Profiles

Joyce Aluoch: Career built on pleasing daddy

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Retired Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch poses for a photo during an interview at Serena Hotel on April 12, 2023. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NMG

Essentially what Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch, EBS, CBS (Rtd) has been doing her whole career is to extend the works of Themis, the Greek goddess of justice and law. And illustriously so.

She’s the first vice president of the International Criminal Court, the second woman Court of Appeal and High Court judge as well as a magistrate.

Now she is part of a 12-member Judicial Reform Committee for South Sudan under the Peace Agreement known as the Revitalised (power sharing) Agreement for the resolution of the conflict in South Sudan.

You could say that Lady Justice sits in important rooms with men who don’t agree. She listens and helps these men navigate difficult conversations, by finding the right language to communicate.

A peaceful language, if you will. To mean, Lady Justice is accustomed to walking on the knife's edge blindfolded, like the goddess Themis.

What kind of a woman was your mother?

My mother, the late Mrs Alisiah Josiah was a housewife. She gave birth to 10 of us. I was the seventh child.  She instilled discipline and the value of education and hard work in me at a very young age.

My father was in the provincial administration, this was before independence. There were only four Africans who were district commissioners, and my father, E.O. Josiah, was one of them.

My uncle was also the first provincial commissioner. My father's family were very tall people. He was a disciplined man.

He would dress properly when going to work. They were trained at an institution based in Kabete, which now I think is a government school. We all admired him. That’s the environment I grew up in.

What happened in your childhood that set you on this path?

Shall I tell you the truth?

Sure, do tell.

I told you I was number seven in our family, right? We lived in Ugenya, near River Nzoia. That's where we all grew up, a big family that consisted of all my uncles and our cousins.

School was very far, maybe about 5 kilometres (km). In fact, the other day I asked my youngest brother, 'Frank, you went to that school long after me, how far was it from home?'

He said maybe 4 and a half kilometres. That’s the distance I would walk in the morning and back in the evening. It was too strenuous.

Sometimes, when it was raining we’d have to cross the swollen river and on those occasions, my mom would help us cross it.

I hated the long walk. When I told my mom I wouldn’t do it anymore she said, 'If you want to stop walking that far, you have to work hard and get admitted to boarding school'.

At that time, you had to pass an impossible exam in Class Four, and people often failed it. So that was my earliest motivation, to work hard and stop walking 10kms to school.

I passed the exam and joined the prestigious Ngiya Girls which was a missionary school.

Did you feel loved as a child?

Yes. I think we all felt loved. Because I was number seven, I would be the one to make mandazis and tea whenever my sisters had visitors. I liked working in the kitchen. So anyway, I felt valued as a child.

Your choice of career, how did it come about?

That’s an interesting story. After Ngiya Girls I joined Butere Girls School then for the first time I left Nyanza and came to these sides of the country to study at Limuru Girls for my A-level.

At that time, black students were the minority population. I was a prefect and one day I got myself in trouble because instead of shouting to wake up the girls, I yanked off their blankets.

The headmistress was furious. In my defence I told her that in my previous school girls were awake and working on the farm by 6 am, not sleeping until ten minutes to 7 am.

I told her, “Miss MacDonald, today, this school is European, but in a few years it will be African. And really Miss MacDonald, there is no way that you wake up an African girl at ten to 7.”

She looked at me shocked and said, “Really?” I said, “Yeah, where we come from, we don’t wait for our mothers to wake us up at 7 am.”

She calmed down and just like that, the rule changed. [Pause]. What had you asked again…?

How you end-

Yes, how I ended up in law. Was it my choice? I didn’t have a choice. I was not in close contact with lawyers- and I think it’s very important that younger people have role models.

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Retired Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch at her Karen home in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG

I didn’t have a role model who was a lawyer. So it’s not something I gave a thought to. But during my school holiday, during the two years when I was at Limuru Girls, my father who was still here in Nairobi working for the Public Service Commission, would get me employment.

I worked at the Immigration department, and at Probation, where my supervisors would send me to the field for interviews. I interacted with many female probation officers so I thought I would be like them.

One morning after finishing Form Six, my father said, “Dress up, we are going somewhere.” I didn’t ask him where. In those days you did as commanded.

It was unlike today when even my 10-year-old grandson Ochieng contests. He wants to know why and where? 

I got ready, waited for my father to have his breakfast and when he finished we got into his car and drove to the place where the School of Law used to be.

We went into a building and then into the office of the principal, Mr Tudor Jackson. My father said, “I’m Mr Josiah. I’m sorry I cannot sit, I’m busy, I’m going to work. This is my daughter, she has just done her A levels, and she did well. I want her to be a lawyer and I don’t have time, but I’m leaving her with you.”

That is how I ended up as a lawyer. (chuckles)

Fascinating.

And you know, at that time, a girl was not the first choice of most fathers. It was expected that a father would do that for a boy in the family. But here was my father taking me, a girl.

That just shows that even at then, there were fathers who didn't differentiate between girls and boys. They looked at what they thought were the merits of each child.

Do you ever wish you pursued a different path?

No. Everything I have done in my legal career, I did for my father, to please him.

What have you done for yourself?

I think I also did these things for myself. (chuckle)

Do you have other ambitions?

Now I have grandchildren. When I started having my children, my ambition was to see them pursue their own fields, not necessarily mine.

I always say that what my father did to me, I would not want to do to my child. I let my children choose. But when I started studying law, I worked hard at it.

It's a pity that by the time I was a high court judge, my father had died. I always imagine that he would have been very proud seeing how far I have come.

You sit in chairs where you are required to make Solomonic decisions. What is the rule of thumb in conflict resolution?

Concentrate and listen to both parties carefully. In court, as a judge, and as a magistrate, I listened, and eventually I made a decision.

This is different from what I've been doing since I ventured into alternative dispute resolution because, at the Hague, I trained as a mediator, which is different from arbitration.

As a mediator, I listen to the parties and then I assist them in their communications, but they eventually have to make the decision themselves.

What do you enjoy most, mediation or arbitration?

Mediation.

Why?

Because I can help the parties to communicate. I'm doing a lot of this in South Sudan with the peacebuilding effort and it's interesting when I give them the chance to make the decision.

You've made a lot of decisions in your career, but what's the toughest decision you've made in your personal life?

There have been many. (Pause) When I was nominated by the government to run for election at the International Criminal Court, it dawned on me that I had to leave and physically live at The Hague, in the Netherlands.

That was a difficult decision. It was tough because I had never lived alone. I mentioned that I’m from a big family of 10 children and then I got married early. I’d never lived alone.

My husband, who is a doctor, wasn't going to move with me, and neither were my three daughters who were all pursuing their careers.

Was it tough?

Yes. It was tough. But the work was interesting, very interesting. I was suddenly working with a diverse group of commonwealth judges from all over the world. That was something I had not dealt with.

Did you discover anything about yourself being alone there for all those years?

Yes. That I could adjust, that I could live alone. Also, I suddenly had a lot of time on my own so I did a lot of reading, not just law books, I started reading novels.

I made friends, and some of the judges became good friends. I also joined the Rotary for the first time; The Rotary Club of The Hague Metropolitan. Now I belong to the rotary club in Nairobi.

[A member of staff comes to say hello]

You must get that a lot. What's the most common question people ask you?

(Chuckles) Oh, like that lady just commented, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were back from the Hague!' I got back from The Hague in 2018 but refused any kind of interview at that time because I wanted to settle down.

Some people say, “Judge, you haven’t changed at all, you are still friendly and humble, how do you do it?” I don't know about that. It’s just who I am.

I get a lot of requests for mentorship, not just from girls, I also mentor young men. Most people want to know how I got where I am now.

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Retired Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch at a past event. FILE PHOTO | NMG

I’d like to know that too…

(Laughs) Determination. I was very ethical. I believe in ethics. People have to be honest with themselves. I was a Girl Guide for a long time, and we always say once a guide always a guide.

Being true to yourself, and being honest, is important. When you do your things properly, you never turn back to check, wondering 'is he looking at me, who is following me?'

So, there is the most common question that people ask you, but is there a question you wish people asked you that they don't?

(Chuckle) What an interesting question. [Pause] I've been married for 52 years now. Maybe people should ask me, 'Eh, judge, you're still married, how have you stayed for so long?' [Chuckling]

What makes you have self-doubt?

When I do not know enough.

You're in your 70s, which period of your life did you enjoy the most?

I enjoyed growing up because we were a big family. In my father's family, they had eight boys and one girl and all of them had so many children.

So I enjoyed growing up amongst cousins. I also enjoyed bringing up my children, and being a mother even though I was so busy being a professional. You have to learn how to balance.

How did you balance?

There is no formula, you just give time to what needs time at that time. I think most mothers know how to balance. I hope I gave my children the best.

I have three daughters, two sons-in-law, and three grandchildren, I have a big family.

Have you ever been rebellious?

(Chuckles) Maybe there were times I was rebellious. I don't know. Maybe when I don't want to do something but that's the order that everybody is supposed to observe.

The one thing I'm sure I'm not is a vicious person. And even if I don't like something, I will not shout and say I don't like this.

I find my way of letting you know that I don't like it. Sometimes I say maybe mediation was in me, that I just hadn't brought it out.

With your skills, expertise, and experience, did you find it easy to resolve issues in marriage?

In a marriage, you have to be very tactful. You have to learn about your spouse. There are things if you know your spouse, you let them have.

You don’t fight it. One has to be very tactful to be able to balance things in a marriage.

Do you see yourself slowing down? 

I thought I had slowed down. Hadn't I? (laughs) What I'm doing in South Sudan right now needs time. It takes time and patience. I go to Sudan for about two weeks or so, and when I come back I stay two or three days just relaxing.

Is there anything that scares you?

(Chuckles) Yeah. Why not?

What?

When people learn about the work that I do in South Sudan they ask me, "Are you not scared?" I’m not, they are human beings who live there. I never feel unsafe.

There are things that scare me, though. You know after you've dealt with people as long as I have over the years, there are times I can look at somebody and wonder if they have bad intentions for me.

There is always that feeling, especially on the days that I would make fateful decisions. I get uncomfortable when I get that kind of energy from someone.

You have a lot of red on you, is it your favourite colour?

(Chuckles) I just have colour coordination. You know, I have worn nothing but black my whole judicial career, sitting on the bench day in and day out.

Now I have an opportunity to be colourful except when I'm in South Sudan because there I have to conform to the code of conduct of judicial officers so I am mostly in black.

I like your rings. They're very out there.

(Chuckles) I’m surprised you noticed them! I just love rings. I have maybe 20 rings and the type of outfit I’m wearing dictates the kind of ring I will wear.

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