By Lillian Wamuyu
The story of Mumbi Ngugi is a reflection of a good fight, a life marked with resilience and determination. She represents a people in our society who are subjected to stereotypes and biases that constraint and shape their perceptions of themselves and that of their world. This nevertheless has not stopped Mumbi from pursuing her dreams and championing the cause of other minority groups.
Mumbi was born in Banana, Kiambu County, to a family of 11 siblings, two of whom are deceased. She was born at a time when albinism was not a common phenomenon, and still uncommon today in the sense that it is little understood and children with albinism still require protection and care. Something that her parents had to contend with and being keenly aware of that, they were deliberate in their upbringing to ensure they protect and empower their little girl to deal with the challenges that she was likely to encounter. Her parents had gone through a similar experience raising a child with albinism as Mumbi’s elder brother was living with albinism too. As expected, Mumbi as a young girl in school and at home, endured weird stares, hurtful comments, discriminatory remarks and outright mean remarks.
Some people, out of ignorance, were not afraid to voice their sympathetic prejudiced concerns regarding her mental and physical capabilities. To some, Mumbi would not amount much as a person due to the suspicion that she would be mentally deficient and academically challenged. Others showed genuine concern and compassion fearing she would die of cancer at a young age. These prejudices ranged from subtle to extreme cases and like most other people considered to be ‘different’, she had to learn from a tender age the value of resilience and determination.
Luckily, Mumbi had a strong family support system with parents and siblings who embraced her as a daughter and a sister and never as a person with a disability. This enabled her to overcome the bias, stereotypes and different forms of stigma that have far-reaching psychological ramifications. She surmounted the challenges and performed exceptionally well in her educational pursuits and ended up in Ngandu High School, an institution that was founded on strong Christian principles and values.
It’s while a student at Ngandu High School that Mumbi met Sister Claire, a nun working at the school who she credits for her remarkable influence on the person she is today. “Sister Claire introduced me to books. I read many of the books she recommended which widened my outlook and perception of life in general. I learnt to see the world from wider lenses. One of the writers she introduced me to is John Steinbeck and he has remained my favourite author. I have read and reread most of his books. I particularly love the novel ‘East of Eden’ and ‘Sweet Thursday’, books I have read over and over again and recommend to many friends and colleagues,” reminisced Justice Mumbi. This interaction with books not only made her accept that she was different but built her self-esteem, confidence and a self-belief that she could conquer the world.
Unfortunately, just when Mumbi thought she had overcome the bias faced by people with albinism, she encountered new challenges as a young adult. She met a new crowd who would not see her beyond albinism. People who did not want to learn or put a name to the person she was. To such people, she was just ‘the nurse in Kikuyu hospital, the teacher at the local primary school, the lady from Limuru, Thika, or Murang’a. This is an experience that Prof. Sylvia Kang’ara, a friend to Justice Mumbi recalled and shared with the audience while introducing Hon. Mumbi during the 2018 CB Madan Awards. “There are people who refused to see Mumbi for who she was, these people erased her individuality and reinforced their power to exclude by rendering others invisible,” Prof. Kang’ara noted.
This is of course a narrative that people with disability face routinely; a lack of recognition as individuals but rather they are hush-hushed and banded together as ‘people with disability, or people abled differently’.
Mumbi the Writer
Justice Mumbi notes that her love for books influenced her writing skills and her desire to pursue a career in journalism. She expresses that if she did not end up in the legal profession, she would most likely be in Media and Communication. Nevertheless, her passion for writing remains intact and this has been realised through her contribution to diverse publications. Mumbi has worked as a writer, researcher and editor on socio-legal matters. She was a lead researcher and compiler of the Bi-Annual Human Rights Report for the Kenya Human Rights Commission, legal correspondent for the Daily Nation newspaper on family law issues, women and legal issues, editor and writer for The Lawyer magazine, commentator on social, legal and political issues for The Standard Newspaper, legal correspondent for the Eve Magazine, among others.
Mumbi recalls that her most memorable moment as a writer was when Mutuma Mathiu, the editor for Daily Nation asked her to write a news article on Prof. Wangari Maathai’s nomination to the Nobel Peace Prize. The title of her article was “Hail African Woman”. It ended with this powerful refrain quoting Okot p’Bitek: “Sweeper. Runner of Errands. Cook. Woman of Africa, what are you not.” We shall now be proud to answer: Nobel Laureate!”. The caliber of her writing judging from this article is definitely something to admire.
Mumbi has also written numerous legal writings, judicial opinions, feature articles, policy papers and reports. Some of her notable publications include; The Role of the Women’s Rights Movement in the Democratization Process, articles on the law of adoption, Women’s Gains in the New Constitution, Access to Justice for All: Policy Considerations for Special Interest Groups, Agenda 4 Reforms and Consolidation of Democracy in Kenya: Engagement of Marginalized Groups in the Reform Process, Human Rights Violations: Who Will Cast The First Stone?, The Role of Parliament in the Budget- Making Process, Re-thinking the Legislative Framework for the Management of State Corporations, Allocation of Government Land: The Process and the Options for Squatter Settlements, Appropriate Land Tenure Systems for the Urban Poor, Land Ownership and Dispossession in Kenya: Policy Options for Redressing Historical Wrongs, An Analysis of the Public Procurement Bill, and The Law on Private Prosecutions: A Comparative Analysis and International Best Practices among others.
Retelling the story of those living with Albinism
Her inspiration to write arose from a desire to speak for the voiceless and counter a biased and negative narrative of persons with albinism as presented by the media. She wanted to bring to light the horrific tales of persons living with albinism who were being killed because of cultural beliefs yet the media remained indifferent to their plight. Further, most media reports adopted a language that heightened victimisation and discrimination of people with albinism. Media coverage was equally biased as focus leaned on the downside of those with albinism, painting an image of persons who were weak, unable, not normal, and lacking in many ways. This bias served to entrench discrimination and exclusion thus relegating to the back burner the efforts and achievements of individuals such as Justice Mumbi and Honourable Isaac Mwaura, among others, who have struggled to rewrite the society’s perceptions of ‘those with albinism’.
Mumbi used the power of the pen to correct these biases and called upon journalists and editors to use the existing media platforms to tell a different story of persons with albinism. Stories that would encourage those struggling to feel empowered, stories that would provoke those in leadership to take action in formulating policies and laws that encourage equal opportunities for all.
Daring the Legal Professional
Mumbi realized from a young age that there were many giants she needed to defeat as she embarked on her career path. Her academic life was marked with great achievements which enabled her to pursue law degrees at reputable institutions such as the University of Nairobi, and the London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London. Her career in law started on a high note sprouting from her pupillage at a leading law firm in Nairobi. She joined different associations and also became an active member of FIDA and a lawyer at the Kenya Human Rights Commission. It was while in this environment that she encountered the reality of discrimination and exclusion of minority groups. Being a woman with albinism subjected her not only to gender discrimination but also to exclusion on the basis of being a person with disability. This reality did not dampen her spirits but rather strengthened her resolve to fight for the rights of minority groups.
Mumbi has served in different capacities in the private, public and civil society sectors. Her career has been marked by a progressive journey in the legal profession since she started out as a legal assistant in the late 1980s to legal counsel for different clients, state counsel in the Department of the Official Receiver, Attorney General’s Chambers, legal consultant, civil society representative, and Judge of the High Court of Kenya at the Constitutional and Human Rights Division in Nairobi. Currently, she serves as the Presiding Judge at Kericho High Court.
Mumbi’s journey and rise to the position of a Judge at the High Court of Kenya was not a smooth ride but she sailed through. The appointment came in at a time that the Judiciary was undergoing a transformative phase and for the first time in the country’s history, judges were appointed through a rigorous interview process. Candidates were required to subject themselves to public scrutiny and Mumbi seized the opportunity seeing that people like her had been given a chance to compete on merit. It was an opportune moment to showcase her abilities and correct the biases that other people had of her. It was a moment to redefine her image and that of people with albinism. She was confident of her academic papers and her professional accomplishments, and was certain that her character will stand scrutiny. Mumbi sailed through the process and was appointed Judge of the High Court in 2011, rewriting the script on the academic and professional abilities of persons with albinism.
The 6th CB Madan Prize Award Laureate
Hon. Lady Justice Mumbi Ngugi was awarded the 2018 CB Madan Award in an annual ceremony organized by The Platform Magazine and Strathmore Law School.
Justice Mumbi acknowledged the award in a speech that was marked with humility and gratitude. “I want to start with a confession: I find being the recipient of an award scary. I find that it places expectations on one, both from society, but also from oneself. It makes one wonder whether one is really good at the act or acts for which the award is made, whether one can meet the expectations, whether one can always deliver.
An award makes society take notice. It makes the world look up, expectantly. Some will root for you. Others will watch, waiting for you to falter, maybe to fail.
But it’s good to be a little afraid, I think. It reminds one to be humble, to remember that one has limitations, and that one will not always be a winner.” remarked Lady Justice Mumbi.
The decision by The CB Madan Awards Committee to award the 6th CB Madan Award to Justice Mumbi was welcomed by many people in the legal fraternity, civil society, government departments and the public at large. Speaking during the event, The Hon. Justice David Maraga, Chief Justice and President of The Supreme Court of Kenya noted with admiration the recognition of one of the Judges. “This is a great moment for Justice Mumbi, for me and for the Judiciary. Congratulations Justice Mumbi for winning the 6th CB Madan Award. The Judiciary appreciates your hard work and dedication especially knowing that you represent persons with special needs. I take pride in your achievements,” noted Hon. Maraga who was the CB Madan Award recipient in 2017.
During the event, students who had performed exemplary well were also awarded with various awards ranging from monetary awards to internships under the Strathmore Law School Student Awards and CB Madan Student Awards. The awards are sponsored by different law firms with an aim of encouraging law students to venture into niche law practice areas. The event was marked with the 6th CB Madan Memorial Lecture on Land Reform in Kenya: The History of an Idea by Prof. Ambreena Manji, Professor of Law and Development, Cardiff University, UK and President of African Studies Association, UK.
This year’s ceremony was graced by key personalities including: The Hon. Justice David Maraga, Chief Justice and President of The Supreme Court of Kenya, Former Chief Justice Dr. Willy Mutunga, Dr. Luis Franceschi, Dean, Strathmore Law School, Prof. Sylvia Kang’ara, Hon. Gitobu Imanyara, Publisher & Chief- Editor for The Platform Magazine, LSK Chairperson, Nairobi Branch Mr. Charles Kanjama, Advocates representing different firms, parents, guardians and students from Strathmore School of Law among other invited guests.
Justice Mumbi previous Awards and Recognition
Brand Kenya Ambassador Award, 2013, for portraying resilience and rising to the high echelons of the judiciary.
International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-Kenya) Jurist of the Year 2013
Rockefeller Bellagio Centre Practitioners’ Residency (2010).
Overseas Development Administration Shared Scholarship Award (ODASS) for Graduate Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London (1987).
Gandhi Smarak Nithi Award for being among the students with the best A-Level results among the 1st year entrants to the University of Nairobi (1983).
The triumphant story of Lady Justice Mumbi Ngugi should serve as an encouragement and a wakeup call that we all need to tell success stories of people like Mumbi. Those individuals who have defied life’s obstacles and emerged successful against many odds. Stories that will help rewrite the narratives of those who carry tags such as disabled, abled differently, those different from us, and/or those with special needs. Hopefully, in these ways, we can change the stereotypes and biases by telling their tales differently and rewriting the existing scripts.