PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Grace Mumbi Ngugi
Disability Rights Lawyer (Kenya)
By Okoth Oluoch
The story of Grace Mumbi Ngugi cannot be narrated without any notable mention of the contextual narrative of albinos living in Kenya and Africa in general. In the heart of a small village in Banana Hill, Kiambu, the light that would illuminate the corridors of justice was switched on. As she intimates in one of her interviews, the society was very unaccommodating to a person of her color. In Thimbigua Primary School, she was, of course, a student of distinction. She excelled in her academic endeavors, attaining 35 out of 36 points in her Kenya National Primary Education (KCPE) exams. In Kenya, KCPE is the national exam that is administered to primary school students to assess their capacity to proceed to secondary educational institutions. She was the subject of ridicule and social stigma but she found solace in the support from her family of two parents and ten siblings. Her father bought her off-the-counter creams to help her avoid sunburn, which she says she suffered for most of her childhood. She tells a story of professional ignorance, where a doctor whom her mother took her to was not even aware that she needed photo-chromatic lenses. She reveals that it was even more difficult since there were not enough available materials that offered comprehensive insight on her skin condition.
Mumbi was admitted at Ng’andu Girls High School, which offered a conducive and supportive environment. It was here that she met a teacher nun, Sister Clare whom she credits for introducing her to the world of books which became her solace from the world and facilitated a better understanding of her world and the journey of self-acceptance. She is especially fond of John Ernst Steinbeck Jr., a renowned novelist who won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 for his literary works "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” It is therefore not surprising that she became a writer and she cites this love for books as her inspiration to write. Her passion for writing has seen her work for respected institutions such as The Standard, Kenya Human Rights Commission, Daily Nation, The Lawyer magazine in different capacities, in her plight for social-legal issues concerning families, women, and human rights.
After high school, she received her university admission to – the University of Nairobi- one of the top tertiary institutions in Kenya to study law. She later attended the University of London School of Economics and Political Science for her graduate studies where she was awarded the Overseas Development Administration Shared Scholarship (ODASS). Ngugi has earned many awards and recognitions for her work as a judge. Her current position as a Judge of the High Court of Kenya is in itself one of the greatest achievements in the legal profession in Kenya. The High Courts in Kenya have the original jurisdiction to hear and determine legal matters that touch on constitutional rights.
She is the recipient of the 6th CB Madan Award Laureate. To appreciate the nature of this award, let us place it in a historical context. CB (Chunilal Bhagwandas) Madan, whom the award is named after, was a Chief Justice in Kenya from 1985 -86. His legacy of excellence in the Kenyan legal profession is what inspired the creation of the award, to appreciate excellence in the legal profession in Kenya. Lady Justice Mumbi was the recipient of the award in 2018 in honor of her outstanding commitment to constitutionalism and the rule of law in Kenya, becoming the first woman and albino judge to receive that recognition.
The difference that had now rendered her a social outcast now manifested itself in the form of a recognition presented by the current Judiciary president, Chief Justice David Maraga, who made history in the global circles for his decision to overturn the first presidential election results in democratic Africa. She received the International Commission of Jurists – Kenya: Jurist of the Year Award 2013, as a judge of the Constitutional and Human Rights Division bench in the High Court. This is an annual award that gives recognition, acknowledgment, and encouragement to jurists who have consistently, fearlessly, and impartially promoted the rule of law and human rights in Kenya during the year. She has also been accepted into the Rockefeller Bellagio Centre Practitioner’s Residency which consists of cross-sectoral professionals such as journalists, senior policymakers, and players in both private and public advocacy, with at least ten years of professional experience, to assist the Rockefeller Foundation in promoting the well-being of the humanity. The application criteria seek experienced professionals to provide insight from work experience.
The biggest contribution to the law has been her particular indispensable role to post-2010 Constitution jurisprudence during her tenure as one of the inaugural members of the benches of the Constitutional and Human Rights Division of the High Court alongside Justice David Majanja and Justice Isaac Lenaola (now a Supreme Court judge). This rendered her the first woman, albino judge to grace that bench after the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution. Regarding the principle of presumption of constitutionality of legislation, Kenyan courts have generally invoked this principle to justify the constitutionality of a legislatorial pronouncement- a situation which Khobe considers a failure of the courts to subject the legislature to meticulous judicial scrutiny.
Ngugi J’s decision to deviate from that norm in Anthony Njenga Mbuti & 5 Others v Attorney General & 3 Others, restricting its application in the Kenyan context to pre-2010 constitution statutory enactments. Additionally, her stance on cases involving corruption and abuse of office by public officers, especially the elected representatives represents a clear determination to use her position to ensure better delivery of public services in Kenya.
At a time when corruption has been cited as a menace to national development in Kenya, Justice Ngugi’s decision could not have come at a better time. Her judgment to uphold a trial court decision to bar public officers accused of abuse of office and fiscal incompetence initiated an unprecedented jurisprudence in dealing with allegations directed towards public officers in exercising their official mandates. For example, in Moses Kasaine Lenolkulal v Director of Public Prosecutions, Ngugi J poses a very important question of public interest, “Would it serve the public interest for him to go back to office and preside over the finances of the county that he has been charged with embezzling from?” This question summarizes Ngugi J’s concern for the common mwananchi plight and her determination to fight the menace of corruption in the country.
In upholding her decision, the Court of Appeal stated that the bar was very necessary to ensure proper enforcement of the court’s orders and avoid evidence tampering and witness interferences. She has also extended her indispensable legal expertise in the adjudication of several human rights litigations. These judicial decisions include the declaration that children born outside marriage to enjoy the liberty of having their names of their fathers entered in the birth register, on the jurisdictional capacity of High Courts to hear and determine matters of violation of rights and fundamental freedoms, just to mention a few. A number of these decisions have rendered some legislative provisions unconstitutional to ensure effective administration of justice. She is also the co-founder of, Albinism Foundation for East Africa, a charitable trust institution that offers facilitative services to albinos in East Africa such as advocacy to improve their lives.
Justice Ngugi's story of the rise to the upper echelons of legal corridors defines a journey of
defiance and fortitude to pursue excellence against all odds, a ‘story of resilience and fortitude.’
From her early days as a 'different' child living at the mercy of a medical condition that
predisposes her to both social stigma and threat of early demise, it has been a journey worth
chronicling, which sways my inclination to write her story. She has defied the societal perspective
on normalcy, considering that albinism is still shunned upon in African societies and they are
normally rendered as outcasts. Most importantly, her inspirational status is seen in the number of
young albinos who are inspired to excel professionally and socially, through her story amidst all
the hurdles they face because of their condition. A good example is Ms. Monica Muchiri, who
cites Lady Justice Mumbi as her role model in her aspiration to become the first albino television