Four white walls, two large transparent windows, one grey door and ten long mahogany benches. This is the perfect description of a typical Kenyan courtroom. When you walk into a courtroom for the very first time you realize that it doesn’t smell of heavy perfumes like Aventus Creed. Instead you are met with the smell of justice. Justice smells like nothing. The same can be said of an empty courtroom. It is nothing close to the fancy Gloria Jeans restaurant across University way in Nairobi that has the smell of Arosto from the entrance all the way to the VIP lounge at the second floor. Neither can it be compared to Urban Coffee along Kisumu’s Oginga Odinga Street that is infested with heavenly scents and aromas of delicacies and foods with names like Stroganoff and Vegetable Soup for Starters.
On my first day in court on judicial attachment, I strolled the empty courtroom as I admired the mahogany benches and the beautifully tiled floor. Directly in front of me was a raised section with a leather seat on which the magistrate sits. I resisted any temptation to go sit on the seat and pretend to be doing some serious work just so that I can pose for a photo to share on my status then write a creepy tag like “making baby steps” or “stepping into the profession in style” or “Grind till you make it”.
On my right was the accused’s box. I gathered that it’s the place where accused persons stand when called up for things like pleas, mentions and such things (Non-lawyers who are reading this; please just know that it’s where the accused people stand while being summoned in court. I can see you Jairus Okello already complaining there at the back because of the legalese). The accused’s box looks discriminatory though. I mean there are short people out here who would completely get lost in it. Why would the Judiciary of all government arms not consider the rights of such persons? Perhaps someone should write a long letter to the Chief Justice and raise up the issue with him. Anyone with experience in writing letters to the CJ could really help in this situation.
With my back facing the huge door, the witness box lonely stood on my left. It’s almost the same size as the one for the accused. On top of it there’s a lonely Bible. It’s the CEV version. It’s light blue in color. When I spotted it, I moved closer just like Moses did when he saw the burning bush. I am no Moses though. The only Moses I have ever known is the one from the book “Moses and the man for Mars”. A certain urgent curiosity suddenly hit me and left me wondering whether there’s even a single person that has ever opened that witness’ Bible to read it. I touched it to feel the outside texture. It was quite aged on the outside but new in the inside. At the top of the hard cover was a stamp that shouted “RECEIVED”. I opened it and the book of Habakkuk was there glaring at me.
From the little knowledge of CRE that I got from primary school, I recall that Habakkuk was one of the Minor Prophets. So I read the only three chapters of the book of Habakkuk and came across him complaining to God thrice and God answering him each and every one of those times. It struck me how God loved this man. Anyway, the court starts filling in and soon the magistrate is settled well in her seat and the proceedings commence. Amidst some of the boring proceedings, I imagine myself in her seat. What kind of jurist would I possibly be if it were me up there? I would probably be like Azdak from The Caucasian Chalk Circle. But then again Azdak spent his days in the tavern. I hate taverns.
In the following days, I saw first-hand how the courtroom could have so much sorrow and yet so much joy at the same time. In one of the first cases that I sat through, I marveled at how some young guy in his late thirties mounted his defence. He was accused of obstructing justice and he had no lawyer and he was undoubtedly facing jail time since he was a serial offender. During the defence, his mastery of the law caught my eye. He quoted provisions from the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code with an assured calm yet he had never stepped into any law class. And above all he had an admirable courage. When he finished making his submissions that day, I felt like clapping for him only that people don’t do that in courts. If you do that you could sleep in a cell.
Inside the courtroom, there are human beings with the souls of monsters. Some are viler than the monsters that chase me in my dreams. They rape small innocent kids from school and threaten them with knives. I used to think all men were created beautifully in the image and likeness of God till I encountered first-hand what some people could do. In my brief sessions inside the courtroom, I have seen men and women with the darkest of souls. I have heard the narratives of men who wake up on random days in the middle of the week and slaughter their wives and children then bury them in the living room. I have also seen women who murder in cold blood the kids of their co-wives and unashamedly plead guilty before the court and say they would do it again if given another opportunity.
All my life, growing up in the company of my brothers and sisters, I had never imagined that sibling rivalry could lead to one spilling Sulphuric acid in the face of another till I stepped inside a courtroom. I still remember that morning in court. A young family of five. A boy, who is the eldest, stood in the witness box. His face was rough and looked like red soil. It was as if his face had been put in a furnace then removed after five minutes. Charred is not the word I could use to describe it. He had endured the scathing effects of Sulphuric acid on his face of all the places. It would be a great understatement to say that he was grim. His sister, who is the second born of the family, stood across in the accused’s box her face on the ground all the while. Her brother’s monstrous look was her handiwork. She claimed that her reason for committing that horrific act was due to her brother’s constant meddling in her business. At seventeen years old, she had done what no ordinary sister would dare imagine or think of. I saw the brother Kevin cry as he testified and felt overwhelmed to the extent of walking out. I didn’t have the stomach to listen through the rest of the case. That girl was the devil’s first born.
Inside the courtroom, there also exist married people who are tired of living together and want to let each other go. These are people who swore to be bound by love “In sickness and in health” yet can no longer even tolerate the idea of staring at one another. They want out. Sometimes when I am alone, lying on my bed while facing the ceiling, the idea of getting married and staying by someone’s side for the rest of my life scares me stiffly. I get scared because of the divorce cases I have witnessed. There are men who wake up one day after thirty years of marriage and tell their wives that “You know what? We’re done. This isn’t working.” A whole thirty years!! Can you imagine the weight that those years carry? All those Christmas memories, the Easter holidays, the vacations, the movie nights, the dinners and the pictures discarded in a flash of moment. I asked my sister what she would do if one day her husband pulls such a move on her thirty years into it. She said she would put on her beautiful Ankara outfit and commit suicide in the middle of Lake Victoria on a Tuesday midday.
Inside the courtroom, there are children who are lost. These are children who find themselves at the wrong places because of the circumstances surrounding their lives. I talked to one such kid who was called Kimani. Kimani was probably aged fourteen. He was from Kinangop. He was found loitering the nearby market at odd hours of the night because he couldn’t find a place to sleep after the driver of the lorry, he had illegally hitched a ride on, discovered him and threw him out. A young boy with a steely determination and cheer. He told me that he was going to Uganda to look for his uncle because he couldn’t withstand living with his own mother. His mother was super-cruel on him. She burnt him with hot water every time he made a mistake. His legs and hands had evidence of frequent burns, some healed while others still fresh. He had heard some rumors that one of his uncles was a businessman in Kampala and off he went without looking his back. And now he is in the hands of the court. He doesn’t know where he will end up next but he hopes that it won’t be with his mum.
Inside the courtroom, there are lawyers. There are lawyers whose eloquence move the courtroom when they speak. They look learned and don’t hesitate to flaunt their brilliance at the slightest opportunity. They use figures of speech when giving their oral submissions. They cite and quote long paragraphs from books like Hamlet by Shakespeare. They have the oratory skills of Socrates. They confuse even the most assured of witnesses during cross-examination. They destroy the opposing counsels with their wit. Their grooming screams. They wear heavy perfumes that are vanilla flavored and which smell expensively. They have those watches that paupers like me only see on Amazon and can’t afford even if they were put on flash sales with generous discounts to them. They are Ivy League lawyers. But it’s not always glam for them. Sometimes they lose cases. Sometimes they meet witnesses like a Professor Opondo from the London School of Economics whose intelligence should be insured for he speaks preciously and brilliantly. His grammar is as shiny as molten silver and I just loved it when he put some lawyer in his place using a single sentence.
Then there are lawyers who are down to earth. They are not like the Ivy League ones. Some of them are good at what they do while some are not so good. Most of these lawyers are friendly. They talk to the students around because they appreciate the fact that they were once students. They give advices whenever they can and say things like “patience pays” and “be inspired before you expire”. Don’t get me wrong. I love their intentions and the fact that they are friendly to all but seriously who says “be inspired before you expire” in this era. That phrase was last used by Pepe Minambo at a prayer day in Maseno School in 2014. I thought that it had since become extinct till I heard it from an advocate recently.
Inside the courtroom, there are fun moments too. It’s not all horror crime stories, nasty divorce cases and ferocious land battles. There are times when, in the middle of a serious case, a phone will ring and the song Tetema by Diamond would fill the room. The owner of such a phone would try to switch it off but there is a way in which the universe would conspire against him at that very moment because the ringtone would only get louder at each attempt. Recently I sat next to an old man who stared at my watch for almost thirty minutes. I asked him what was wrong and he continued staring. Then he told me that I had a nice watch. He kept asking questions as the proceedings went on. He would ask “Can your watch measure my blood pressure?” I would tell him no but he kept on asking. He also asked if it had a camera to which I told him yes. Later after court that day, I showed him how it can be used to take pictures. Strangely, he started demanding that I give it to him. I told him that I would buy him one if I get money and that made him retreat. I hope I don’t meet him soon because money has recently become an illusion for me.
There is the registry. The registry is the heartbeat of any court. Everything that finds its way in to the courtroom must pass through the registry. It’s a place thronged with a mixture of personalities. The clerks at the registry talk and talk. Some are vulgar in their communications while some are inherently good people. There are also some who rarely talk. They behave like those foreign spies we see in thriller movies. Like those CIA spies who may be mistaken for normal people yet in the real sense they have their ears open for any Intel that may be deemed to be of value.
There is a whole world of activities inside a courtroom. Try visit the court nearest to you and email me on your experience at firstname.lastname@example.org