Mary Atieno Ang’awa: Dialogue with an Adventist judge in Kenya’s High Court

Like many Adventist girls, Mary Atieno Ang’awa really wanted to be a teacher. She loved art and music, and she wanted to share this love in a school environment. She also loved children. However, one day while in her A level, a guest lecturer spoke to her class about law and about how much a lawyer can do for the service of the community and the nation. The guest, a state attorney, spoke also about the challenge faced by women trying to get into law in Kenya. At the end of the lecture, students were encouraged to fill in admission forms to the law school. Mary applied, and she was the only one to be accepted.

That was the turning point. Within a few years she graduated from law school at the University of Nairobi. And then, in June 1993, she had her highest opportunity of service when the chief justice of Kenya’s High Court escorted her to the State House, where she was sworn in by the President of Kenya as a judge of the apex court. Justice Ang’awa was the fourth woman to be so honored in the country.

Prior to this important appointment, she served in many capacities: advocate, magistrate, and member of two government commissions.

Justice Ang’awa, please tell us about your background.

I was born in an Adventist family in Mombasa, the port city of Kenya. My early education took place at Maxwell Adventist Preparatory School in Nairobi, and later I transferred to public schools for secondary and college education.

As a woman judge in a part of the world where male dominance is prevalent, how do you feel?

That’s no problem at all. I am speaking specifically for the bench. Here I am a professional, and the judiciary accepts me as a fellow jurist.

What are your specific responsibilities?

I serve as a Puisne Judge, which is the same as an Appellate Court judge. All the cases from the subordinate courts come to me on appeal. I also sit as an Original Court. In cases like murder that carry a death sentence or in cases of civil matters where they are under limited jurisdiction, I am able to hear any matter on any subject within Kenya.

You are known as a no-nonsense judge. Being a judge and a Seventh-day Adventist at the same time, do you face any special challenges?

To have an Adventist standing before me in court because of some dispute he or she might have had with someone is perhaps one such challenge. I believe as Christians we ought to be the first to be reconciled before matters reach the court. Is that not the counsel of the Bible and the church? I feel such reconciliation should be sought even when matters involve a Seventh-day Adventist and a non-Seventh-day Adventist. However, when I do find that one of the parties in dispute is my fellow church member, I usually try to refer the case to another court.

Does an Adventist have right to come to the court to seek constitutional remedy in matters such as Sabbath observance?

Of course, because this is a fundamental right. Unfortunately, our members in Kenya have never really used the court very much in defense of their religious liberty. They would rather be fired than work on the Sabbath. Yet the courts are there for the people. In 1993, for example, a group of Adventist girl students were expelled from their school because they refused to attend classes on Sabbath. The Adventist Advocate Association got involved, and one of their advocates took the matter to court. Eventually the girls were reinstated.

As a judge, how do you find job satisfaction?

My job satisfaction comes when I see two people who come squabbling before me go home both satisfied. One, of course, loses, for we are in an adversary system in which one person has to lose. But to have them go satisfied, saying, “At least we got a fair trial,” is a great satisfaction for me.

How important is the church in your life?

Perhaps your question should be, “How important is God to you?” God is first in my life. Although I attended Maxwell Adventist School in Nairobi, I did not give my life to Christ until later. My father died when I was a teenager. This experience was one of disappointment for me, and my first response was to reject Christ. I later discovered that there was nowhere to turn but to Jesus; thus, before I went to the university, I accepted Jesus and was baptized. The university experience was a good one because it taught me to enjoy freedom and yet be accountable. The Adventist campus ministry provided spiritual nourishment and strength. Living on a secular campus makes one appreciate even more the joys of Friday vespers and Sabbath services.

How vivid is your experience with God?

Throughout my life, I’ve experienced God’s marvelous guidance. I know He has been looking after me. While at the law school, I have seen how God allowed me to pass examinations despite my not attending classes on Sabbath. Since that time I have made a commitment to the Lord that I will trust Him in all my endeavors. I have also experienced His leading in my professional life. He has given me opportunities for growth and service time after time.

Now, can you tell us about your role in the church?

In the past I have been very involved in church activities such as Sabbath school, youth, Pathfinders, and church building projects. Recently, I helped start the Association of Adventist Lawyers in Kenya. We are currently trying to coordinate the Trust Service Program for the East African Union. I still teach a Sabbath school class in my local church.

Involvement in church work is very important to me. I compare it to wood burning in a fireplace. Take a piece of wood that has been burning, and put it aside. What happens? It dies, even though the flame in the fireplace keeps burning. Likewise, to keep us spiritually alive and aflame, we need to be involved in the local church.

I am a private person. I am single. Moreover, I am forced not to mix with litigants, so I find my church life even more important.

Do you have time for other activities?

I belong to several professional organizations and am currently involved in forming the Adventist Laymen Association under the umbrella of the church, to coordinate lay members in participating fully in church activities. I am also the founder-director of SANAGA, a non-governmental organization helping the poor, particularly women and children.

Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned the support that you received from Adventist campus ministries while you were a student. What is the status of this program in Kenya?

When I attended the university back in the 1970s, the campus ministries program was small. We had one university in Kenya, the University of Nairobi, with only a few Adventist students. Today, it is estimated that there are between 2,500 to 3,000 Adventists studying at the five public universities and their 15 respective campuses. About 1,500 of these are involved in activities sponsored by our campus ministries program, which is directed by two full-time chaplains. Since our church does not operate enough secondary schools for our youth, there is also an Adventist campus program aimed at students attending public secondary schools and similar institutions, with eight chaplains. The church must continue to seriously address the needs of our students attending public institutions. It must provide adequate budgets for strengthening this important ministry.

What can you tell us about the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Kenya?

For the last two years I have been most fortunate to be residing in Nyori, a rural town at the foothills of Mt. Kenya. There are many small churches in this area. Oh, how the people are on fire for Christ! To cite an example, quite a number of our young people have given up career jobs to become literature evangelists. Apart from selling religious and medical books, these young literature evangelists have formed evangelistic teams and are preaching Christ to the people of this area. New churches are being established in unentered areas. Many of our church members give of their time and meager means to ensure that the gospel is proclaimed. While the sacrificial spirit of our people is commendable, there are times when the work is hampered because of lack of funds.

Although the present church membership in Kenya has exceeded 400,000, making the East African Union one of the largest in the world, there are still many sincere women and men who must be reached for the Lord. This will be achieved, under God’s blessing, as church workers and lay members unite and move forward together.

Interview by W. Ray Ricketts. W. Ray Ricketts is campus ministries director for the East African Union. He serves Adventist students attending public universities in Kenya. Address of Judge Ang’awa: c/o Elder W. Ray Ricketts; P.O. Box 42276; Nairobi; Kenya.