FAQ with questions and answers about the project can be found here.

AreaWhat does the funding look like in concrete terms?expand

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) has been supporting the project since 2019 for an initial period of three years with a total sum of around 2.3 million euros – around 760,000 euros per year. In 2021, the project was extended by almost three and a half years until spring 2025 under the same conditions.

AreaIs the journalistic content independent of the foundation?expand

Yes. The editorial content is created without the influence of the Gates Foundation.

AreaDo other media have similar projects?expand

Yes. Major European media outlets such as »The Guardian« and »El País« have set up similar sections on their news pages with the support of the Gates Foundation with »Global Development« and »Planeta Futuro« respectively.

SectionHave there already been similar projects at SPIEGEL?expand

In recent years, SPIEGEL has already implemented two projects with the European Journalism Centre (EJC) and the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: the "Expedition ÜberMorgen" on global sustainability goals and the journalistic refugee project "The New Arrivals", which has resulted in several award-winning multimedia reports on the topics of migration and flight.

AreaWhere can I find all publications on the Global Society?

The pieces can be found at SPIEGEL on the topic page Global Society .