Q & A with Sr. Leonida Katunge on becoming a civil lawyer to help Kenya's religious

Sr. Leonida Katunge poses with her gown and wig on top of her habit and veil (Courtesy of Sr. Leonida Katunge)

Mombasa, Kenya — On Feb. 13, Sr. Leonida Katunge, who holds a doctorate in theology from the University of St. Anselm in Italy, was admitted to the bar as an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and recognized for academic excellence by Kenyan Chief Justice David Maraga. 

Frustrated by the government's reluctance to provide legal property documentation to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa's land, Katunge decided to study law. 

Katunge, 40, originally wanted to study canon law, but saw an opportunity to study civil law to help many religious men and women, including clergy, in Kenya to protect their properties and to offer them legal advice. She registered to study law at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA), where she was lecturing on sacred liturgy, and later proceeded to Kenya School of Law upon returning from Italy in 2013. 

"I came home to a serious problem. The property of the Sisters of St. Joseph was supposed to be conveyed from the original owners to the sisters, and by the time the transfer was effected in 2016, it had taken 13 years," she said.

Property ownership and legal documentation are challenges that face many church institutions in Kenya. In the past, some prominent politicians and government officials have been reported in the media for grabbing institutional lands while others sell a piece of land to multiple clients, making the acquisition of title deed a difficult process. 

GSR: Who is Sr. Leonida Katunge?

Katunge: I am a St. Joseph Sister from Mombasa, born in Makueni County, about 400 kilometers [almost 250 miles] outside Mombasa. In 1997, I joined the sisters and made my first vows Dec. 8, 2000, and solemn or perpetual vows on Dec. 8, 2011. I have studied philosophy, theology and law. I am a lecturer at CUEA, Tangaza University College, and Chemchemi ya Uzima Institute.

After finishing your doctorate, you came back to study law. What was your motivation?

The Sisters of St. Joseph, the congregation where I belong, had bought some property. Unfortunately, the advocate they had engaged to follow up the transfer of the property lost the sisters' documents, posing a challenge to the sister who was dealing directly with the lawyer to pursue the process further. 

I remember one of the sisters telling me, "Sister Leonida, please, we know you are capable, assist us to get these documents." I did not know what it meant, so I just went to this lawyer's office. I told him I needed the documents of Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa. However, I did not know what they were or what they entailed. 

British educator Clive Lawton, left, and Fr. Cantore Ottone of the Consolata Missionaries congratulate Sr. Leonida Katunge after hearing of her admission to the bar as advocate of the High Court of Kenya. (Rose Achiego)

He gave me the documents, but then I did not know where to begin the business of acquiring the title deed for the sisters. Thanks to the seller of the property, who really assisted me, eventually I did acquire the documents and passed them on to the sisters.

The whole process of following up with the Ministry of Lands, the banks and lawyers was hectic. But I learned something out of it. I said that it seems there is something missing. I realized that the Sisters of St. Joseph need a lawyer who will assist them to carry out such processes because employing a lawyer is quite expensive, and the efficiency of the process was still questionable. 

I took the challenge upon myself.

How does law connect with your congregation?

Actually, when I tell someone that I am studying law, they think I am studying canon law because a religious taking a course in law, especially because I had already attained a Ph.D. in theology, was not easy for people to understand. They asked why I went from theology to civil law and not canon law. 

For me as a Sister of St. Joseph, studying law was for the sisters, and not only of my congregation, but for the religious women and men and even our bishops and the clergy in this country and beyond.

I realized we need the services of lawyers. We have so many problems in the church that cannot be solved by canon law or by reading the Bible, by studying theology or by prayer alone. We need secular knowledge, especially in the field of civil law, because the church has property or land, buildings, vehicles, and medical and educational institutions. We need someone to take care of these.

Of course, a sister has to be present, but at the same time, they are all linked to society, which is secular and has the legal element. For example, if a sister by bad luck makes a mistake in the course of treating a client who later goes to court, then we need someone to speak on behalf of the sisters. I can be there to assist. I can also assist the sisters in the transfer and sale of properties so that at the end, the money that would have paid a lawyer, who are sometimes a bit expensive, can be used to assist the sisters in their daily activities, to pay for sisters' school fees, medication and other uses. 

While studying law, you were also lecturing in four universities. How were you able to juggle both?

It was not easy, that I have to admit. I did theology, yet theology and law are two different worlds, since the principles are quite different. I would not say that because I did theology and had a Ph.D., it was easy for me to study law, but I did manage because my determination pushed me. The fact that I was not forced or asked by anyone to study law meant I had to finish. 

I informed my dean at CUEA that I was studying law, and he was for it given that at the university, we have faculty of law. He then expressed hope that in the future I could teach law in that faculty. I also had to talk to my head of department and colleagues, who were very understanding and supportive. I also had to take care of my students by ensuring that I was present to supervise their work. Given that I was teaching master's students, it was more demanding because I had to also prepare for classes. 

I realized that having evening classes at the Catholic University made it possible for me to work during the day as a lecturer, and then in the evening, I would go for my classes. I had to teach four credits in a semester, so I would call my students to do makeups or hold our classes early. By this, I could create time for my own studies and research as well as find time to teach in other institutions. 

I found myself overstretching with personal studies, but my lecturers supported me whenever I missed classes or when I could not understand some concepts. I thank them because they helped me finish on time.

The chief justice admitted you to the bar as an advocate of the High Court of Kenya. How do you intend to practice law?

This is a question that I have been asked by so many people. One person asked me whether I would be able to defend a criminal in a murder trial. Well, I intend to practice law, but my practice will just be in two fields. 

One is conveyance, because I did law due to property matters more so than land. There are so many people who are in need of my services, especially the religious men and women who have already engaged me and the less fortunate in society who cannot afford the fees to pay lawyers. This would enable them achieve justice. 

I also want to practice law in the field of family succession, because there are so many people who are suffering in society today. There are cases of death where the deceased has not written a will or where there is a will but there is also some misunderstanding in the family. 

I am not saying that I am going to work pro bono throughout, but where I see there is great need, I will give a hand nonetheless. Where the client is able to pay, I will charge for the services according to standard rates. 

What is your challenge to religious men and women?

I am calling upon many religious men and women to study law because we are working with people who are knowledgeable, people who expect much from us, and when they realize sisters don't understand the situation,  then they take advantage of us. That is the reason why I want us to be at a position where we know what is happening around us and to be at a position to know what is right or wrong lawfully. 

In Kenya, I know of only two other nuns who are lawyers. Others are still students. I noted that we are not sufficient; if each of the religious institutions has their own lawyer, I think we will assist the church a great deal, given that we all need the services of an advocate you can consult. This will make life easier for the congregations. I call upon all the superiors to make a sacrifice so as to take one or two sisters to study law. If this happens, then the church will be rich in lawyers in the future. 

[Rose Achiego is a freelance writer and radio program producer based in Nairobi, Kenya.]