From Kibera to the courtroom: The untold story of Justice Teresiah Matheka

Justice Teresiah Mumbua Matheka in her office in Nakuru on February 6, 2023.

Photo credit: Francis Mureithi I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • In a world where justice often feels solemn and serious, the dreadlocked judge brings warmth, laughter and a fierce dedication to defending children.
  • She was part of the five-judge bench that thrashed the proposed constitutional amendments under the Building Bridges Initiative.

Meeting High Court Judge Teresiah Mumbua Matheka for the first time, you easily tell she likes visitors by the hearty laugh she bursts into.

As I settle down for an interview in her office in Nakuru City, the infectious laughter makes me comfortable. With happiness bubbling up out of her, you can’t keep a straight face. You temporarily forget that you are in a quiet environment, a massive chamber where weighty judgments are written.

“The problem with me is that I laugh a lot until I close my eyes. I learnt something about life. We need to be happy, despite our challenges and problems. It helps us to face the day with hope,” begins Justice Matheka, as we sit down for a conversation on her journey from the slums of Kibera, Nairobi, to the corridors of justice.

“It’s good to have some guffaws at the end of a hard day. You know my first name is supposed to be pronounced Telesiah because, in the Kikamba language, we have no letter ‘r’. I feel happy when I go to shags (rural home) and the pronunciation of my first name with the letter ‘l’ rings around the homestead,” she tells Nation.Africa, yet again escorting her remark with a burst of wholesome laughter that fills up the office.

But how does her warm personality bring into play the kind of court leadership that delivers justice? Justice Matheka has a bias for children and does not hesitate to defend them at whatever cost. She, therefore, creates an aura of warmth, sincerity and joy, the kind in which any child would find refuge. She passionately talks about defending their rights.

Just a child, hear them out

“I have a very soft spot for children. My favourite part about being a judge is making a sound judgment about cases involving children’s matters,” she says.

“Children should be allowed to grow up stress-free so that they are able to enjoy life to the fullest. I hate seeing children's rights being trampled. Children's suffering reminds me of my days as a child growing up in Kibera slums.”

Her face and tone change when she recalls how in 2019 a young Rastafarian girl in Kibera was rejected by a school over dreadlocks.

“This incident offended me to the core because the girl had passed her KCPE and was rejected because of her religion,” says Justice Matheka, who loves wearing dreadlocks.

“What message was the teacher passing to this innocent girl? The poor girl had struggled with her education and keeping herself to that point was a mark of girl-child resilience.

“Denying a child the right to go to school because of flimsy reasons is wrong. Some teachers even chase away pupils because they are dirty but don’t bother to ask themselves whether these children have water at home or whether they have eaten.

“The Education Act does not talk about the child being clean, it talks about the right to education. I wonder why some teachers are busy looking at hairstyles, nails and teeth. Some pupils come to school on an empty stomach, yet some teachers want parents who cannot afford food to buy uniforms. Some teachers even chase pupils wearing faded second-hand pullovers. Who even said pupils must wear school uniforms?”

Justice says not even pregnancy should stand in a child’s way to education. “When a pregnant girl gathers courage and goes to school, that is great and teachers should not embarrass her.

“A girl cannot hide the pregnancy and teachers should make sure she is comfortable enough to learn because it is not a disease that can be transmitted to another girl. If all children went to school, we shall have 100 per cent literacy.”

Justice Matheka adds that when children are brought before the courts, they are traumatised and stigmatised. She recalls a case of an eight-year-old boy who was charged with arson by setting a sugarcane farm on fire in Butali, Kakamega County.

“It struck me that there are many children like that who end up in court after spending the night in the cell. The psychological harm caused to that child has never left my mind. We need a system in the Judiciary where a child can call and ask for a lawyer,” she says.

“If we don’t raise children properly, we don’t have a future. If we don’t teach them the right thing, especially about justice, we shouldn’t complain when they become irresponsible citizens.”

The judge says an intersex case she handled in Nyahururu pushed her boundaries to understand human beings.

“You can never be the judge of human beings. If you’re a gay person and appear before me, I will give you the rights according to the laws of this land not because of my faith. We’re so biased we don’t stop to think who an intersex person, lesbian, gay or transgender person is; they are all lumped together.”

She says some teachers label pupils as lesbians or homosexuals without investigating, thus destroying their future forever.

“How does a girl who holds hands with another become a lesbian or a boy exhibiting funny behaviour? You can be born a girl, but as you grow your hormones change. Before teachers condemn these pupils, they should hear their stories.”

Justice Matheka had an interesting childhood. She was born in the Mwea area of Mbooni, Machakos County. The family moved to Nairobi and settled at Kabati. They then relocated to Kibera. “I’m the firstborn in a family of two girls and four boys.”

Difficult childhood

Life in Kibera was tough for young Teresiah. “I sold vegetables. I saw young girls with babies drop out of school. It was a bad life. There was no electricity. I used a small lantern to study. Life in Kibera instilled discipline and I remained focused,” she recalls.

She went to Mbagathi Primary School, where she sat her Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) exam in 1978 and was admitted to Alliance Girls’ High School in 1979.

“I scored Division One of 11 points in O Levels. I wanted to become a nurse but I was sponsored for A Levels where I studied History, Geography and Literature and scored two As and a B and one subsidiary in the 1984 KACE,” said the mother of four (one daughter, two sons and an adopted niece).

She joined the University of Nairobi in 1986 and obtained a law degree in 1989 and a postgraduate diploma from the Kenya School of Law in 1990. She was admitted to the bar in 1991 and began her legal career in private practice in Mombasa.

But she always wanted to become a magistrate, so she joined the Judiciary in 1993 as a District Magistrate Grade 2 Professional and rose through the ranks, serving in several stations, among them Nairobi, Nyeri, Kakamega, Nyahururu, Nanyuki and Nakuru. She is currently stationed at Wote in Makueni County.


Her journey to becoming a judge was not a walk in the park. At one time, she applied for a master’s degree scholarship at the University of Zimbabwe, but then Chief Justice Johnson Evan Gicheru declined.

“I felt like dying when I saw the rejection letter, which stated that I find a similar course from the nearest university. I was devastated. It was a fully paid scholarship and the Judiciary was paying nothing, but I was denied the opportunity.

“I applied for the third time and then Chief Justice Willy Mutunga approved it. I couldn’t sleep. I was the happiest person. I didn’t want to tell anybody lest a bad omen visit again and it is cancelled.”

She completed her master's programme. Her mini-dissertation was on the rights of intersex persons.

During the vetting of judges and magistrates in 2012, Justice Matheka was found unsuitable to be a judicial officer.

“There were two complaints against me. The first one was very sad and horrendous. I was accused of being a drunkard by a complainant who never showed up during the vetting. He accused me of drinking during the day while working as a chief magistrate in Nyahururu.

“This accusation made me cry. It injured, tore and hit my fragile heart for no reason. The second complaint was about a typo in a robbery with violence judgment where a sentence was typed with the word ‘same’ instead of ‘save’. The complainant claimed I convicted him with his accomplice, yet his case was heard afresh.

“When you convict a person, there are documents you fill which show he has been convicted. No such documents had been filled.

Lifeline and motivation

“I appealed because I knew I had done nothing [wrong]. I was reinstated and transferred to Mombasa as chief magistrate.”

In 2017, she was appointed as a judge of the High Court. She says she didn’t imagine that one day she would become a judge.

“In those days to become a judge you had to know people. I didn’t know people. I had no connections. The appointing authority was the president and I had no slight idea how the president could get to know me. I had no idea how to get to the president.”

She singles out Court of Appeal Judge Mumbi Ngugi as the person she looks up to. “I admire Justice Mumbi Ngugi. There is a lot of calmness about her. Her understanding of the law is on another level. I read her judgments. I've always looked up to her. That is the kind of a judge I want to be.”

Justice Matheka has written many judgments, some of which have made her shed tears. 

Key judgments

“I sentenced suspects charged with robbery with violence to death in Nakuru and there were screams outside the court," she recounts.

"One accused lost his cool and started tearing his shirt and calling everyone a dog in the courtroom. That night when I went home, I was feeling so bad. I was asking myself who am I to sentence a person to death?

“I remember calling a priest friend of mine in Tanzania at night and I was crying. I found myself in the bodies of the mothers, wives and relatives and I was just asking myself how they felt and the screams they made outside my court.

"The priest told me I should not feel bad or panic as in this life there are different jobs for different people and that I was just doing my job.”

“Luckily for me, my consolation was that the judgement was upheld in the court of Appeal."

Recently when judges were told that the death sentence is not mandatory, she sentenced a man to death after he slashed a woman with a panga for declining his advances.

“The man slashed the woman like he was cutting firewood and I was convinced he planned this heinous offence.”

Although she has learned to hold back her tears while hearing children’s matters, some cases move her to tears.

“We should not pretend we don’t feel anything. We’re human beings. The Judiciary has counselling services that help staff overcome trauma and pressure of work and other personal issues. If I feel I need counselling, I will go for it. It’s good for me and the people who appear before me.”

Justice Matheka has distinguished herself as a bold judge and was part of the five-judge bench that thrashed the proposed constitutional amendments under the Building Bridges Initiative and declared the process irregular, illegal and unconstitutional. The other judges were Prof Joel Ngugi, George Odunga, Jairus Ngaah and Chacha Mwita.

Housewife decision

In 2021, Justice Matheka issued another landmark decision in Nakuru, declaring being a housewife a full-time job. Presiding over a matrimonial dispute, she termed it unfair for courts to deny the contribution that housewives provide to the financial progress of the household.

“It is easy for the spouse working away from home and sending money to lay claim to the whole property purchased and developed with that money by the spouse staying at home and taking care of the children and the family. That spouse will be heard to say that the other one was not employed, so they contributed nothing," said Justice Matheka.

She maintained that the services provided by a housewife should be considered work, as those tasks would otherwise be outsourced and paid for, hence it would be unfair to constitute only monetary contributions to the household as valuable.

Girls' right to inheritance 

In another exciting judgment she made in Nyeri, she said women can share their parents’ property with their brothers equally.

“Marriage doesn’t change your DNA. We have to change the narrative that boys inherit and girls don’t inherit because they get married. They are all children of one father and one mother.”

After a long day at work, she unwinds by listening to Lingala and Luo music. “I listen to rhumba and dance at home as part of my exercise regime. I also love Luo music. I also listen to Kamba music but it’s too fast to dance to. I have outgrown that kind of dance,” she concludes.