Inside the Kuria traditional court that has stood the test of time

Mbusuro Nyamohanga shakes hands with John Ndonyo after their boundary dispute was resolved by elders at Mabera Kuria community traditional court in Kuria West. [Caleb Kingwara, Standard]

For more than six decades, members of the Kuria community have relied on their traditional court system to resolve several disputes, a practice that has been passed down through several generations.

Members of the community claim the high cost of filing cases in the country's judicial system has pushed the community to stick to their traditional court set-up as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism.

Unlike public barazas chaired by chiefs, Kuria traditional courts rely on the wisdom of their elders, who chair the gatherings to deliver verdicts on cases and impose fines.

When The Standard visited Mabera in Kuria west sub-county, elders and court officials were busy presiding over a marital dispute.

The complainant, Rebecca Marwa (not her real name) had sought the court's help to reunite with her husband, Paul Marwa (not his real name). She claimed she had attempted to find a solution to her woes through several avenues but failed.

After paying Sh1,000 to the traditional court, her case kicked off, and her husband, whom they had separated for more than a month, was summoned by the court.

She says she opted to go to the court because she found it cheap and nearer to where she lives.

“I had differed with my husband, and the only solution remaining was going to the traditional court after I had tried reaching out to him through a friend and nyumba kumi,” she says.

The first summon was issued a week ago when their case was introduced to the court. Each party was given a chance to air their complaints and asked if they had witnesses.

Rebecca had accused her husband of beating and chasing her from their home, while her husband accused her of coming home past 5pm and leaving their family cows unattended.

The couple, who have lived together for ten years, publicly declared their love for each other after agreeing before the court that they would change their ways and live peacefully.

A crowd consisting of women and elders clapped to cheer the couple, who hugged happily.

“Before coming before the court, we had sought other avenues to resolve our family issues, and after it was impossible, we came before the baraza to help us solve it. This baraza has brought me and my wife together,” Mr Marwa said.

The case is among several others that have been resolved by the traditional court. The couple is part of hundreds of people in the Kuria community who have continued to embrace the traditional court system.

Those leading it say they found their forefathers practising the justice system, and they followed in their footsteps. Julius Mwita, who has chaired the baraza for eight years, says they have resolved more than 100 cases since he became the chair.

“We took over from our forefathers. In most cases, the parties come out satisfied by the verdict we give,” Mwita says.

The Kuria traditional judiciary system handles cases which include land, boundary rows, debt, theft, unpaid bride price and marriage disputes. Mwita, who has witnessed the proceedings of the baraza for 26 years, explains that the only case they do not handle is murder.

Cases at the baraza are heard every Monday, and the session takes four hours. A single case can be heard within two weeks and completed in a month, depending on its complexity.

A complainant is required to pay Sh1,000 when they take the case before the baraza, and at the end, the accused is fined when he or she loses the case. The money is then given to the person who has won the case.

David Meja, who is the Coordinator of the baraza, explains that fining the accused is done to teach a lesson.

“The fine is a must. If you leave the accused without a fine, they may repeat the same mistake,” Mr Meja says, adding that when one defaults to paying the fine, he or she is reported to the chief.

Unlike in the past where chiefs handled barazas, in Kuria courts, the clans choose those they trust to represent them at the traditional court.

When a resolved case fails afterwards, it is referred to the area chief, who then tries to resolve the matter before referring it to the mainstream justice system.

“One can only take a matter to court when one doesn't get satisfied with the decision made at the baraza,” Meja says.

Tagare Location chief Jones Sagati says the community prefers resolving cases at the grassroot level because it helps those unable to afford to go to court and file cases.

George Chacha, an activist, says there is a need for the Judiciary to recognise the Kuria justice system as a legal entity. Chacha, who advocates for alternative dispute resolution systems, wants the Judiciary to issue minimal budgetary allocation to support traditional courts in the country.

“The Chief Justice should direct the court to ask for evidence from the barazas, in terms of inquiring about the findings made at the traditional barazas,” Chacha says.

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