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Bold teen impregnated five women, escaped elders’ wrath in colonial court

By Lydia Nyawira | January 14th 2022

In modern-day family court, the use of DNA testing to determine paternity is commonplace, but in the 1920s, any dispute on the identity of a child’s father was determined by a select group of elders in a civil court. In Central Kenya, one such civil court is tucked away about 500 metres from Ruringu Stadium at the little known Nyeri Museum which holds a wealth of history on the judicial system of Kenya.

Nyeri Museum curator Charles Aongo explained that the facility is housed in a national monument that was once used as a “Native Law Court”.

“This structure was built in 1924 and started functioning in 1925. Its main objective was to deal with customary law cases, previously dealt with by clan elders in the villages. As these cases increased, one courtroom could not handle the volume and thus another hall was built,” he explained.

As a civil court that used customary law to settle disputes amongst the Agikuyu set up in 1925 by the colonialists and whose rulings reverberate amongst the generations, the court rulings were feared and welcomed in equal measure. One man found himself on the receiving end of a very unusual pregnancy court case in 1956 when five women accused him of being the father of their unborn children.

David Gikonyo was a teen at the time when he was summoned by the elders for a court case.

“I was informed that five women had come to the elders accusing me of being responsible for their pregnancies. My father was furious and warned me that if the family was fined, it would lead to financial ruin,” he narrated.

Gikonyo was scared for his fate but devised a plan to defend himself and escape the harsh penalties that would be likely charged to his father.

At the time, the court fines ranged from cows and goats depending on what the family wanted and the severity of the crimes. Whether a man denied or admitted to the offense of making a girl pregnant, the elders often exerted fines because of the unborn child and what was considered a crime of impregnating a woman outside wedlock.

“Usually the fines were between 10 cows and 100 goats and these were the harshest penalties possible. If you were lucky, the families would agree between themselves,” Gikonyo narrated.

But your fate as the man was sealed if you were brought before the clan elders at the civil courts as their judgment was final. If you denied responsibility, it was expected that you take an oath to that effect which was believed to be binding to you and your future children. Gikonyo said taking that oath was believed to have dangerous repercussions and many men feared this option.

“It (oathing) involved using a stick to poke a sculpture known as a Gika which was shaped like a woman’s vagina, seven times as if you loudly deny responsibility for pregnancy,” he said.

When his day in court came, Gikonyo stood in front of the clan elders and was asked if he knew the five women before him.

“I admitted to knowing each of them and they too confirmed I was responsible for their pregnancies,” he recalled.

He then proceeded to defend himself and told the court that he had spoken to each of the women and was willing to marry them.

“My father’s land can accommodate homes for these five women as my wives, I take responsibility and I am willing to take them in as my wives,” he said.

The shocked elders were surprised by the boldness of the teen and confirmed with the women that they each had been promised to be betrothed. He was released with no fine as the elders ruled the matter had been settled as he had agreed to take responsibility. However, none of the women agreed to the proposal because unbeknownst to them they each thought they were his only love interest.

“I came back home and waited but none of the girls showed up because they could not agree to be in a polygamous union. They were shocked to find out in the courtroom that I had five girlfriends at the same time,” he said.

And that is how Gikonyo escaped financial ruin from the civil court in Ruringu. Close two decades later, he would later meet his late wife whom he settled in married life with.

“My wife passed away in December 2020, in her sleep, I was devastated to lose the love of my life, we had a good life together,” he said

Four years later in 1960, Gikonyo joined the tribal police which would later evolve into the Administration police, where he earned Sh 88 per month at the time. He later joined the Prison Service and was among the first prison guards to be stationed at Kingongo Maximum Prison in Nyeri. He retired in  2000 after 40 years of service.

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