From BGSU to Kenya's attorney general: The inspiring journey of James B. Karugu '62
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Karugu's legacy shows what can be achieved through education, perseverance and a global perspective
In a testament to the power of international partnerships and the pursuit of higher education, Bowling Green State University stands proud in celebrating its historic relationship with Kenya. This partnership has not only enriched the University's diverse community but has also fostered remarkable success stories, such as that of James B. Karugu '62 – the first Kenyan student to graduate from BGSU, who went on to become Kenya's second attorney general.
The journey to BGSU: A choice driven by excellence
Karugu's late 1950s journey from the rural landscapes of Kenya to the campus of BGSU was driven by his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a desire to excel. Born with a natural curiosity and a tenacious spirit, Karugu's academic prowess quickly became evident during his formative years in Kenya. As he navigated his educational path, he became increasingly aware of the opportunities that awaited him beyond his home country's borders. Kenya was still under British colonial rule and in the midst of an intense struggle for independence.
In a biographical sketch collected through interviews by BGSU geography professor and Global Village Director Dr. Kefa Otiso and Dr. Ng'ang'a Irungu, Karugu recalled the moment he realized that he discovered the law would be the passion to drive him.
"I once was a young boy with dusty, bare feet, and clothed in the uniform of St. Peter Claver Primary School as I sat in the public gallery of the High Court of Kenya. I was there to support my father in a legal dispute. Looking down in fascination at the men in wooly white wigs arguing away eloquently; at ease with incomprehensible legal jargon and Latin phrases. Just like few of us will experience love at first sight, few will experience passion and meaning at first experience," he wrote.
Karugu attended the prestigious Holy Ghost College Mangu in Tika, Kenya, where he was shaped by the school's code of ethics, discipline and character. He credits his early education - and his school's distinctive uniform - as the catalyst for learning about studying in America and discovering BGSU.
"A former mayor of Nairobi, Mr. Mark Kaigwa, noticed me in my uniform as I stood waiting for a bus for home one evening. ... A former Mangu student himself, he took me under his wing and encouraged me to pursue my dream," Karugu recalled. "He introduced me to Dr. Julius Kiano, who held a Ph.D. from Stanford University (the first Kenyan ever to do so). Dr. Kiano further emboldened me, advising me to visit the American Embassy for more information about studying in America."
It was during this time that he learned about the University's reputation for academic excellence and its welcoming atmosphere for international students.
"Eventually, I concluded that BGSU, a university in a rural setting, was the best option," Karugu said. "I wrote a letter of application and soon received my acceptance letter from BGSU. The task that now remained was for me to find my way to BGSU, Ohio, America."
While Karugu said he had saved 1,500 Kenya Shillings (equivalent to $700 USD in 1958), to use as a cushion when he arrived in America, acquiring a plane ticket to the United States was another challenge, as the ticket would cost 10 times his monthly salary.
"My father sold a four-acre piece of land that he owned for the princely sum of 4,000 Kenyan Shillings (about $1,867 USD at the time), and I used the money to buy a one-way ticket to America," Karugu recalled. "I would obviously have to figure out how to get back to Kenya after my studies."
Thriving at BGSU: A journey of growth
Upon arriving at BGSU, Karugu wasted no time in immersing himself in the vibrant academic and social environment. He was not only a diligent student but also an active participant in various campus activities, contributing to the cultural exchange that BGSU has long championed.
Karugu became president of the International Students Society. He took part in cross-cultural exchanges, including giving talks on the fight against communism in East Africa and participating in the 1961 Sigma Alpha Epsilon "International Day" event in downtown Bowling Green, promoting informal talks between international students and BG residents.
While on campus, Karugu won an athletic scholarship after being challenged by his roommate to race across what Karugu called the "lush lawns" of Rodgers Quadrangle. Karugu recalled the event in his memoir:
"A crowd soon gathered as I took off my socks and shoes, as running for me had always been best done barefoot. No one expected me to even come close to beating Nathaniel, who was on an athletics scholarship. I won the race by over 20 meters barefoot!"
In what would be an early meeting of iconic BGSU alumni, Karugu babysat future Olympian Scott Hamilton when Hamilton's father, Dr. Ernest Hamilton, head of the University’s biology department, and his wife, Dorothy, offered Karugu free room and board in exchange for the duty.
"It was a tough job. I didn't know how to cook anything," Karugu relayed with a chuckle to John Kamau of Kenya's Nation Media Group in 2018.
The future attorney general held a wide variety of jobs while at BGSU, even taking a summer job as a construction worker in New York City and joining the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union (IBEWU).
"To make ends meet, I often worked whenever I could. I shoveled snow off people's driveways in the winter and scrubbed floors in the cafeteria kitchens throughout the year," Karugu recalled the event in a short memoir in his unpublished 2022 memorial booklet, "Remembering James Boro Karugu, August 16, 1937-November 10, 2022.
"I also worked at the telephone exchange in Rodgers Quadrangle. The lines were always busy, but when some of the girls heard my 'funny accent,' they were fascinated and we would talk on the phone for hours on end. Others would come to the switchboard to see me! Nevertheless, I remained true to my calling and diligently pursued my pre-law studies."
Karugu's diligence led him to excel in his history and political science studies, which he said was fostered by the encouragement of BGSU Job Placement Director Jim Galloway, and he demonstrated an exceptional aptitude for law and its nuances. Karugu obtained his bachelor of arts degree on June 3, 1962, and went on to Lincoln Inn Law School in London.
"The American liberal system of education had given me such an opportunity, such grounding, that when I commenced my legal studies, I easily excelled," he said. "I really could not understand what all the fuss about studying law was about since my liberal education at BGSU introduced me to many terms and concepts that made my law school experience easy."
Trailblazing career success
Karugu finished law school in 1964 and returned to Kenya armed with a wealth of knowledge, a global perspective and a determination to make a difference. He was appointed Crown Counsel because the legal system in then newly-independent Kenya was still under British control and then became state counsel after Kenya became an independent republic on Dec. 12, 1964.
Karugu's career trajectory was nothing short of remarkable. He joined the legal profession at an opportune moment and quickly rose through the ranks, thanks to his exceptional legal acumen and unwavering dedication to justice. His passion for championing human rights and fighting against corruption was well known, and he was appointed as Kenya's second attorney general in 1980 by President Daniel Moi.
Among his many achievements, Karugu reintroduced the publication of Kenya Law Reports and banned the manufacture and sale of chang’aa, a potent and cheap alcoholic beverage that can blind or even kill those who imbibe it. Also during his tenure as attorney general, the Land Control Act was introduced, which mandated elders to handle rural land disputes. He also introduced the Civil Procedure Act which enacted the re-hearing of civil appeals.
He was known as Kenya's most independent attorney general and he respected the rule of law at a time when corruption threatened the young independent nation. He was an ethical professional who would not be pushed around, according to contemporary media headlines.
Dedication to the law was foremost in his mind as he worried that corruption was taking hold in the judiciary when he was attorney general under the Moi regime. Rather than be tainted by that brush, the independent Karugu resigned from government at a time when it was dangerous to do so and pivoted to making what he called an honest living by buying and operating Kiamara Estate, one of Kenya's largest coffee farms. When he left public service, his mantra was, "I don't have to be corrupt and I can earn money by farming."
"I am lucky my children grew up knowing the joy of hard work," he told Kamau in 2018.
Karugu married Margaret Waithera Karugu, who he initially met in America when she was pursuing a bachelor of arts in history from Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio (later part of Miami University), and the couple had four children, Victoria, Rose Gathira, Eric Mwaura and Benjamin.
Karugu recalled the time that a friend took him and his bride to view Kiamara, as Karugu was looking for land to purchase.
"Margaret casually remarked that this was the farm that she herself had many times picked coffee from when she was a girl. I believe that God speaks to you in quiet tones because I made up my mind to start the somewhat arduous process of acquiring this estate and maybe one day to have Margaret stand in her home overlooking the farm," he recalled. "I remained single-minded in my approach and to remind me of why I did what I did, I named the company that was to acquire the property after her: MATHARA for MArgaret GiTHARA.
"She was my ally, my partner and my friend. We had four lovely children and we made a good life together."
Legacy of excellence
Karugu's journey from being the first Kenyan and African student at BGSU to becoming Kenya's second attorney general and a successful commercial coffee farmer is a testament to his steadfast dedication to knowledge and the transformative power of higher education and international partnerships.
Karugu was honored by BGSU in 2010 with a Centennial Alumni Award, recognizing him as one of the 100 most prominent alumni in University history. On his program entry, Karugu noted, "Like [in] Psalms 23 where the good Lord leads one to green pastures, I shall be eternally grateful for being led to [the] greener pastures of Bowling Green. If not for Bowling Green and the guidance of Dr. Abcarian, Dr. Clafin and Jim Galloway, the foreign student advisor, I would not be sitting where I am sitting right now."
Karugu treated guests at the Sunday, April 25, 2010, Centennial Alumni Award dinner and ceremony to coffee from his Kiamara farm.
As Bowling Green State University celebrates its partnership with Kenya and the successes of its Kenyan alumni, the legacy of James B. Karugu, who died Nov. 10, 2022, stands as an inspiring example of what can be achieved through education, perseverance and a global perspective. His journey serves as a reminder that no dream is too ambitious and that the pursuit of knowledge knows no boundaries.
According to BGSU professor Otiso, "Karugu's story illustrates beautifully how, since its founding, BGSU has been changing the world by degrees and serving as a public university for the public good across various geographic scales, including locally, regionally, nationally and globally."
Updated: 11/08/2023 03:12PM