Muthoni Likimani: Pre-independence Trailblazer writes on into her 90s

Witnessing Kenya’s turbulent transitional period in history that was characterised by a monumental clash between long-held traditional cultures and a Western Christian worldview, shaped the consciousness of this deeply thoughtful woman and emboldened her to become a woman of many firsts. Kahuhia in Murang’a District looked a lot different in 1925 than it does nine decades on, in present-day Kenya. Muthoni Likimani, daughter of pioneer African Anglican priest Levi Gachanja and his wife Mariamu, was born that year into the deeply colonial atmosphere that prevailed in those days. She has lived to leave her mark on a vast area of human endeavour that includes literature, broadcasting advertising and women’s development. The beneficiary of a British colonial education, Likimani attended local primary schools before joining Kahuhia Girls’ High School, which at the time was known as the Government African Girls Teachers’ College (GAGTC) in 1947.

For those caught in the cultural transition between long-cherished African ways and the pressure to comply with the dictates of the colonial government of the day, life was a dilemma. Likimani recalls witnessing first- hand the struggles of newly-converted Christians to adjust to their new-found faith that pitted them against their deep-seated Africanheritage. “I watched men struggle with polygamy because Christianity required them to have only one wife; I watched them struggle with issues of oath taking – a popular practice then, abhorred by Christianity; I watched them struggle with female circumcision, which Christianity also condemned.”

A child of the manse, Likimani was shielded from most traditional practices that the Anglican Church condemned. As she watched the converts struggle with the two cultures, she felt compelled to capture this part of his- tory. That is how her first book, They Shall be Chastised, was born. The book highlights the conflict between traditional African culture and Christianity during the colonial era, and the agonising moments that native converts endured in their struggle to ‘keep the faith’. Likimani recalls witnessing various atrocities committed against Africans by British colonialists. Most affected were men from her community around the Mt Kenya region, who were members of the Mau Mau freedom fighters movement. “I remember a time when there were no men in the villages. They were in detention camps, in prison, in the forest fighting, or dead. I watched their wives struggle to keep the families together, ensuring that their children were well fed, clothed, went to school and grew up as responsible lads and lasses,” she says. nonagenarian posits that the wom- en suffered just as much as the men, as they were often forced to do strenuous communal unpaid labour. They often prepared meals for their husbands, many a time risking their lives as they sneaked food, weapons and intelligence to the freedom fighters in the forests. “Some even joined their men and fought alongside them in the forest. I knew without a doubt that the experiences of these heroines and their critical role in the struggle for independence had to be told.”
That is how Muthoni Likimani’s most cele- brated book, Passbook Number F47927: Women and Mau Mau in Kenya, was born. The book de- tails the role Mau Mau women played during the emergency period and their contribution to the struggle for independence.

While most post-independence works focus on the role of Mau Mau men, Likimani claims to be the only author who has captured women’s experiences in the Mau Mau war. Likimani’s books have always been in- spired by the happenings around her, by her observations and personal experiences. “I can write pages and pages of narration from just a small incident,” she reveals. After indepen- dence, when African men began getting good jobs accompanied by hefty pay packages, Likimani observed certain changes in their behaviour. “Their lifestyle started changing. With lots of disposable income, homes began falling apart as men suddenly adopted flashy, egoistic lifestyles.

Many took on mistresses in the cities,” she notes. With the shift in life- style, she observes, the men soon discarded their weekly visits to their wives and children in the villages. This observation was to inspire Likimani’s popular monologue titled What Does a Man Want? a humorous poem depicting the woman’s struggle to balance the demands of the post-independence man, marriage, mother- hood and work. Likimani deftly juggled her career as a teacher with her passion for writing. As a tutor at Kahuhia Women’s Teaching College in 1958, she earned a scholarship to study education and community development at the University of London’s Institute of Education. While in Britain, she also studied tropical nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She worked at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) where she hosted a show in Swahili. That was the beginning of her broadcasting career. When she returned home she was hired as one of the first women producers at the Voice of Kenya (present-day Kenya Broad- casting Corporation) in the 1960s. Likimani, whose name became synonymous with the children’s programme, Shangazi na Watoto, also held women close to her heart in her broadcasting work. She was the producer of Kipindi cha Akina Mama (The Women’s Programme) which focused on development. She later quit broadcasting for public relations.

The company that she founded, Noni’s Publicity, was the first PR outfit in the country to be owned by a Kenyan of African descent. The firm mainly worked with brands targeting women and children. Likimani’s broadcasting and PR work did not interfere with her writing. Indeed, her stint at the Voice of Kenya, while producing Shangazi na Watoto, inspired a book with a similar title. The radio programme focused on traditional African narratives, and to preserve them for posterity, Likimani continues to write children’s books under the Grandmother Fire Series label. The stories, based on African folklore, reflect the diversity of Kenyan communities. Words of wisdom “There is plenty happening around you, so don’t let interesting events go uncaptured. Write them down.”

“Women are the backbone of any society. Without them, the country becomes paralysed.” “Lots of Kenyan women do amazing things. They may not be highlighted in the media, but there are plenty of women doing great things for society. Take time to celebrate them and acknowledge what they do, how- ever small.” “Every single writing has a reader; letters, newspapers, tabloids, emails… So do not be afraid to write and publish, for you will have a readership. Be keen to put out messages that will help your readers.”

“Long ago, grandmothers used to narrate stories to children by the fireside as their mothers prepared the evening meal. This doesn’t happen anymore. That is why I am writing these books because someone needs to preserve these tales,” she says. Likimani’s Women of Kenya in the Decade of Development profiles influential women and their role in development. The book was pro- duced for the 1985 United Nations Conference on Women in Nairobi. Her latest book is an autobiography titled Fighting Without Ceas- ing, released in 2013. It talks about her life’s struggles and the challenges of a young wom- an growing up. The celebrated author has won various awards, including the 2008 Presidential Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS) Award, the Grace Githu Award for Human Rights, and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Award, which recognises her exemplary leadership in nation-building. YWCA- Kenya’s global affiliate, the World YWCA Council, has also feted Likimani for her dedicated leadership. She is also a recipient of the Public Relations Society of Kenya (PRSK) Golden Honour Award for outstanding leadership of service to PR professionals. She has also won the Heinrich Böll Stiftung award for distinguished service to society.

Likimani married Jason Clement Liki- mani while in college. He was the first African medical doctor and at the time worked in her home area at Fort Hall Hospital, what became the present-day Murang’a District Hospital. Dr Likimani was from the Maasai community, and their courtship and eventual marriage raised eyebrows as inter-ethnic marriages were rare and even frowned upon in those days. They were blessed with three daughters: Sopiato, a dentist, Soila, a pharmacist and events organiser Jane. They have eight grand- children and a great grandchild. Her husband died in 1989.

Likimani would like to see more women write because they have a lot to write about. “We can write about our marriages, our motherhood experiences, our health, our friends, recipes… the list is endless,” she says. However, she laments the difficulties involved in getting published. “Most publishing houses tend to focus on school books. It is purely business for them… Sadly, many good authors see their manuscripts stay for up to four years before publishers give them any feedback – and not necessarily positive feedback.” The writer proposes the self-publishing option, which she took with many of her books that she published under her Noni’s Public- ity company. She also suggests diversifying from English. “Explore publishing in Swahili or vernacular. The beauty is that people are always reading one thing or another and someone will be interested in your story. If you have something to write, go ahead! Nothing should stand in your way.”

She is concerned about children’s reading culture which, she laments, has been greatly affected by their addiction to the Internet and the fact that they only read textbooks. “It is the responsibility of parents and teachers to ensure children read books, as they contain invaluable information and life lessons.” She urges teachers and parents to
initiate book clubs for children. The writer regularly collects and donates old books to schools. Every month since 2008, she has been holding a reading club for aspiring women writers. They meet to discuss ideas, share their challenges and experiences and critique and appraise each other’s work. Mentoring these women is a calling for Likimani, who gives motivational talks that high- light women’s strengths.

Likimani is also involved in various church and community development projects. She founded the Mariamu Home Economics Training Centre in Kangemi, Nairobi, which trains disadvantaged young girls in entrepreneurship ventures such as beadwork and jewellery-making. It also trains domestic helpers, many of who have found employment.

At her advanced age, the writer shows no sign of putting her pen aside. She has a strict routine that sees her write in the early morning. She is working on dozens of manuscripts, mostly on women’s empowerment. She plans to build an archive at her home in Nairobi, where women can access books on different subjects from all over the world.

Share this post

Comment on post

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *