When Robert Frost wrote the poem, ‘‘The Road Not Taken’’ he must have had people like Prof Patricia Kameri-Mbote in mind. While there are contestations over the exact meaning of the poem, it is normally cited to demonstrate taking the path that is less trodden.
In life we have choices at various stages. It is easy and normal to take the approach of doing what everybody finds easy and expected. True leaders are those who do not just follow the less used path, but who make their own path and follow it diligently. This is the category to which Prof Mbote belongs.
Annie Patricia G. Kameri-Mbote is not a politician nor is she a top corporate executive. One may therefore be forgiven for not knowing her. However, any lover of the academics and of law must know her. She is a currently a full professor of Law at the University of Nairobi. Since graduating with a bachelor’s degree in law in 1987, she has gone on to scale the academic heights.
On July 17, 2019 she became the second person at the University of Nairobi to successfully undertake a higher doctorate in law. To contextualise the magnitude of her feat, the University of Nairobi, confirmed that she was not just the sixth person to ever achieve the honour, but she was the first woman in East and Central Africa.
The ceremony was graced by her former and current students, members of the university community and representatives of all the three arms of Government, in addition to a large number from the legal fraternity. This was testament to Prof Mbote’s influence in society. Her higher doctorate was about law’s role in society. Under the title ‘‘Contending norms in a plural legal system: The Limits of Formal Law,’’ Prof Mbote argued for a move away from formality and legality to what she referred to as integrity or wholesomeness.
This way law can better serve the purpose of justice and ensure that citizens have faith in rules since they serve as a tool for solving the problems of society as opposed to the current situation where law sometimes is used to exacerbate problems.
This requires that the basis of making decisions and actions by citizens be driven by the desire to do good, the concept of ubuntu. It is only when laws align to societal values and delivers whatever citizen feels is right that such will be useful and gain legitimacy.
Prof Mbote’s thesis was a culmination of decades of painstaking academic life, what she liked to call a labour of love. When it was fashionable to choose a career in private legal practice, she chose the academy. In the academy she was not content to just do the minimum. Coming at a time when there were very few female members of staff teaching law, she had to literally make her own path. She chose not to rest on her laurels but instead to scale the academic heights. Her public defense of her Higher Doctorate in Law confirmed her as the senior most and most distinguished member of the law caculty.
Prof. Mbote has not just achieved a distinguished feat. She has mentored many younger scholars. I had the privilege of being supervised by her both for my Masters and PhD studies. She continues to nurture younger academics, always challenging them to exceed her. This challenge is invariably accompanied by ideas on how to improve once academic status.
You will find her holding the academic hand of an undergraduate student, discussing a research idea with a Masters student, organising a celebration for a fresh PhD graduate, giving a post-graduate fellowship grant to another graduate, supporting anew member of staff to teach a course, encouraging others to enroll for PhD studies while still having all the time in the world to attend to normal tasks of life.
Prof Mbote is testament to the fact that it is possible to be successful in one’s chosen path of life if you put the effort into it. She also demonstrates that society needs to give space for all to prosper without hindrances. Ad she argued in her doctorate, society has several informal norms some deriving from ethnicity and others gender, amongst other spaces.