Mekatilili wa Menza – Matriarch of Kenya’s liberation war


Mekatilili wa Menza is considered the first female freedom fighter in Kenya and East Africa. She boldly fought against British colonisers whose presence and influence in Kenya’s coast eroded the Giriama culture. She fought to restore the traditional Giriama governance system, travelling the region, as she used her oratory skills, to convince locals to take oaths and offer sacrifices that would help them regain their land and traditions. Two events stand out that could have put Mekatilili wa Menza on the warpath against domination by foreigners. The first happened at a time when slave trading in East Africa was on the rise in the 19th century. The Kenyan coast served as a conduit point for slaves from the interior and the kidnapping of young men in ports such as Mombasa was common as the demand for slaves by Arab, Portuguese and French merchants grew. One day, while she was visiting Mtsanganyiko near the Indian Ocean with her brothers, one of them named Mwarandu was abducted by Arab traders, never to be seen again. Mekatilili’s resistance to foreign rule was hence established.

The second was a prophesy by Mepoho, a Giriama diviner, that seemed to point to the arrival of the white man. Mepoho had predicted that strangers with hair as thin as sisal fibres would arrive in vessels floating on water and cause the demise of the Giriama people. According to the prophesy, these strangers would cause rain failure and loss of harvests; addiction of young men to tobacco and snuff; marriage of under-age girls; loss of respect for elders, and the birth of underweight and unhealthy children. Mekatilili was determined to frustrate the fulfilment of this prophesy and preserve her people’s traditions. Life for the Giriama at that time revolved around cultivating maize and millet for subsistence. Cashew nuts, mangoes and coconuts, which were in abundance, were for trading. But when Kenya was declared a British protectorate in 1895, the colonialists aggressively introduced forced labour on white farms and taxation on indigenous populations countrywide. Mekatilili challenged colonial domination of the Giriama and opposed everything – hut tax, forced labour on their rubber and sisal plantations, land seizure and evictions from the fertile Sabaki River Valley, and restrictions on palm wine consumption. Coast Provincial Commissioner Charles Hobley (1912-1919) is documented as having reported that Mekatilili accused the colonial administrators of capturing and selling young men to the British, who in turn sold them into slavery.

So who was this lone opposer of the British and how did she manage to cause such a stir? Mekatilili was born in Mtsara wa Tsatsu Village, located between Ganze and Bamba districts in oday’s Kilifi County. The only girl among five siblings, she was from the Mijikenda (nine clans) community that inhabited the coastal hinterland of East Africa between the Lower Tana Valley in the south, and expanding to present-day Tanga in northern Tanzania.

The ‘Daughter of Menza’ as implied in her name is also referred to as Mnyazi wa Menza. Other accounts suggest she acquired the name Mekatilili in adulthood following the birth of her first son, Katilili. Mekatilili married Dyeka wa Duka from the Amwamukare clan in Bungale, a village close to Lango Baya in Magarini. It is not clear how long they were married before she was widowed in unclear circumstances, but with the loss of her husband, Mekatilili had more freedom to move around and rally the people. The earliest documented accounts of Mekatilili indicate that she made her first public address in Chakama Village on the shores of River Sabaki, where the Mijikenda Giriama community resides to date.

Her key supporter was Wanje wa Mwadorikola, one of three remaining senior elders of the ruling Kavuta rika (age-set), whose social and political clout was dwindling as a result of British invasion. The Giriama Kambi (council of elders), Kaya (sacred forest) and the oath societies also faced imminent collapse. With Wanje’s public support, Mekatilili traversed the Kaya Giriama area, mobilising the community for self-protection and preservation. She drew crowds by dancing the hifudu and makushekushe, a revered dirge performed to emphasise the dire straits the community was in. Women and men joined her in the dance as she administered oaths binding them to their community and to resist any British interference. This was so successful that in July and August of 1913, a huge crowd converged on the Kaya Giriama, triggering the first Giriama war. The restoration of socio-political unity completely disrupted British control and labour recruitment, and ground to a halt taxation in the area.

At that time, British administrator Arthur Champion had visited Chakama kwa Hawe Nje Market to persuade young men to join the British Army. Mekatilili took the opportunity to demonstrate her intentions to both the administration and her community. She brought a hen and its chicks and challenged Champion to take one of the chicks, resulting in the hen violently pecking him to protect her brood. Mekatilili reportedly told Champion: “If you dare take one of my sons, I will react thus.” A humiliated Champion is said to have drawn his pistol and shot the hen, to which Mekatilili reacted by giving him a vicious slap on the face. In November 1913, a vexed Hobley, with an entourage of district officers, headmen and soldiers, confronted two Kaya elders, demanding to know the leaders of the rebellion. Mekatilili and Wanje were found and arrested in Sabaki and sentenced to five years’ exile in Kisii, western Kenya, some 965 kilometres away. Colonial archives document Hobley’s disdain for Mekatilili and Wanje, attributing their resistance to colonial taxation and labour to “an old blind rascal named Ngonyo” who “prompted a half-mad woman named Mekatilili to tour the country preaching active opposition of the government”.

In 1914 – the beginning of the First World War – the colonial government began aggressive recruitment of carrier corps. Mekatilili and Wanje escaped from exile and walked back home. After nearly four months of walking, the agitation continued with meetings in the north and west of Kaya Giriama. On 4 August 1914, tensions between the Giriama and the British exploded into full-blown war.

On the same day, Mekatilili and Wanje were apprehended and deported to Kismayu, Somalia. Two companies of the King’s African Rifles were sent to suppress the rebellion. The British had an unfair advantage over the natives as their troops marched through Giriama territory, burning villages and granaries, looting livestock and executing villagers. Kaya Fungo, a sacred shrine, was bombed. The result was 5,000 homesteads razed to the ground and up to 600 people killed. The devastating loss caused the Giriama to sign a treaty with the British government, and the entire community was fined 50 rupees for every adult from Bungale, Garashi, Chakama and Marekebuni villages. A total of 10,000 rupees, equivalent to 3,300 goats, was levied on the community, and the elders were forced to move the Kaya to a more central location convenient to the colonial government. They were also made to recant their oaths and Giriamas north of Sabaki were forced to move southwards for the benefit of European investors.

The British further forcefully recruited 1,000 young men to the carrier corps for the First World War. They used propaganda to portray Mekatilili as a mad woman and a witch – claims she refuted, saying: “I am not a witchdoctor and I have no medicine. I am not afraid to speak the truth and fight for my people. My powers come from the Kaya, rooted in the spirit of our ancestors. Giriama is for Wagiriama and we shall not be moved.” In September 1914, hundreds of Giriama men ambushed a British convoy, killing military officers. This triggered a two-day battle in which the Giriama had the upper hand. Three British bases were razed by the Giriama, who also vandalised foreigner-owned businesses in the region.

The resistance remained strong despite the absence of Mekatilili and Wanje. In March 1915, Hobley in a documented letter titled, Nyika Political Prisoners Detained at Kisii, requested his superiors for “special instructions… to avoid the possibility of a re-occurrence”. The British imposed fines on the Giriama which were never paid. There was a lot of resistance for close to 10 months after the treaty. The resistance was finally subdued in October 1915 and the Giriama were compelled to labour and pay taxes, with more fines imposed on them. Despite Giriama resistance weakening, by 1918, the British colonial government was also substantially weakened. With minimal control and the collapse of the so-called European investment, the Giriama were slowly allowed back into the Sabaki area. Acting Chief Secretary TS Thomas requested an executive pardon and the repatriation of Wanje and Mekatilili from Hobley. “Wanje wa Mwadorikola is a very old man and practically blind from old age,” the letter stated, but it was only in 1919 that the two were pardoned and freed. It is recorded that the two married while in exile.

The colonial government resolved to blend British administration with traditional political Kaya Giriama systems to improve its effectiveness in the area. Wanje was appointed head of the Kambi and Mekatilili head of the women’s council, a newly-created position. But the attempt to create a merged system collapsed.

Wanje and Mekatilili died from natural causes in the mid 1920s. Mekatilili is said to have died aged 70 and was buried in Bungale Ulaya wa Jele in present-day Kilifi County, where an annual festival is held in her memory. On December 12, 2010, Mekatilili was officially recognised as a Kenyan hero and a statue was erected in her honour in Nairobi’s Uhuru Gardens, on the spot where the Union Jack had come down to be replaced by the Kenyan flag on Independence Day, 47 years earlier. The site was aptly named Mekatilili Gardens. Because of Mekatilili’s efforts to preserve the Kayas, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared the sacred Mijikenda Kaya forest a World Heritage site in 2008.

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Ndua, Elizabeth (2000), Mekatilili wa Menza: Woman Warrior. Sasa Sema Publications Ltd; Nairobi
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Kenya National Archives documents of Mekatilili wa Menza’s detention

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