Remembering Unsung Women Shujaas Against the Colonial Occupation

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Discussions on Kenyan shujaas before independence are often centered on male heroes. Early diviners such as Lenana among the Maasai, Koitalel Arap Samoei among the Nandi, Mugo wa Kibiru among the Kikuyu, Luanda Magere among the Luo and Nabongo Mumia among the Wanga are some of the names that come to mind.

Despite women’s participation in the fight against colonial occupation, scant documentation exists on the important roles they played leading to systemic erasures in public life. These erasures have a profound impact of a country’s social, cultural and economic development. Socially excluding women from the public sphere robs girls and young women of role models who can inspire them to rise above narrowly defined gendered roles ascribed by their families and communities further increasing poverty and inequality in a country.

Let us start from the familiar. Many of us live in Syokimau, take the train from Syokimau to town centre or to Mombasa but do we know who Syokimau was? Syokimau was a famous Akamba prophetess who prophesied the occupation of the Akamba’s lands by white people, the building of skyscrapers and the construction of a railway line. Syokimau inspired another medicine woman and leader at Athi-river area called Syotune wa Kathuke who named the Syokimau area after the great prophetess. All that Syokimau prophesied came to be and we are glad a statue to iconise this great woman stands at the Syokimau train station.

Among the Giriama, two women stand out. The famous and well known Mekatilili wa Menza born around 1840s and the less known Mepoho who was a Giriama diviner. Mepoho prophesied the colonial occupation while Mekatilili actively fought against the British occupation leading warriors against British caravans traversing the Giriama’s lands to the hinterland till she was exiled in the hinterland. She escaped her captors and walked back to her people and continued to resist.

Have you heard of Hawecha a prominent woman from the Oromo community? The Kenya National Museums heroes project documents Hawecha as an Oromo prophetess who predicted famine and occupation through her dreams in Marsabit.

Ciarokaine wa Mbaragu, largely unknown outside present day Meru county whre she hailed from, was another prominent woman diviner and leader. Ciokaraine stood out for her fight against the colonial government’s scorched earth policy in her community. The colonial government proposed this policy to starve the Mau Mau with the support of Njuri Njeke. She opposed uprooting of their food crops forcing the colonialists to occupy their land near Mt Kenya forests to prevent the community from supporting the Kenya Land and Freedom army.

In the neighbouring Embu county, there was Cierume a female warrior who is remembered for her bravery and leadership among the Mbeere people in Embu county. She exercised her courage by successfully fighting as a warrior against the neighbouring communities such as the Akamba and the resistance against the British occupation. The use of a dancing stick for war instead of arrows and spears is a testimony to her legendary status as a warrior.

Among the Abagusii, Moraa wa Ngiti was a vocal prophetess who prophesied and encouraged resistance against the colonial occupation. Moraa inspired her nephew Otenyo Nyamaterere a warrior who led a Gusii battalion of warriors to launch an attack against British forces in 1907. Otenyo was killed in a counterattack staged by the same forces.

Several women also stand out for the roles they played in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, popularly known as the Mau Mau. Brigadier Njoki wa Gaching’a, for example, was one of the most senior women in the Mau Mau movement. She led a forest fighters’ platoon in Murang’a where she still lives. Mukami wa Kimathi, was not only a wife of the Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi but also a forest fighter in the Karia-ini camp as detailed in the biography on her life written by Wairimu Nderitu. Muthoni wa Kirima was also a platoon fighter in Nyeri while others like Jane Muthoni Mara who was one of the plaintiffs in the Mau Mau case against the British government played a crucial role as an informer for the movement. Professor Margaret Gachihi, a historian at the University of Nairobi, argues that women not only played support roles such as informers but also served as fighters in their own right.

As we celebrated Mashujaa Day on October 20th, we hope that the government will continue investing in and celebrating women shujaas from those who were involved in the resistance against the colonial occupation to contemporary female shujaas. County governments should support research projects by school children in their counties to celebrate local heroines as well as iconize them through publications, monuments, roads and buildings to inspire the next generation to live their lives courageously as the heroines discussed here.

Ps. For more biographies on Kenyan heroes see the National Museums of Kenya heroes project curated online in partnership with Google Arts and Culture project.

Dr Njoki Wamai is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at USIU-A.

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