Wambui Otieno – Rebel who redefined the gender relations debate


Freedom fighter, author, women’s activist and politician are a few of the attributes that describe Wambui Otieno. The multi-faceted trailblazer’s life took a path that saw her tackle issues that were considered taboo, such as inter-tribal marriage and matrimonial property rights to name a few. It is those very public, controversial and even off limits causes that have helped to shape Kenya’s gender conversation.

A look into the life of Virginia Edith Wambui Waiyaki Otieno Mbugua, better known as Wambui Otieno – will confirm that she lived by one mantra: nothing is impossible. Her never- say-die attitude is what saw her become a Mau Mau freedom fighter, women’s rights activist, pioneer in inter-tribal marriage and defender of matrimonial property rights. In her twilight years, she startled friend and foe alike when she once again defied convention to marry a man many considered young enough to be her grandson, in a highly-publicised ceremony that showed the couple looking very much in love despite the shockwaves their union caused.

Otieno was born in Kiambu County in 1936 – into the prominent Waiyaki family that had a long history of resistance to colonialism. Indeed, her grandfather, Waiyaki wa Hinga, was among the founders of the resistance movement in Kenya. She joined the struggle for Kenya’s liberation at the tender age of 16 years. In newspaper interviews conducted over the years, Otieno revealed that she quit school and took her first Mau Mau oath before the State of Emergency was declared on October 20, 1952. In 1960, Otieno was arrested and confined to a detention camp in Lamu. While in detention, she suffered the trauma of being raped repeatedly by prison officers, one of them British. On January 23, 1961, she was released from prison on medical grounds. Because of the trauma she suffered in detention, she believed that rapists should be hanged. Records show that by 1954, Otieno was so deeply involved with the Mau Mau that she decided to stop pretending to be an ordinary village girl and took up full-time resistance duties in Kibera, Nairobi. She was assigned to get State secrets against the Mau Mau at Government House (now State House).

Otieno wrote an autobiography, Mau Mau’s Daughter: A Life History, which indicates that she was the seventh child and third girl out of 16 children. She was the daughter of the first Kenyan chief inspector of police, Tiras Waiyaki, and his wife Elizabeth Wairimu. Waiyaki had been appointed police chief inspector by the colonial government to compensate for the loss of his father, Waiyaki wa Hinga, whom the colonialists had killed in 1892. One of the reasons she joined the Mau Mau was to find out why her grandfather had been killed, especially after hearing stories that the colonialists had buried him alive in Kibwezi. Otieno was baptised Virginia Edith in December 1963 at the then Church of Scotland Mission, Thogoto. Her independent streak came to the fore when, at Mambere Girls School in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), she refused to respond to her English name during roll call, leading to constant punishment. In past press interviews, she recounted that she grew up exposed to both a Christian way of life and Kikuyu customary traditions, and she rejected many of the restrictions imposed by both cultures.

While in Tanzania, she also attended Tengeru College and earned a diploma in Community Development, Political Science and Leadership. Otieno’s first three children were born in the 1950s, while she was actively involved with the
Mau Mau, but her step-grandfather rejected their father and so she never married him. In her autobiography, she does not disclose why her step-grandfather rejected the father of her three oldest children. In total she had 15 children – nine biological and six adopted. Records show that by 1954, Wambui was so deeply involved with the Mau Mau that she decided to stop pretending to be an ordinary village girl and took up full time Mau Mau duties in Kibera, Nairobi.

In a newspaper interview in mid-2005, Otieno revealed for the first time that she had had a 10- year relationship with Thomas Joseph Mboya, popularly known as Tom Mboya or simply ‘TJ’. This was in the 1950s, before the flamboyant politician became Economic Planning and Development Minister in President Jomo Kenyatta’s administration after Kenya attained independence. She blamed the break-up of her relationship with TJ on his cheating on her with a white woman while she was under an 18-month colonial restriction order. In August 1963, Otieno married Silvano Melea Otieno, a prominent criminal lawyer better known as SM. They were married until SM’s death on 20 December 1986. Her husband’s death plunged her and his Umira Kager clan into an unprecedented legal tussle over where he would be buried. While she insisted that SM’s wish was to be buried at their Upper Matasia home in Ngong, the clan was adamant that he would be buried in Nyalgunga, Nyanza, according to Luo customs. In the end, she lost the epic 154-day court battle and SM was buried in Nyalgunga on 23 May 1987. Otieno and her children boycotted the funeral.

Ironically, Otieno was an active participant in the Third United Nations Conference of Women in Nairobi in 1985, which aimed at assessing the progress of women since the first such conference in Mexico 10 years earlier. After the drama surrounding her husband’s death, she told the New York Times: “There is discrimination in Kenya, contrary to the United Nations convention for the elimination of discrimination against women, which Kenya ratified in 1984.” Otieno made headlines again when, at the age of 67, she fell in love with 28-year-old stone mason Peter Mbugua. They were married at the Attorney General’s chambers in 2003, and several years later, on Friday, 4 February 2011, they solemnised their union in church. About seven months after their church wedding, Otieno died of heart failure. The freedom fighter’s second marriage opened a whole new chapter in Kenya’s gender relations – there was a paradigm shift from what Kenyans were used to, that is, older men marrying much younger women.

Besides their age difference causing a major public stir, Mbugua’s mother, Florence Nyambura, rejected her out-of-the-mould daughter-in-law and died soon after making her sentiments about the union known. Otieno’s daughters also rejected their mother’s youthful partner while newspapers quoted Mbugua saying he was the best companion she could ever ask for. When Otieno died, the widower found himself embroiled in a court battle over the sharing of her estate. Although the contents of the will remained secret, Otieno had told newspapers in 2008 that she had taken care of Mbugua’s interests.

Notwithstanding the controversies in her personal life, Otieno remained passionate about women’s rights. In a 2005 newspaper interview, she said girls had a very difficult life, especially those who chose to go to school. She recalled some of her schoolmates dropping out just because the boys ordered them to do so. In her twilight years, Wambui expressed disappointment that female liberation veterans were never accorded the same recognition as their male counterparts. In a 2005 interview, she accused historians of blacking out the fact that women were arrested alongside the famous Kapenguria Six – Jomo Kenyatta, Achieng’ Oneko, Bildad Kaggia, Fred Kubai, Kung’u Karumba and Paul Ngei. She said there were two women besides the six men, that is, Mama Nyoroka and Sarah Sarai, “yet no one knows if such people ever existed”. Women were not passive observers in the freedom movement, but played an active role alongside the men, she asserted.

Other women Otieno described as freedom fighters, and who died poor and unrecognised, were Rebecca Njeri (in charge of Kenya Teachers College, Githunguri), Wangui Gakuru, Wambui Mambo, Wangari Mathenge and Lilian Njeri. The latter was thrown into a lions’ den, she claimed. She described the women as role models who gave their lives for the country’s liberation and got nothing in return. However, she maintained that she expected no reward for
her personal sacrifices in the freedom struggle. On latter-day women politicians, she contended that there had not been enough affirmative action to elevate them to the level they should be. Otieno was also politically inclined and served in various positions in the Nairobi branch of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party. In March 2007, she made yet more news when she launched the Kenya People’s Convention to propel her to the Kajiado North parliamentary seat then held by George Saitoti.

While political pundits considered the attempt herculean, she dismissed them, saying, she would let the voters decide. But the contest was not to be as the 2013 General Election found both contenders dead – Wambui in August 2011 and Saitoti on June 10, 2012 in a helicopter crash. Before independence, Otieno once served as secretary of the women’s wing of Tom Mboya’s People’s Convention Party. In 1969, she vied for political office while holding various posts in KANU’s Nairobi branch. She attributed her loss to theft and burning of her votes. Despite her active role in agitating for multi-party democracy in the 1990s, which, she claimed, had earned her police beatings, Otieno’s stab at parliamentary politics ended in successive losses in the 1969, 1974, 1997 and 2007 elections.


  •  Daily Nation, Monday, 21 July 2003
  •  The Standard, Saturday, 16 July 2005
  •  Daily Nation, Friday, 30 March 2007
  •  The Standard, Friday, 17 May 2008
  •  Sunday Nation, 2 September 2012
  •  Daily Nation, Thursday, 13 September 2012
  •  The Standard on Sunday, 19 May 2013
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