Muthoni wa Kirima – Kenya’s first female field marshal

Muthoni wa Kirima is the only female freedom fighter to attain the title field marshal. Watching colonial injustices unfold first-hand at a tender age, as a pyrethrum picker on a settler’s farm, birthed the stoicism that led this rare woman warrior to fight alongside the Mau Mau in the Aberdare Forest. And even after Kenya attained independence in 1963, she has continued to champion for human and women’s rights. in her modest home in Nyeri County, octogenarian Muthoni wa Kirima sports dreadlocks that reach down to her knees. She has been wearing her hair like this since the pre-independence emergency period of 1952. It baffles her that some Kenyans still live as internally displaced persons on their own soil, and she warns that the tears and blood freedom fighters shed for the land will one day return to haunt Kenyans. She won’t be cutting her dreadlocks anytime soon – not until the hard-won independence she bravely fought for is experienced by all. She calls her hair “the history of Kenya”.

You can take Kirima seriously because attaining the rank of Field Marshal when war was a strictly male affair is no mean feat. Courage, dedication and military tactics are just a few of the qualities it took for her to earn such recognition, and she did it. She is the only woman and surviving field marshal out of five from the Mau Mau uprising. Kirima was born in 1931 on a British settler’s farm in Kieni, Nyeri, where her parents worked as labourers. Her father looked after dairy cows and her mother was a pyrethrum picker. Kirima grew up believing that God had created her for a special purpose. “God created me in His own image and He knew the purpose He had for my life. I was the third child among six girls and four boys. None of my siblings was as hard-working as I was,” she asserts.
From an early age, she knew only too well her parents’ struggles on a settler’s farm. Hence, as a mere 10-year-old, whose age mates were in school, she learned to pick pyrethrum. She went on to become the fastest and best pyrethrum picker, and could fill a whole basket long before anyone else.

The farm owners admired her work ethic, which pleased her, but she hated the mistreatment meted out on her fellow Africans. “It was like slavery. The Europeans didn’t care whether it rained or not and one had to pick the pyrethrum from dawn to dusk on the expansive farms for a meagre wage of two coins a month.” Kirima detested the slavery mentality and could not understand why her parents would work for foreigners who had grabbed their land and who were now making them till it! It was these injustices that stirred the freedom fighter in her. She had heard about Mau Mau fighters who had gone to the forest to fight for their land from the colonialists. She wanted to join them.

It was her agility and boldness that informed Kimathi’s decision to make her the only female field marshal. At 18, Kirima got married to General Mutungi and moved to the ‘native reserve’, where Africans lived. It was there that she took an oath to join the Mau Mau movement. When she learnt that Dedan Kimathi was leading fighters to the Aberdare Forest, she resolved to supply them with food and information on home guard operations. Her husband got to know about her activities and decided to join the freedom fighting movement. The home guards, who monitored the villages, noticed Mutungi’s disappearance and confronted his wife. Kirima lied that he had gone to Nyeri to sell eggs. Unconvinced, they came back to look for Mutungi but could not find him. In anger, they beat her until she bled from the mouth and ears.

Sixty-plus years later, Kirima still weeps at the memory of the blood-soaked house and the bruises she sustained from the home guards’ blows. The guards knew Kirima had attended a fundraiser for Jomo Kenyatta’s studies abroad and that she had been elected treasurer and given custody of the money. Their mission, therefore, was two-fold – to get information on Mutungi’s whereabouts and steal the cash. But she had hidden the money outside and they did not find it. “The home guards were our friends and neighbours, but the things they did to their fellow Africans are unforgivable,” she says. Kirima vividly remembers her days in the forest. It took her two weeks to find the other freedom fighters, who often slept in the trees to avoid nocturnal encounters with elephants and hyenas.
When she located them – there were only a few at that time – they gave her animal hides to wear. This would distinguish her from civilians. She only wore her regular clothes when she visited settler farms on food missions.

Dedan Kimathi nicknamed Kirima ‘weaver bird’ because of her ability to craft brilliant strategies in her search for food. It was her agility and boldness that informed Kimathi’s decision to make her a field marshal – a title that was reserved for Mau Mau heroes who dedicated themselves to attaining the country’s independence. They were anointed by elderly men, who used a mixture of sheep fat and castor oil for the anointing.

During one of her food errands, Kirima learned that Jomo had been freed from prison and Kenya would become independent on December 12,1963. She reported the news to her comrades-in- arms but they dismissed the newspaper information as a white man’s lie that was too good to be true. Still, they sent her to look for Jomo – someone she had never met – in Nairobi to confirm that he was indeed free.

Muthoni’s Timeline

  •  1931: Born on settler’s farm in Kieni, Nyeri
  •  1941: Recruited as pyrethrum picker
  •  1949: Got married to General Mutungi
  •  1952: Joined freedom fighters in Aberdare Forest.
  •  1954: Witnessed commissioning of Dedan Kimathi as Field Marshal
  •  1955: Commissioned Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima
  •  1963: Met Jomo Kenyatta in November to confirm Kenya’s independence date
  •  1963: Witnessed hoisting of independent Kenya’s flag on December 12
  •  1964: Dined with Kenyatta and Mama Ngina at State House, Nairobi, and pleaded for women to have national IDs
  •  1965: Earned driving licence
  •  1996: Set up Slopes Security Limited in Nyeri Town
  •  2013: Awarded Silver Star honours by President Uhuru Kenyatta

In November 1963, Kirima met Jomo at an office near Jeevanjee Gardens. The future president could not believe that Kirima had come from the forest, so she let down her dreadlocks and asked him to look at the lice that were breeding in her hair. She says Jomo broke down and wept, holding her hand to reassure her that Kenya would indeed be free from the colonial yoke. He told her to inform her comrades that independence was set for 12 December and that they should leave the forest and be part of the celebrations at Ruring’u Stadium in Nyeri. A driver would be sent to pick her up from the forest and bring her to Nairobi to witness the raising of the national flag, he told her.

After independence, Kirima abandoned the freedom fighter’s life, cleaned up and started wearing modern clothing, retaining only the dreadlocks. However, a number of her comrades continued to wear animal skins. She still marvels that she lived to tell the tale of her freedom fighter days. She had lived in the forest with wild animals, survived gunshot wounds and escaped capture by home guards. “It was only through God – He deserves the honour and glory,” she says matter-of-factly. She weeps for joy at the fact that Kenyans can now cultivate their own land. “It was Kimathi’s vision to see our land owned and cultivated by Kenyans, and I’m sure he would have been very happy to see it.” However, the government has never given her any land; what she owns she bought from the proceeds of business.

The freedom fighter spends most of her time looking after her adopted children and grandchildren. She also enjoys cooking, thanks to a constant flow of visitors to her homestead. It is common for her to receive visitors from everywhere, including abroad, who want to learn about pre- and post-independence Kenya. She loves guests and is always welcoming them with a cup of tea. She also has a passion for conserving the environment and has planted many trees as a result. Kirima has travelled the world, sharing her story at various forums including universities. Churches and schools also regularly invite her to talk to young girls and women, whom she lectures on the need for sexual abstinence. “You can only think clearly when you are pure and educated,” she says.

Words of Wisdom

  •  You can only think clearly when you are pure and educated.
  •  God created me in His own image and He knew the purpose He had for my life.
  •  It is baffling that Kenyans should still live as internally displaced persons in their own country.
  •  Dress respectfully; respect yourself as a woman and men will respect you.
  •  Respect your elders and listen to their words of wisdom.
  •  Uphold your heritage; own your local names.

The field marshal also serves as the patron and chairperson of the African Independent Pentecostal Churches of Kenya, which is grounded on African values. Her proudest accomplishment is building three churches using her hard-earned money. She has also sponsored the education of over 50 students, many of who have reached university and are now raising families. She is happy that women today enjoy leadership positions, although she adds: “Women
don’t understand where some of these rights came from.” The freedom hero claims credit for convincing Jomo to give women their own national identification cards after she was told to get a man to sign for her to be able to withdraw her own money from a postal account.

Although she no longer drives because of her advanced age, Kirima was once a great driver, who got a driving licence in Nairobi in 1965 and taught many girls how to drive. She thanks Mwai Kibaki, who as President of Kenya (2002-2013) set aside October 10, as Mashujaa Day to recognise the country’s heroes. President Uhuru Kenyatta capped her joy when, on December 12, 2013, he accorded her the Silver Star of Kenya honour during celebrations to mark Kenya’s golden jubilee since independence.

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