Last week, in a ceremony that got the University of Nairobi’s Taifa Hall overflowing, a woman made history.
Prof Patricia Kameri-Mboote presented a public defence of her 3,000-page thesis, becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to attain a higher doctorate in law.
“I did it for myself. It is an academic accolade that is higher than a PhD. I did not have to do it, but I did it because I could,” she says, explaining her academic discourse and intense research that sparked online conversation when photos of her tome of a thesis started doing rounds on social media.
“What craziness is this? Who is this woman, and what has she written in this heavy book?” paused a Facebook user.
Prof Kameri-Mboote says if she were to tell her whole story and what propelled her to strive for a higher doctorate, it would be like perusing through ragged pages of history books, and telling what it takes a woman to shatter through the stereotypes and achieve what her mind has conceived.
In 1990, she was the second woman to join the teaching staff at UoN’s School of Law. It is then that she came face to face with the reality of the gender divide that would take many years to seal. One event is forever lodged in her mind.
She was teaching a class on the law of evidence when something caught her eyes. At first, she thought it was a figment of her imagination. It did not take long before she realised that she had seen it right.
A male student was winking at her. Not once, but whenever their eyes met.
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“The law classes were predominantly male. Nobody prepared me on how to deal with students who were cat-calling or blatantly harassing me,” she says. She had to think first. She called him aside and told him: “The law of evidence is a very difficult class. If you have problems with your eyes, have them checked before I start giving exams.”
It was her subtle way of letting him know that she would not tolerate that kind of behaviour.
Then came the incident where she went to class in trousers and a dab of scarlet lipstick in the early 1990s when lecturers were known for their overgrown beards, unbuttoned shirts and unpolished shoes.
“There was this misconception that you had to be unkempt for people to take you seriously,” she says.
She was not one to fall into stereotypes. Her pair of slacks and drip of red on the lips almost caused a stampede in class. She laughs when she recounts what followed. The noise, whistles, claps, catcalls and uproar that her piece of clothing caused almost made her call for reinforcement.
“For a moment I was confused. I thought of calling the dean to calm the class, but I realised doing that would show that I could not control students. I took charge,” she says.
She stared at them with a stern face and told them that class would proceed no matter how much they were shouting. Things calmed down.
Informers and spies
She had to navigate through many things, including talk that the government was installing informers and spies in classes, particularly the School of Law that was known for activism.
Inside her, she felt she needed to do more in the field of academia. She took a break and went to Zimbabwe and the US where she took her Masters and PhD programmes. When she returned, she felt like there were pieces of her career that were not fitting.
“I had so much knowledge in different aspects of law. I was an expert in environmental law, intellectual property law, women issues, and many other things and I felt I needed to bring it all together,” she says.
It is then that the idea to get a higher doctorate started boiling inside her. That she has shaken stereotypes is not in doubt. Those who associate with her, including students, describe her as a woman who is not afraid of speaking her mind, even if it means losing her job.
An incident that involved former Vice-Chancellor George Magoha defined her career and she admits she was awakened to the flaws inside her.
“There have been times when I was irrational. I made decisions out of anger and frustrations, and looking back, maybe I should have handled things differently,” she says, commenting on the fight for deanship that was experienced in the school in 2007.
When the law students rioted and sent away their dean in early 2000s, she acted as a dean between 2003 and 2004. In 2005, a substantive dean was appointed to replace her. When this particular dean’s term elapsed in 2007, Magoha appointed her to act again.
“I came to my office and found a letter appointing me on acting capacity. I felt insulted because it showed that the only thing I could do was hold brief as they looked for someone better,” she says.
It was through her protests, many believe, that Magoha bowed to pressure and made her dean without going through elections. The circumstances, coupled with the timing - politically divisive moments of a high-stake presidential election - aroused a rebellion among her colleagues.
An election was called and she refused to participate. Prof Ben Sihanya, her colleague who had also acted as dean was elected in her place. Patricia was distraught.
“People looked at me and saw my tribe. I could hear whispers from people questioning things about me. I needed a break,” she says.
She contemplated resigning but took an unpaid leave instead, to go and found the Strathmore University School of Law. “I was happy to be starting on a clean slate. I needed healing,” she says.
Later when she came back at the University of Nairobi, she was elected dean for two terms between 2013 and 2016, with Prof Musili Wambua deputising her.
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