Meet Kenya’s first indigenous lawyer who helped end colonial rule

Nduta Waweru Jan 29, 2019 at 08:00am

January 29, 2019 at 08:00 am | History

Nduta Waweru

Nduta Waweru | Contributor

January 29, 2019 at 08:00 am | History

Photo: Daily Nation.

Argwings Kodhek made waves when he became the first indigenous lawyer in Kenya in 1949 but that would be soon overshadowed by the fact that he married a white woman and dared to settle with her in colonial Kenya.

Born Clement Michael George Argwings Kodhek in 1923, he received a scholarship to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, now Cardiff University in 1947,  graduating as a lawyer and social scientist in 1949.

He sailed back to the country in 1952 with his Irish wife, Mavin Tate, but met with a quagmire over their living conditions. 

In colonial Kenya, a black man having sexual relations with a white woman would be punished by death and a white man having relations with a black woman was not punished.  Secondly, Nairobi was segregated at the time: Westlands was designated white-only and Eastlands was black-only. 

This proved to be a problem for the couple as they were not allowed onto each other race’s areas. Kodhek went to court and fought for the law to allow them to live together. He won.

At the time, Kenya was already agitating for independence from Britain.  The famous Mau Mau was under the crackdown of the colonialists at the command of governor Sir Phillip Mitchell.  After his retirement in 1952, his post was taken over by Sir Evelyn Baring, who declared a state of emergency.

This was the political situation that Kodhek had walked into when he came back home. And he made a choice to represent the more than 500 Mau Mau supporters detained without any legal representation.

His first move was to get a job at the attorney general’s office only to be offered a salary that was one third of what Europeans in the same grade earned.

He protested and left to set up his own law firm under which he would save many Mau Mau members from the hangman’s noose.  This earned him the moniker “Mau Mau lawyer’ from the settlers who did their best to demean him. It did not matter to him as he continued saving these freedom fighters, including 48 of them who were charged following the 1953 Lari Massacre on a legal technicality.

He was also instrumental in shaping the politics of the city at the time, standing up against renowned trade unionist, Tom Mboya, and working alongside Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. 

Once Kenya got independence, he was able to represent Gem constituency as a member of parliament. He went ahead to serve as a minister in three dockets.

Kodhek died on this day in 1969 in an accident termed as suspicious and mysterious on the road that currently bears his name. 

He is remembered as one of Kenya’s prolific human rights lawyers and politicians who shaped independent Kenya.

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