Moraa Ng’iti: Heroine of Abagusii anti – colonial resistance

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Moraa Ng’iti, like the famous Tanzanian Kinjekitile Ngwale, emerged as one of the seers and medicine woman in Kenya in the 19th and 20th Century in the advent of colonialism. Moraa is assumed to have been of middle age by 1900. She is identified as Moraa moka Ng’iti, that is Moraa wife of Ngiti, shortened to Moraa Ng’iti to remove the possessive wife to reference. She was from Bogeka, a sub – clan of Getutu among the Abagusii ethnic group in Kenya.

Moraa’s immense knowledge of indigenous medicine and foresight helped the Abagusii in wars against neighbouring hostile communities. She also predicted the coming of colonialism in Gusiiland and its effects on the local people, just like Syokimau of the Akamba, Kimnyole of the Nandi, Mugo wa Kibiru of the Agikuyu, and other seers in the early resistance against colonial invasion of the country. Moraa foresaw and forewarned her people that the British would take away their land and cattle and conscript their children into forced labour.

The prophetic tradition among the Abagusii was not a new phenomenon that was created by the advent of British colonialism. Mumboism had taken root in Gusii land. Mumboism, the religious and spiritual movement that was based on deep political overtones agitated for the removal of colonial rule. Mumboism was initially a Luo inspired movement founded by Onyango Dunde in the early 20th century, but Abagusii traditional beliefs, values and customs were ingrained with mumbo teachings to produce what came to be known as Nyamumbo to the Gusii. Mumboism which spread faster among the Abagusii during the inter – war years rejected European customs, emphasized traditional values and a return to the communal ways of life of the African people that existed before the colonial invasion of the country. In that, mumboism agitated for the destruction of the colonial order. Thus, the religious, social and political structures of the Abagusii that inspired resistance to British colonialism were already in place. Moraa emerged from the mumboist tradition of anti – colonial resistance. She spoke out against the intrusion of the British the moment they set foot in Gusiiland.

The British presence was finally settled in Gusiiland in 1907 when a site for the construction of a government station was selected. The station, to be known as Kisii, was located in Getembe, which bordered on the territories of Getutu, Nyaribari, and Nchari. Geoffrey Alexander Stafford (GAS) Northcote, an Oxford graduate, was put in charge of Kisii station being about 25 years old.

Northcote had first arrived in Kenya in 1904 as a political attache, and was posted to Nyanza Province which was then part of Uganda. In early 1905, he accompanied a punitive expedition to Gusiiland in South Nyanza that was led by a ruthless man called Milton. The expedition carried out a month-long orgy of violence against the Abagusii. In 1907, Northcote was deployed as the Assistant District Commissioner of Kisii. The Abagusii, who nicknamed him Nyarigoti, considered him their mortal enemy. In May 1907, Northcote began to construct permanent buildings, thus signaling the establishment of British rule in Gusiiland.

In December of 1907, Northcote began hut tax collection in Gusiiland. The purpose of the tax was to raise revenues and to stimulate surplus for sale in the new capitalist mode of exchange. To promote the latter, the colonial state insisted that the tax be paid in cash, and it forced the Abagusii to sell cattle, goats, and sheep to obtain currency in which to pay the tax. To Moraa, and many other Abagusii, Northcote was the embodiment of British colonialism. His elimination would thus have meant an end to the alien occupation of Gusiiland.

On numerous occasions the British under Northcote made sudden predatory invasions on Abagusii cattle camps known as ebisarate and seized livestock. One well-known British hostile attack on Omogusii was in 1908 when they raided ebisarate in the Kitutu region and confiscated over 8,000 livestock. One warrior who survived these attacks was named Otenyo Nyamaterere. Otenyo had a young daughter named Bosibori and lived in the same homestead with his aunt Moraa Ng’iti. When Moraa saw Northcate driving away the cattle, she was infuriated. Just like Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru who led later the Harry Thuku riots in the 1920s, Moraa agitated the young men nearby saying they were just like women who did not care that their cattle was being taken away.

Otenyo was also infuriated with the serious losses of livestock and conceived a counterattack plan on the British officers who were by then marching the livestock out of Kitutu. Agitated and encouraged by his aunt Moraa, Otenyo assembled the finest of the Abagusii warriors with whom they received blessings from Moraa before leaving to confront the British officers. Armed only with poisoned arrows and spears, their plan was to use a different route and get ahead of the British officers who were moving away with the livestock. Once they would be in front of them, the warriors were to waylay the British officers by spreading themselves out and hiding inside a thicket of bushes known as ebitutu.

Otenyo and the warriors got ahead of the British contingent as planned and lay waiting in the tall grass beside the path along which they were riding. As Northcote was passing on his horse, behind the police detail accompanying him, Otenyo threw his spear and struck him in the back before he could draw his gun to defend himself. Taking Northcote to be dead, Otenyo disappeared into the thick bushes. This attack took place on 18 January 1908 in the present day Manga in Kitutu region. Though armed with inferior weapons, the Gusii warriors managed to lay an ambush on the British and recovered lots of livestock which they led towards the Manga escarpment. Some brave warriors sacrificed their lives and many more were wounded.

This spearing of a British colonial officer was of considerable significance as it touched off open resistance among the Abagusii. Moraa’s incitement to the spearing of Northcote served to ignite armed resistance to British colonial rule in Gusiiland. With the spearing of Northcote, there was general rejoicing in Gusiiland at the removal of European rule. British authority would not now be effectively extended to them. The young men now took up arms to attack and destroy the most obvious manifestations of alien domination: Kisii town and its alien inhabitants. When he warriors learned on the day after the spearing that Northcote was not dead, they set off to finish the job. Around noon on 12 January, the warriors began to mass on the hills surrounding Kisii. On this same day, most of the chiefs appointed by the colonial administration all over Gusiiland came to the station to pledge their loyalty to the administration.

The Abagusii celebrated Otenyo with song and dance. He had become a superhero to them for having killed the white colonial administrator who had tormented them. Unknown to them, Northcote had not only just survived the spearing but had sent a message to Kisumu for reinforcements. The reinforcements arrived in Kisii three days later and brutalized the Abagusii more than before. On January 18th, as the expedition to quell what had now become a guerrilla war continued, the Governor Sadler, then Governor of Kenya sent a telegram to London, notifying the undersecretary of state for the colonies of the incident. The undersecretary at the time was future war Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill wrote back: “I do not like the tone of these reports……It looks like butchery and if the House of Commons gets a hold of this, our plans for East African Protectorate will be under the cloud.”

More people were shot and killed to draw Otenyo from hiding so that he could be captured. In the end, Moraa was forced by the colonial government to use her influence to stop the war and to hand over her nephew in exchange for the end of bloodshed. Faced with an ultimatum by the invaders to give up her nephew or witness the massacre of the people, Moraa chose to save her people. She and the Abagusii elders then gave up Otenyo to the colonial administration.

When Otenyo was caught, he was tried in public, dragged by a horse before being executed by a firing squad and his body hung on a bridge as a warning to the rest against rebellion. He was then beheaded and his head was shipped to London as proof that he was dead and put him in a British museum. Under the guidance of the Gusii elders, Otenyo’s headless body was buried at the top of Manga escarpment (present day Kitutu).

Moraa was also arrested and detained at Kisii police station where she was tortured in an effort to coerce her to submit and cooperate with the colonial administration. She proved recalcitrant and was kept in solidarity confinement. Upon release, Moraa continued administering to Gusii warriors and taking care of Otenyo’s family. Her son Ongere was arrested in 1921 and was deported to Kismayu. Moraa died in 1929.

Moraa Ng’iti is regarded as Gusii heroine for her courage and many songs have been composed in her tribute. She provided the basis on which African resistance was waged against British colonialism. Like all great leaders who lead their people in times of crisis, Moraa gave the Abagusii hope and determination in their hour of need. Moraa’s persistent exposure of the evils of British colonial domination culminated in the 1908 Gusii uprising. Moraa’s activities did not enchant the British. They branded her a witchdoctor who was ignorant of the British civilizing mission. Gusii warriors who died protecting Gusiiland and their livestock are remembered through songs and stories depicting their bravery in the different wars they fought. Moraa Ng’iti was the fountain of this resistance and inspiration to colonial rule and domination.

Sources and further reading
Kihoro, Wanyiri. (2005)The price of freedom: The story of political resistance in Kenya. Nairobi: Mvule Africa Publishers
Kinyatti, Maina (2008) History of resistance in Kenya. Nairobi: Mau Mau Research Centre
Thiong’o, Ngugi (1992) Detained: A writer’s Prison Diary. Nairobi. East African Educational Publishers
Maxon, Robert, M.(1973) Early Gusii Resistance to British Rule, 1905—14′, in E. Steinhart, R. Stray er,
and R. Maxon, Protest Movements in Colonial East Africa: Aspects of Early African Response to European Rule. Syracuse
________( 1989) Conflict and Accommodation in Western Kenya: The Gusii and The British, 1907–1963. Cranbury, NJ, London and Mississauga: Associated University Presses.
Moraa: Kenyan Visionary, healer. Holy People of the World: A Cross-cultural Encyclopedia, Volume 3.
Nyasani, Joseph, M (1984) The British massacre of the Gusii Freedom Fighters. Nairobi: Bookman
Ochieng, William, 1974. A pre – colonial history of the Gusii of Western Kenya(AD 1500 – 1914). Nairobi.
East African Literature Bureau.
Owaahh, 2015. The Legend of Otenyo
Rosburg Jnr, Carl G. & Nottingham John (1966) The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya. Nairobi:
East African Publishing House
Shujaastories.com. Otenyo: The Super Hero

By Njuki Githethwa

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