Monthly Archives: March 2015

zipped

I walked into work one day and was asked to go to the criminal courts to help out a guy who had been arrested. Have you ever been arrested? I have and I can tell you that it’s one of the worst experiences a person can go through. They strip away your dignity and your freedom. They make you feel like a criminal as if you don’t deserve either the sympathy or the help of society. To have a lawyer there with you, stand up for you and speak for you is something that can make a world of difference at least psychologically. It also helps to have somebody who seems like they know the system because the law is labyrinthine and winding.

I though was just excited about talking in open court for one of the first times. I was asked if I could go and immediately my heart began to beat as I imagined the charisma and deference with which I would approach the court. Speaking in a voice that was modulated to carry to the bench and slow enough that the magistrate would be able to write down what I said. In my mind I could remember the way Kethi Kilonzo spoke to the Supreme Court and I’ll be honest I was excited.

I needed a shit though and at times of nervousness it’s very important to take a shit if the stomach asks because nobody needs this to be another kind of story. I finished and I pulled up my trouser and the button immediately popped out. This was not the first time that this trouser had done me wrong. You see over the last year or so I have put on some weight, I wouldn’t call it considerable or even worrisome but my clothes have become steadily more uncomfortable. They strain as I pull them on, my stomach has become more prominent, my face has become fuller, my girth more garland. So this trouser button has popped and been fixed and popped again. And a third time.

I looked at it and pleaded with the god who turns back time “not now!” but that was ok, I could just pull the belt over the waist and pull up the zip and hold the file in such a way that nobody noticed. This was my plan of action, I had in fact put the little button in my shirt ready to ferry it home. I pulled the belt tighter around my waist and realised that it was not catching, for some reason the trouser was refusing to properly be held up by the belt, it was a sickening looseness though. I could feel it give in the most complete way, become so loose it was the clothe version of diarrhoea. Something was definitely wrong, horribly wrong.

I fingered my crotch section and then I realised with a sinking feeling that the zipper had come loose. This is something that everybody has gone through in life. Usually it happens when you are trying to pull on a jumper and the zipper refuses to cross sides deciding instead to stay to the left and move ineffectually up and down. This is usually easily fixed. A trouser does not have that catch where you can hook it and pull it up. Nope. What a trouser has is the horrible loose feeling.

At that point there is no way to gather up the trouser it turns into something much worse than a short or pyjamas. The waist is so wide you could fit one of you and then a half again into it and it would still want to stay open.

I walked up to the other male advocate in the office and let him know I had a major problem. Go to victoria house was his advice and don’t worry criminal courts begin much later than civil ones. I agreed, took my notebook, my diary and a novel and used these three things to hold up my trouser in the least suspicious way I could. It was very suspicious because at that time the only way you can walk is to adopt a crab-like gait that is not helped along by the fact that there is one hand at your back holding up your trouser like an errant schoolboy. Out front you have gripped your diary right in front of your crotch trying your best to hold both this book and your trouser.

So, I shuffled off. Walking down Kimathi Street, towards tom mboya’s statue and then shooting my way between that and archives in order to make my way to the house. I walked into the building as bold as I could be and asked the guard where I could find a tailor. He could see the desperation with which I was holding on to my garments and he took me upstairs to the one guy who was already open.

“niaje? Boss, leo niko na haraka. Sana. Hii unaweza tengeneza?”
I delivered the sentence as i took off my trousers and laid them in front of him so he could see the full extent of my problems. There I stood in my boxers and socks, my shirt and tie, my coat and…well not my dignity. The lady who cleans the room chose just that time to show up, I really couldn’t care about modesty at that point plus she said the thing everyone says at this point,

“Kwani unadhani kuna kitu hapo sijaona?”

This was to the tailor who warned her about my state. But what I always wonder is why people think that as long as they have seen one other penis they are ready for the sight of all others. It was a risk she was taking, perhaps seeing the outline of my ball-sac and dick would send her penis crazy. This did not happen, the probability of this happening is not high for many people but the fact is there is a possibility and she should have taken notice of that before so glibly risking her sanity and place in society. Ok I didn’t think any of that, and maybe it’s a thing about men and women, I would never say that so callously because no matter how many naked women I see the next one is like the first time. My heart beats and my eyes thank the brain for interpreting the signals it sends back. This may be why it’s so much easier for me to get naked than it would be for a woman in my position.

I stood there waiting. No sandals. No way of letting this guy know that I had to leave. I called the guy in jail because there was no music where I stood whereas later, in a matatu he would know I was in matatu. I introduced myself and asked him which court he was in and to tell me as soon as he knew.

“Kweli una karaka Leo”

The tailor finally understood that my hurry was not because of an interview or a meeting. Somebody’s liberty was at stake. Somebody’s life depended on me getting my trouser back. So he took the thread in his mouth, pulled it back and continued at the same meticulous pace he had begun in.

This was a transaction without any bartering. He told me the price as he sewed a brand new zipper into my trouser and I took it out as he continued and put it there for him. When everything was done I pulled my trouser on and walked very quickly to the matatu stage.

Here’s the thing though every time I went for a piss or pulled off that trouser for a long while it felt different, this zip was bigger than the one I was used to and it’s taken me days to get used to it. I got to court on time and the man got the liberty that he would probably have got without my presence but none of the comfort that help at a time like that gives.

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In a closed society where everyone is guilty the only crime is getting caught.

“In a closed society where everyone is guilty the only crime is getting caught. In a land of thieves the only final sin is stupidity.”- Hunter S. Thompson.

The Law Society of Kenya held its Annual General Meeting last Saturday. Undercurrents of chaos were felt that were sold by our leadership as a full blown wave. The meeting had barely begun, in fact before the agenda had even been adopted the council in charge had left, packed up their intentions and gone.

The most powerful expression of a people’s will has always been either their vote or their violence. There is something almost religious to democratic rites, the acceptance in democratic states and spaces that the ultimate power rests in the hands of the masses and is only loaned to the ones who lead them. The need felt that these people must give a mandate or this power rests in the hands of somebody who doesn’t deserve it. The fear of a revolution, of a sacrifice of the king in the town square if the drought goes on too long. And finally the massing of the people in one place or for one activity, the old debating halls of Sparta and Athens, the councils of elders of the Luo and Zulu becoming the long, long lines at ballot stations because there are too many people to house in one place. This, democracy, is what we feel is the best way to rule ourselves.

In the long history of our country there have only ever been 12,000 advocates of the high court. This takes into account those who died and those who were disbarred. This counts the ones who left the country and the ones who joined bench. The oath of an advocate has only been said by 12,000 people. Every year the society which we are compelled to be a part of holds an AGM. Being 12,000 we are few enough to practice democracy in the way the Greeks did, able to discuss issues and plot the way forward the way our forefathers used to.

The seeds of the chaos were planted a long time ago. Most people don’t realise it but chaos is like a tree, order is hard to break and for something to crush through those walls it needs thick roots and ample nutrition. Revolutions are not inspired by 5 years of mismanagement but by decades of government indifference. In smaller groupings where the effects of the executive are easier felt, where police power does not exist in the absolute way it does for the state, where words can be exchanged between the citizenry it happens faster.

I always have trouble trying to explain to people the life of a young lawyer. The crippling cost of getting there, the requirements that don’t allow you to recoup it, the fact that when giants stride rain rarely falls on those who are short of stature.

Here’s another attempt advocates have a professional body to whom membership is compulsory. Nobody is voluntarily a member of the Law Society, it is prescribed by law. To remain a member of the society each and every advocate must pay a fee of 12,000/= a year to obtain a practicing certificate. In exchange for this money the advocate obtains nothing, it is a transaction without a product. It a tax without a benefit. I have yet to meet any lawyer who has identified for me the benefits that being part of this association has brought them. The privileges of mass action are not afforded to us, the representatives do nothing to represent us and there has been a general unrest for a long time about this.

The flash that lit the match was a special general meeting convened last year. It was called in the haste and secrecy that is a throwback to the days of old men sitting in rooms filled nyama choma and beers deciding the fate of our lives, accepted in the way an old Chief Justice swearing in an old President as the sun sets is. At the meeting a project was proposed. At the meeting the project was approved. The cause could be painted to be noble, it concerned the building of an arbitration centre in Kenya. Access to justice, speedier resolution of conflicts, the economy not grinding to a halt every time that there is a dispute between two business partners. It could have been painted noble. Many beautiful things are made in the dark after all, children born of a quickly satisfied and then ashaming lust are still the dust of stars.

They could have painted it noble. But they did not. They had the reins of the horse and could have led the chariot wherever they wanted; they chose to do it but decided that consultation or even the pretence of it was not worth the struggle. No, that was not even the original sin; they decided to lead us where they wanted to go and ordered us out of the chariot to push it faster towards their goal.

That 12,000 shillings mentioned earlier? It was decided at the hastily convened and concluded meeting that another 13,000 shillings would be tacked onto it. These funds would be earmarked for the construction of the arbitration centre. This without widespread consultation, this without acknowledging that adding such an expense to young people trying to start a life, or old ones trying to school a family could be back-breaking.

Rubbing salt in the wound the council in charge did not make an attempt to hide the fact that misappropriation was the point of this. The land on which the centre was to be built was free. The building they proposed to put up is only four stories high. The proposed cost of the project is 1.2 billion shillings. This is not a typo. The proposed cost of the project is 1.2 billion shillings. It has been said that numbers of such mass block out comprehension leaving us in an eclipse of confusion and misunderstanding. The only way they make sense is by comparison. I & M building in town, the gleaming towers of blue that seem like a sea or a sky is riding out of the concrete dust of Nairobi is worth 1.2 billion shillings too. This is real estate in the middle of the city centre, a site of such prime land that it multiplies values as if it had swallowed a fertility pill is supposed to cost the same as putting up a four storey building on free land?

Stealing happens; corruption is a fact of life that we have learned to live with painfully, with great sadness and deep cynicism. We accept it. And we would have accepted it this time if they had not levied a special tax for corruption. A society that asks its members to sacrifice so that the leaders can sleep on feather pillows and piles of cash succeeds if it makes no pretence of democracy. It succeeds if it has all the arms and can compel the members by force. It can even succeed in a semblance of democracy if the pinch is felt second-hand. I’m not sure how well Goldenberg would have gone down if before the government stole that money they added another tax to people’s payslips and packets of flour and called it Export Compensation Fund Tax and then went ahead and stole it as people watched. That may have precipitated a revolt.

It is hard to imagine that all the conditions that were experienced here have happened before. A levy imposed by a leadership who have no record of helping their members. A leadership of a society that so many people have lost faith in that only being compelled by law allows them to have followers. A levy imposed without the vision being sold. A leadership hiking up their prices like a lady of the night hikes up her dress. A levy of this kind imposed on people of uniformly high educational standards; bachelor degrees across the board. A leadership of such a small group of people that perfect democracy is still possible. This mixture of ingredients is not the type that allows people to stand idly by.

Before the meeting on Saturday we had been made well aware of these facts. Before the meeting the processes and procedures (things that lawyers and bureaucrats are intimately familiar with) were followed to allow us to have a vote on whether this project would be allowed to go on. Because our curiosity was awakened by their greed we also wanted an audit of the societies accounts going back four years. Because we had lost trust in our leadership we also wanted them suspended to allow for investigations.

At the meeting the agenda was read out and it began with minutiae and irrelevant details. The chairman told us that our agenda items, the things that the people had arrived there to discuss and vote on would be covered by Any Other Business. Thinking back on it I see now that they had booked the room where we met for just enough time that we would never get that far before we had to leave. There were police at the meeting and security who would probably have us out of the door before we made our points. And there would have been no PR disaster because it is hard to make anyone feel sad for a lawyer.

Their attempt was thwarted though. I realise as I write this that I have fallen into a they vs. us way of thinking and of writing. This is a sad way to relate to leadership. This firm belief that the ones who supposedly represent you do not have your interests at heart, that in fact they will throw you under a bus if you do not do them the same favour first. The conviction that we are too far separated for any of them to understand what I’m going through, what my pains are what my hopes and fears and aspirations look like. The leadership’s attempt at denying democracy at that meeting was forestalled. There may have been some chaos but not as large as they would like the public to believe. When the council left the meeting proceeded because there was a quorum. A few members had left and the rest chose a chairman for their meeting. The rest continued in an orderly manner with opposing points of view heard, with points of order conceded and with votes cast.

The people there overwhelmingly voted that they did not want to see 1.2 billion of their hard-earned money disappear inside the maze of ever ballooning project costs. They voted that they wanted an audit of the finances of their society. And they voted that the secretary of our society be suspended until investigations are done. This being for and against lawyers we can reasonably expect a long court battle.

Despite that, there was a victory on Saturday. A solidarity. A will expressed. A clear shifting of political climates. Of course power corrupts it is expected, a lie is also expected. Dinner and a movie before you never call me again is the least we could ask of the LSK council.

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admission

Here’s the thing about all our important milestones the moment of achieving them does not change anything about us. No matter what it is the actual moment means nothing except symbolically, if you turn 50 you don’t suddenly feel 50 at the moment when your birthday rolls around. When you get married you don’t immediately become a good partner because you said your vows. Most milestones are in the end a culmination of a journey or on the opposite end of the spectrum the beginning of another one. Here I’m thinking about parenthood or presidency. On the day that child is born things will change you are suddenly responsible for a living, breathing, existing human being but it’s not the moment that matters. It’s what happens from then until departure from this mortal coil.

It’s hard to remember that nothing happens when something happens. Nothing changes on your birthday and nothing really changed on the day I was admitted to the bar. The weeks before were great weeks, times of anticipation and anxiety. Happiness and hope. I was looking forward to something, a thing that I had worked for that would show me that all the years of university and law school and all the months in the wilderness of pupillage meant something. This feeling that having the Chief Justice call my name and accept me officially as an advocate of the high court would immediately and irrevocably vindicate all the work I had done to get there was definitely a false one but not one I could avoid. That that moment, that this day, that the capstone it was would somehow reach back into all the things I have hated about the journey here (and if one person ever tells you that they did not hate the journey here you have on your hands a pathological liar) and gild them. Make them the struggles of a man with a destination in mind.

It does not do that. What it does though is give you a sense of pride. Every long journey dwarfs its destination but joy at arrival is unavoidable. It didn’t change anything but it felt like something and maybe this is why we like milestones. They are a time when we can look back at the beginning and remember that we made it this far. Because, shit it was hard. Law was hard and never-ending. Admission to the bar was a mirage, the closer I came the further it receded with more and more obstacles put in my way. More and more time tucked on. Things that I did not expect to have to do, things that nobody told me about nearly 8 years ago when I first walked into my first law lecture. The first thing nobody told me is that it would take this long even without failing a single paper. I had a year tucked on because I took a year off but what that means is that it would have taken me 7 years to finish the journey. Any journey that takes that long leaves you exhausted, wizened, jaded and cynical.

The boy I was deserved more to be an advocate of the high court more than the boy I am now. This is an unfortunate by-product of the journey from there to here being so long and so financially unrewarding. That it takes you 3 years longer than your peers to be qualified to earn a living in your chosen profession definitely adds some ill-feeling to you. There’s nothing you can do with the envy but try to catch up, run to catch up, take corners and shortcuts to catch up because at this point in your life you are sure that the world does not do anyone any favours. The meek may one day inherit the earth but that will only be once the wolves die and in our long history the wolves are not yet gone from our midst so the choice is clear wait another x years or take yours now.

We were given speeches about justice and dedication. Young advocates must be told such things on the day they are admitted. However the first person to speak to us, the vice-president of the law society admitted to us the most important thing to the society that supposedly represents us; money. The second sentence after observing protocol was one reminding us that doing one thing as an advocate without paying our subscription fees (20,000/= a sum that for most of us outstripped our monthly salary as at that point) we would be committing a crime. The threat was explicit, the motive clear. 500 people being admitted meant there would be nearly ten million shillings going into their coffers and her speech from the beginning let us know just how important this money was to them. How mercenary lawyers really are is extremely clear when the first words of welcome to new colleagues is a reminder of fees.

Law used to be a noble profession she went on to say. It’s what people always say, show me something without a golden past and I will show you something without a past, she spoke of a courtesy that existed before that we may never have a chance to experience forgetting that she had immediately began by being immensely discourteous. Welcome the guests allow them to be comfortable before you ask them to pitch in for groceries seems like a good rule of thumb. And only then can you lie to them. Because it’s hard to believe that law was ever a noble profession. This is like begging any of us to believe that humanity is a noble race. There have been noble lawyers but the vast amount of them have been vile and venal. A profession like this, one that puts the practisers in a position where they can wield power inevitably has more bad apples than good ones. Power corrupts. Making people wait for as long as they possibly can before they get power also corrupts because they begin to imagine what they will do to reward themselves for that struggle even before they have reached the summit.

To be admitted you need to wear a full suit. Added to that you have to wear a black, heavy robe and on your head you have to add a wig. The chief justice has allowed the world to know how he feels about the clothing I have mentioned. He disapproves of something that throws us back to a colonial past and a set of traditions that we can’t seem to escape from. During the admission he mentioned that this get-up was not compulsory, however in the letters informing us of our admission we were told that we must dress up like this. You see, it is not individuals that safeguard traditions but institutions. It is not the president but the country, not the mother but the family, not the pope but the church that is impliable. It is the latter that is so scared of irrelevancy that it will fight tooth and nail no matter who is at its head to stay the same because change is scary.

I mind that it’s a sign of colonialism but so is our bi-cameral legislature. I worry that it’s a sign of decay and resistance of change. Law, the Chief Justice told us, is a conservative career path. Things don’t change here, nothing changes. In the end old men make decisions based on the reasoning and writing of other old men. Disagreement is slow and imperceptible. Institutional change is nearly impossible and I can’t imagine that the day will come when somebody will be happy that they went to court. I tell all my friends that lawyers like doctors are people you only want to see at the beginning of things; births and company incorporations and land transfers. You don’t want to see either of them somewhere in the middle because something went wrong.

I was incredibly happy to be admitted even though the preceding may not show it. I was happy to sit there in my wig and robe. I was happy to sit there because I had done a lot of work to get there because of all the sacrifices I had made to get there. I was delighted to be there because my family was there too and they celebrate in every milestone I have ever received. Showering me with unconditional and many times undeserved love having made sacrifices that I didn’t always know about and very rarely appreciated and to let them know it was not a waste is worth sitting in a robe and a wig in the middle of a desert.

I was happy to be admitted because it was the kind of milestone that stands in middle. There was a lot that went into this and there is a lot to come out of it in the future. In fact its only when I think of all that I can do that I get happy about being admitted. The end of the race is always great but all endings areunhappy. Thinking about it as a beginning as a chance to practice the law properly or to take any of the other options now available because I made it this far is a better way to look at it. While writing earlier I was falling into the musty attitude of law where the past is far more important than the future. Where a hundred year old judgement can affect the life of a person alive now. So instead I’ll cast off my wig and look to the future and say in all honesty it felt great to be admitted. The anticipation was good, the day was great and the sense of anticipation for the future that I feel welling up makes everything better.

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