Emotional chat with Patricia Nyaundi

Kenya National Commission on Human Rights CEO Patricia Nyaundi at her Nairobi office on August 10, 2016. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA
Kenya National Commission on Human Rights CEO Patricia Nyaundi at her Nairobi office on August 10, 2016. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA  

Patricia Nyaundi has a law degree from the University of Nairobi, Master’s of Law Degree in Human Rights from University of Cape Town and is now pursuing a doctorate.

If there ever was a more qualified voice on women’s rights, gender-based violence and harmful traditional practices, it’s Patricia.

She worked as the executive director at Federation of Women Lawyers (Fida) and as CEO of Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission.

We met at Java Valley Arcade for breakfast. She ordered one egg and coffee, which grew cold.

She’s got an unflinching personality, intelligent and speaks softly, but firmly.

You and your husband (Ken Nyaundi) are both renowned lawyers, how is that house with two very intelligent and successful people in one space?

[Laughs] Just two lawyers, I don’t know whether they’re intelligent.

I think they are. So how’s your household?

Actually, interestingly, we don’t bring our work to the house. We don’t relate as two lawyers. I don’t think it informs — at least from my end — our relationship. What it does, probably, is that it allows us to understand each other. So I can live with the long hours at the office on his end, I know when he’s challenged. He’s also always in a position to help me professionally when I seek for help.

How did you meet?

It was a classroom romance.

One of those, eh?

(Laughs) We met in university, then we firmed up the relationship at the Kenya School of Law and married soon after.

They say that Hillary Clinton was a better lawyer than Bill and that Michelle is a better lawyer than Obama. Are you a better lawyer than Ken?

He’s better than me technically. But I have the heart.

The heart?

I think with my heart. I think I support him in this regard because you know the law is black and white, but you interpret it within a context. That’s how we complement each other. He’s very good and he’ll cite things I had long forgotten from school days, but I’ll always have the ‘what if’ or the ‘because’. So you want to do this brief because you have it right on the law but what does it look like representing that client? Why should you? And, okay, we’ll get the money but there’s the ‘what did we engage in?’

Is it very important to bring your heart to the law?

I think so because your interaction with the client never ends even after the decision. That’s why for me the heart is also important because I always feel like after I’ve been your advocate, it will have a long-term impact in your life.

For that reason, when I’m giving people legal advice, it’s never just the plain law. If you really need a divorce, this is what it means, “Will you go the whole way? It means you might need to cave in on some issues. What’s the meat of the conflict? What can you live with and what really works?”

Because from my own experiences, sometimes the black and white of the law does not meet the real needs of the people who are involved in a legal issue.

Is there a particular case that you dealt with that drained you emotionally?

I think the one that made me go into to women’s rights issues was when I handled a divorce on behalf of a lady and she was at the appellant stage.

Her husband was also an advocate and because of that, the matter turned against her. She had been denied access of her three-year-old child because her ex-husband’s lawyer argued that she was mentally unsound. It was dehumanising for her. We lost that case except to get her limited access. I think I had fully immersed myself in the case and we’re always warned against it.

Do you think it’s still a man’s world or are women taking over?

I think there’s increasingly room for women. Some people still think they can lock women out and there are some women who still think the doors are locked. If you go to universities now, there’s an increase of female students in what were historically male careers. It’s not happening in one big boop! We are progressing. Things are changing.

Do you have hobbies that you do consistently to unwind?

What I do is religion.

Okay. Religion is your hobby?

It’s my passion. You know those things that excite someone? Waking up, going to a good church service, having a good fellowship, listening to a good sermon that I feel, “That has spoken to me.” That’s my passion, then, motivational talks. If you give me a podium and I’m talking to young people and sharing my experiences, that also drives me.

Listen, sorry on the loss of you daughter. [She lost her campus-going daughter last year in a freak accident at the Nairobi National Park]


I don’t know if this is off-topic or it’s something you would want to talk about.

Well, I can talk about it.

How does losing your child affect your religion?

It causes you to question it. I mean, God, I gave my life to you. So why? But what it also did, it affirmed. I still have my two feet on the ground so I am able to say God’s grace is sufficient.

There are still some things I’m unbundling with God: I don’t believe that I serve a God who does these tests because that’s what I heard a lot during that period. “That God sends you things that you are able to handle.” I don’t think so. I refuse to accept that because it’s a cruel thing and I don’t think God is cruel in that way. I think the test is that when life serves me some things like this, that I can still remain faithful to him.

My immediate impulse was just to throw it all away, but I’ve gone through a journey that says life does still have a purpose. So I once said I felt like humpty dumpty (laughs) and I’d been glued together, but the pieces are not together. It’s been a horrible one year. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my colleagues.

“Unbundling with God,” I like that...

Yeah, I think the other thing is, I couldn’t remain there. I can’t. I can’t remain in that moment of my loss. I can’t drown myself in it. I have two other children, a husband and a job that has deliverables. For one year I think I just was in some dark hole only coming out to do what had to be done and then going back in. My friends pulled me through. I’ve had my church friends who when I’ve not been able to read the bible, have sustained me and pushed me on and said, “You can, you can. Just get that inner resolve.”

Then my family. I think what has made it work is to see my husband struggle with it and still do some things that I know he doesn’t have the heart to, but for him knowing that it is important. So seeing him do these things, I said, “If he can, I should.”

How does that kind of loss affect you as a mother?

Luckily for me, if I can call it luck, the child I lost is the one I was very connected to. I was fully immersed in her, she looked like me and she was as religious as I was. So luckily for me, the child I lost is the one I owed no debt. I felt I had given her a 100 per cent and she’d given me a 100 per cent. So what it did, it opened my eyes to the other two.

I’m now aware that nothing is permanent. Now you take it for granted that the people you love is for eternity and you have the rest of your life to give them. I feel so lucky that by the time she was taken from me, I didn’t have something I can say I didn’t give her.

That is such a deep and profound thing to say.

I don’t know. When I cry, I cry for things like, she should have been here. When good things happened, I used to share them with her. So when I cry, it’s just, she won’t be able to see this.
[She breaks into tears].

Sorry for upsetting you with this talk. Look, let’s talk about something else.

[Waves away]. No,’s fine, you can be sure I cry often. When I was watching Hillary Clinton make her speech, I thought, “I should have been seated here with her.’’ I’d have been telling her “Look, this is what this is about.” Every time women were achieving, I’d tell her “Look at that. That’s for you also.” So now that she’s not there, I’m seeing my other children so clearly and appreciating them more. I also fully appreciate what mortality is.

Is there a book you read during this time that helped you somewhat? Maybe something you watched?

I listened to a song she had sent me on Whatsapp two weeks before. In the song, the musicians are singing about how they look forward to going to Jerusalem.

It felt like a premonition. If she was ready and because I am religious, I am certain that we will meet. So what keeps me going is that I don’t want to take away the joy of our reunion.

I don’t want her to say “But mum, you cried everyday, but you knew we would meet. So what was all that about?”
[Tears again, and looks away.]

Look. Let’s not talk about this. Your coffee is cold, should we ask them to heat it up?

No, it’s OK, I will have it this way.