Talk by Zarina Patel during the Launch of Nobody’s Darling by Gilbert Mwangi on 19 March 2022 at Kenya National Theatre.

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When Njuki invited me to launch a book about Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru, I was both excited and intrigued. Excited because I myself had first encountered Nyanjiru way back in 1992 while researching for my very 1st book, Challenge to Colonialism – The Struggle of Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee for Equal Rights in Kenya. My 3rd book, The Stormy Petrel about Manilal Desai has a chapter on Harry Thuku which included the protest in which Nyanjiru was killed. Meantime I had seen a large oil painting about the shooting of Nyanjiru, at that time it was in the store room of the National Museum of Kenya. We published a picture of it in Issue 1 of AwaaZ 2018. So I was well acquainted with the subject. And then 18 months ago I started a project involving her which I shall tell you more about later.

I was intrigued because beyond this so little is known about Muthoni Nyanjiru. We have to date no idea of what she looked like, her age, the clothes she wore, traditional or more urbanized, her family or clan … Archival records confirm her existence and her bravery so there is no doubt of that but even Harry Thuku did not know her or about her. He saw her for the first time from his 2nd floor cell in the police station and then she was shot and killed and there was no further follow up. Maybe if she had been a man there would have been some documentation.
So basically what I am saying is that there is very little recorded information about Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru. And that is why I was so intrigued that a book had been written about her.
Clearly the author, Gilbert Mwangi faced the same dilemma. So he did the next best thing, he has written a embellished account of her life from birth to death. He has contextualized her life as that of a girl child growing up in the Agikuyu community and presented her as exceptional since birth.

She was born with a clenched fist and had superhuman powers such as being fearless and daring, speaking English fluently, independent-minded, etcetera. As a result she gets ostracized by her community and is branded a witch. Not surprising as it happens to this day. The traditional Gikuyu proverbs, songs, myths, sayings and stories give us a rudimentary understanding of the Agikuyu people and their culture.

To avoid being killed Nyanjiru then runs away from home, she meets the white missionaries, joins school, gets converted and then encounters the injustices of colonialism. The hut tax, the forced labour, the ban on female circumcision, the demeaning of Kikuyu culture and traditions and so on.

Next we see her taking up leadership and urging ‘her’ people to resist and refuse to comply with the dictates of the authorities. She comes to the notice of the British officials who order her to a meeting with the then Gov Northey.

Meanwhile in 1921, one of the community leaders, Harry Thuku, is arrested and is being held in this very same Central Police Station up the road from here. Some things don’t change at all! Harry Thuku from his cell on the 2nd floor sees the large crowd that has gathered, most of them sitting peacefully on the ground, the area which now houses part of the University of Nairobi. Thuku’s autobiography has photographs of this. He is told about a young woman who is urging the crowd to move forward and surround the police station but the crowd hesitates. Not surprising as they are faced by fully armed KAR policemen holding their rifles to the ready. Further down, on the balcony of the Norfolk Hotel, are some white officers also armed.

That is when she utters her famous challenge: ‘you are cowards you men, take my skirt and give me your trousers’ … and that is when she is shot and killed. Official records put the figure at 23 killed and 28 wounded that day, but 250 was the more likely number of protesters massacred. Apparently the African askaris had rifles and they shot in the air but the European constables and officers had revolvers and fired in the thick of the crowd.

This is Gilbert Mwangi’s first book and he must be commended for having selected such a difficult-to-research topic. He hails from Muranga, the birth place of Nyanjiru, and where the villagers still speak of this great ancestor. It is these memories he has collected and preserved for posterity. The book which took 3 years to research and write does need some stringent editing …… but in a world which looks more grim than ever, we need to have our spirits uplifted and our imagination fired.

I told you earlier that I was presently involved in a project involving Nyanjiru – let me tell you about it. Some of you may be aware of the ongoing radical up-grading of Jeevanjee Gardens. This park was donated to Nairobians by my grandfather in 1906 and it then had a marble statue of Queen Victoria. In 2001, we installed a metal sculpture of AM Jeevanjee in the Gardens. Both were later vandalized – Queen Victoria in 2015 and Jeevanjee in 2020. So now with the rehabilitation – we have persuaded the Jeevanjee family (who all live abroad) to install sculptured granite busts of Jeevanjee and Mary Nyanjiru in the Garden.

The question arises: What is the connection between Jeevanjee and Nyanjiru? We tend to imagine our social past as a replica of the present; sometimes that can be misleading. Yes, the colonialists kept us segregated in our ethnic and racial constructs but they could not stop us interacting in the anti-colonial struggle. The colonized had a common enemy and though they were not allowed to organize together, there was a solidarity across ethnic and racial boundaries.

I don’t believe for a moment that Harry Thuku, Nyanjiru, Manilal Desai, Abdalla Tiarara and so many others had not heard about Me Katilili, Waiyaki wa Hinga, Moraa and other freedom fighters. Me Katilili was imprisoned in Kisii, she escaped from prison and walked all the way back to the Coast. It must have taken her more than a month and all the way she was given food, shelter and solidarity. There were no radio/TV/newspapers for the people in those days, but they had their own widespread and reliable oral communications network. There was no social media but there was no fake news either in those days. Nairobi had a large Swahili, that is Coastal, population in the Eastleigh/Pangani area, the township was a melting pot of all sorts.
So similarly, there was interaction between the Indians and Africans. Jeevanjee had formed an Indian Association in 1901 to protest against colonial racism. In 1914 he forms the EA Indian National Congress (designed on the National Congress of India) in order to establish Indian Associations nationally, and to bring together the many different Indian ethnic communities under one umbrella. In 1918, after WW1, Manilal Desai arrives in Nairobi from India and Jeevanjee recruits him as secretary of the EAINC.

To cut a long story short, Desai is devoted to politics, he meets Harry Thuku and the 2 men become close friends. Both are bachelors away from their home situations. Desai publishes the EA Chronicle, Africans are not allowed to own a press so on his press, Desai prints Thuku’s TANGAZO tabloid. Thuku holds political rallies often using Jeevanjee’s chauffeur-driven car. The chauffeur Haikoko, a Maasai, becomes a close friend of Thuku, Desai and all. Racial and ethnic boundaries are bridged. These are facts that we know because Thuku mentions them in his autobiography.

How much else do we not know? Thuku had formed the Young Kikuyu Association, he later expands it and renames it East Africa Association. Surely the structure of the East Africa Indian National Congress must have inspired him. And that was when the colonialists decided enough was enough. Enough of African-Indian cooperation, enough of African political expansion; and Thuku is arrested. Thuku writes at length about Desai and his Indian friends who took care of his elderly mother while he was detained in Kismayu.

We tend to downgrade Harry Thuku as a freedom fighter because, no doubt, on his return from detention he became compromised – coopted first by the colonialists and then by our neo-colonial leaders. But he was the first African leader in Kenya who moved the limited ethnic based struggles to a more national organization and used the print media to disseminate his political messages. For this he was arrested and detained.

So coming back to Jeevanjee Gardens, all that transpired during Thuku’s arrest and Nyanjiru’s assassination happened in this area where we are gathered today. We are treading on hallowed ground. That is why Jeevanjee Gardens is a fitting place to memorialise Nyanjiru, I think, and she will be in the company of one who shared her politics.

BTW – just for interest – the large oil painting of Nyanjiru which is now displayed in the History exhibit at the National Museum of Kenya has, coincidentally, been placed adjacent to the section on Jeevanjee. I am pretty sure that the Curator responsible for this had no idea of this history.

Nyanjiru was a feminist and a freedom fighter. There have been many down the ages, not just in Kenya or East Africa but on our continent. From queens to warriors to intellectuals – it was a woman who established the world’s oldest university in Morocco. Much has changed since those days with the increasing savagery of capitalism the nature of patriarchy has changed and women have much less agency today than they had in the past.

That is why knowledge of the past is so important we must revisit it and re-write it from a people’s point of view. But as we do that, we must be careful not to distort it, for that is what the oppressors did and continue to do… when they can no longer hide the truth from us, they distort it.

In my experience, writing an historical book is not the end of the story – it is just the beginning. That is when readers begin to dig into their archives or focus on their memories and share relevant and revealing tit-bits. I urge you all here who are lucky to have grand-parents and even great grand-parents who have recollections of that era to jiggle their memories, talk to them, awaken their interest and reach out to the spirits.

And it is in this spirit that we commend our fellow activist, Gilbert Mwangi, for writing this book about Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru. Asante.

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