Mekatilili Wa Menza: Beyond Gender to Age and Status in Kenya’s Primary Resistance to Colonial Rule
Did you know that the Giriama resistance of 1913-1914 was initiated and led by an old widow? In 1912, the British colonial authorities in Kenya begun forcing the Giriama people to offer labor in the European plantations along the coastal region. This colonial political economy posed a challenge to the Giriama producers and traders. As a result, the demands raised by the colonial administrators were rejected. This rejection and reluctance eventually led to a military war between the Giriama people and the colonial administrators. In this uprising, Mekatilili wa Menza stood out as an old widow who stood where men trembled and feared. Using her old age and widow status, Mekatilili wa Menza became the initiator and commander of the resistance for two years.
In honour of her great work, the county government of Kilifi, raised Mekatilili wa Menza’s Pillar in Kilifi on 13th August 2019 and celebrates Mekatilili wa Menza festival annually. This blog is a result of an observation I made while doing my fieldwork in Kenya on “women fighters in Kenya, 1952-2019”. In this study, I explored women’s participation in violence and war in the country, right from the decolonization movements to the current terror and neighborhood groups. While exploring the biographies of women fighters during the decolonization period, Mekatilili wa Menza’s story emerged. Mekatilili was an old Giriama widow who led her people in the famous Giriama resistance between 1913-1914 in Kenya’s coastal part.i In this blog, I argue that age and statuses favored Mekatilili in the Giriama colonial resistance. Accordingly, modern day neighborhood and terror groups can exploit age and status stereotypes to plan and execute their attacks. Using Mekatilili wa Menza as a point of reference, I contend that as a woman of her time, Mekatilili, would have never occupied any political leadership. However, she exploited her widow statuses, old age, and gender to successfully lead the Giriama against the colonial administrators in Giriama land.
Colonial invasion in Africa was met with mixed reactions from individual African communities. The African responses to the colonial invasion can be classified as resistance, acquiescence, and alliance. However, as the colonial administration demands intensified, the African opposition to the British administration and its policies intensified. It is worth noting that most of these resistances were led by community and religious leaders. For example, the Maji Maji rebellion in Tanganyika was led by Kijinkitile Ngware, who was believed to be a medium.ii In Zimbabwe, the chimurenga wars were led by traditional religious leaders. In Kenya, the Nandi resistance was led by a youthful Koitalel Arap Samoei, a supreme religious and political leader of the Nandi people.iii
Resistance to colonial rule was not limited to men, religious and political leaders like Koitalel Arap Samoi, Kijinkitile Ngware and Otenyo alone. In some communities, women leaders led in the fight against colonial invasion. For instance, in Ghana, the Asante queen, Yaa Asantewaa, queen of the mother of Ejisu, led the Asante resistance between 1900 and 1902.iv In Kenya, the Giriama resistance, 1913-1914, is unique as it was led by not only a woman but also a common old widow, Mekatilili wa Menza.
Birth and society
Mekatilili wa Menza was born in the 1840s in Mutsara wa Tsatsu in Bamba Menza in Kenya’s coastal part.v She was named Mnyazi wa Menza and was the only girl in a family of five children. Her name changed to Mekatilili wa Menza after giving birth to her son Tilili.vi As a young girl, she always accompanied her father to trade trips in Mombasa. These trade trips had two significant aspects in the life of Mekatilili. First, she was able to come into contact with the white traders. Secondly, her hatred for the white men begun from these trips. One of her brothers, Mwarandu, was kidnapped by the Arab slave traders and was never seen again.vii The loss of his brother experience motivated the spirit of fighting the white men in later years as an old widow. Mekatilili could not differentiate between the Arab slave traders and British colonial administrators . After all both groups had a white skin. She extended her hatred to the British colonial administrators who invaded Giriama land in the early 1900s.
Mekatilili was not happy with the colonial political economy in Giriama land. The colonial political economy was marked with forced taxation, land alienation, forced labor, erosion of African culture.viii The situation reminded her of the old prophecy by a woman called Mepoho. Mepoho had prophesied about the coming of the colonialists who would erode the African culture in the land.ix Accordingly, Mekatilili would not sit down and watch helplessly. She had to do something to kick the white men out of their land.
Widowhood as A Gateway
Mekatilili exploited her widowhood status to lead a rebellion that lasted for 2 years. The traditional Giriama society dictates that men led wars, and women were supposed to be at home, be protected, and take care of their children. As a woman in the early 20th century, Mekatilili was not eligible for any leadership position let alone commanding the patriarchs into war.x However, she was sure of one resource that would be exploited to voice her grievances and command men to rebel against the colonial administrators. As a widow among the Giriama, she had a chance to sit with the men leaders in the community.xi Also, she was expected to perform the Kifudu dance for her late husband. She approached the village medicine man called Wanje about waging war against the colonialists.xii Wanje granted her permission to begin the revolution. She had a duty to unite her people to get their land back.
It is important to note that a man would not give a woman a go-ahead to wage war in reality as per the Giriama customs. This is because women were typically regarded as weak, victims of violence, and vulnerable. Additionally, Mekatilili was not forced into initiating the war against the white people. She is a real example that women are not always coerced actors in war and violence. Others initiate war and voluntarily partake in violence after weighing the merits and demerits of their actions. In this case, the rational choice theory of violence serves to explain why Mekatilili entered the war. Waging war would be more beneficial than sitting and watch their land taken away, their men forced into labor and taxation, and their culture eroded.
Mekatilili took advantage of her widowhood status to gather people in the market centers and set them against the white man. She always performed the Kifudu dance whenever she wanted to address people.xiii The kifudu was funeral dance that was led by the female dancers accompanied by male percussionists.xiv The dance aimed at bringing the community together to send the spirit of the loved one to the ancestral land. The first part of the dance was largely performative. It featured a group of dancers following a specific choreography. The second part of the dance was open for the community participation. Everyone present led by the female dancers joined the dance.xv This participation helped to promote the spirit of togetherness in times of loss.
This kifudu dance served a Mekatilili’s weapon for freedom fighting. While the dance was reserved for funeral ceremonies, Mekatilili performed it regularly, from town to town, attracting a large following that followed her wherever she went. This was possible because, in traditional Giriama society, death is very sensitive. Whenever there is anything associated with a person’s death, people tend to gather in large numbers to find out who died, why, and when. Also, the sight of an older woman excitedly chanting from town to town was somewhat strange. Her kifudu attracted a crowd of onlookers wherever she went, and soon the onlookers became loyal disciples. The funeral dance served to the advantage of Mekatilili without much suspicion from the white man. Once the crowd had gathered, Mekatilili would address them, giving them reasons why they needed to rebel against the white man. She also administered oaths to the Giriama people as a sign of obedience and commitment to the Giriama liberation course.xvi Both men and women took this oath as an indication of their commitment to fight against the colonial master. This shows that Kenya’s independence war was a product of both women’s and men’s efforts, even though men get more recognition for it than women.
The Giriama’s Mother Hen.
Mekatilili wa Menza-Photo Credit:Rejectedprincess.com
The image above shows Mekatilili’s statue, accompanied by a mother hen, chicks, and traditional Kifudu dance attires. The presence of the mother hen and her chicks in the statue can be traced back to the confrontation between Mekatilili and the British colonial administrator, Arthur champion in August 1913.
As a mother, Mekatilili would not allow the Giriama men be forced to work in the colonial plantations. She exploited the aspects of womanhood and motherhood to defend what she believed belonged to the Giriama people. She demonstrated her readiness to die for her sons and daughters and to liberate them from the colonial administrator in one of the meetings. An interview with a clan elder, Abudala Saibu in Malindi revealed that on 15th August 1913, Arthur, Champion the colonial administrator stormed into Mekatilili’s meeting and interrupted her speech. He begun voicing the government demands to the community which included provision of labour and tax.xvii As per the gender dictates, it would be anticipated that the old Mekatilili would stop addressing the people and run away. This is because the colonial masters were known as brutal and violent. However, contrary to the expectations, Mekatilili was angered by this interruption and fought back.xviii His explanation concurs with scholar such as Kui who contends that Mekatilili slapped the white administrator.xix This action depicted Mekatilili as the first African woman to slap a colonial administrator publicly without fear. In this way, she rose above the societal expectations and did what even the men of the time feared most. She remained calm and fought for her people, just like a mother would fight for her kids.
As if that was not enough, Mekatilili followed the white man with a mother hen and her chicks.xx She dared him to touch one of the chicks and see what will happen. Ignoring the threat, Arthur picked one of the chicks, and the mother hen rose in rage and attacked him brutally.xxi Mekatilili sent her message clear. She would behave exactly as a mother hen if Arthur dared forcefully absorb the Giriama sons and daughters into planation labour, keep collecting the hut tax and erode the Giriama culture .xxii Out of anger, the white man shot at the hen and killed it. Ironically, Arthur shot the hen instead of Mekatilili, who stood watching. He feared to shoot at a woman as it would be seen as a sign of weakness. This stereotype saved the life of Mekatilili. On the other hand, Mekatilili had set her message straight; she was the Giriama people’s mother hen. This incident explains why her statue is always accompanied by a mother hen, chicks, and traditional Kifudu dance attires.
Old is Gold
It is worth noting that the white men were surprised to learn that it was an old woman, a commoner leading the rebellion. Accordingly, the colonial administrator issued for her arrest to destabilize the rebellion. As a result, Mekatilili, together with Wanje, the village medicine man, ran into the forest to avoid arrest. Nevertheless, they were soon spied on and arrested on the 17th October 1913.xxiii The colonialists believed that she would never survive the prison environment as an old woman. The two were sentenced to five years in prison in Kisii.xxiv It is important to note that Kisii is found on Kenya’s western side and is much colder than coastal Kenya. It was therefore anticipated that at her old age-around 70 years, Mekatilili would not survive this cold. However, Mekatilili and Wanje did not stay in prison for long- they escaped.
At Kisii prison, Mekatilili exploited her old age to plan an escape with Wanje. The guards took pity on her old age and befriended her.xxv Perhaps this pity emanated from the idea that in the African society, the elderly people are respected, supposed to be protected, and obeyed. Mekatilili exploited this situation to study the operation of the prison. The guards also obeyed her request to speak to Wanje in the Giriama language after every Sunday service.xxvi After all, what would two old prisoners talk about? It never donned on the guards that the two would plot an escape plan. This is because they were very old, and the coast was very far from Kisii, thus would not make it walking about 1000 kilometers back home.xxvii They would die on the way if they dared. Contrary to their thinking and belief, Mekatilili took five months to plan an escape, and on 20th April 1914, they escaped the prison.xxviii Mekatilili and Wanje pretended to go to the toilet. The guards, sure that the two cannot even think of escaping, opened the cells for them, and that is how they gained their freedom. Even when they realized that Mekatilili and Wanje had run away, the British did not chase them. They believed that these were old people and would not make it in the thick forest full of wild animals, cold, and little food to eat.xxix
Ironically, the two survived and made it to Kenya’s coast after three months of walking in the forest. In their escape journey, the two were helped by strangers along the way.xxx The fact that they were old people seeking help worked to their advantage. In the traditional African setup, the old people are highly regarded and are to be helped without questioning. This is regarded as a sign of respect and a source of blessings to the kind young generation. Such culture and beliefs explain the hospitality accorded to Mekatilili and Wanje. This is the hospitality that saw them survive for three months of their escape journey.
It is worth noting that after the escape from prison, Mekatilili never gave up on the fight against colonialists. Immediately, she arrived home, Mekatilili began plotting a battle against paying hut tax. On the other hand, the colonialist burnt all the Giriama kayas.xxxi This was a significant abuse to Giriama culture and religion. Mekatilili organized for a battle that was fought while she had already been rearrested. In this battle, children and women dug trenches and set traps around the village while men ambushed and attacked the British.xxxii Eventually, the Giriama won the battle. However, a few days later, the British revenged and killed several Giriama men.
Mekatilili’s freedom was short-lived as she was re-arrested. This time around, she was taken to Kismayu in Somalia. Studies indicate that she also escaped from Somalia and came back home in 1919.xxxiii On the other hand, the British gave up on Giriama land and moved into the interior because of the Giriama people’s stubbornness. Back at home, Mekatilili ordered the reconstruction of the destroyed kayas. She lived until 1924, when she died of natural cause.xxxiv
In conclusion, the Giriama resistance was hatched and led by a woman. In Kenya, this resistance stands out because it was among the first decolonization rebellions before the 1945 wave of nationalism. At the time of the Giriama war against the colonial masters, it was never expected that an old widow and a commoner would lead the community in the war against the colonialists and win. At her age, and given her gender, Mekatilili would not even think of political leadership at the time. However, she took advantage of her status namely: widow and old age to communicate her ideas, attract the masses and lead the war. Using her statuses as a widow, she reached up to the village medicine man, performed the Kifudu dance and gathered people at the market centers. Capitalizing on motherhood, she sent her message clear to Arthur Champion that she was the Giriama people’s mother hen. Mekatilili exploited her old age to manipulate the guards enabling her to escape from prison.
Mekatilili wa Menza’s story is a real example of how age, gender, and social status can be exploited to fighters’ advantage. It proves that indeed women can voluntarily join a war, initiate wars, and command large followers. Her story is an eye-opener when dealing with war, violence, and resistance groups. Often, the focus is on fighters’ gender instead of the real fight and their action. Moreover, very little is done to examine how age and status can be exploited in violence and war. Women, old people, children, and widows, many a time, enjoy the immunity of the security checkups and war investigations because they are regarded as vulnerable, weak, peacemakers, and harmless. This is the blind narrative that is propagated in society. In this way, we end up concealing an essential part of fighters. This leads to incomplete security measures and initiatives. Moreover, neighborhood groups and terror groups can capitalize on this narrative to successfully plan and execute attacks. Thus, there is a need to go beyond age, gender, and social statuses stereotypes in war, violence, and crime.
i Brantley, C. (1986). “Mekatalili and the role of women in Giriama resistance.” In D. Crummey (ed.) Banditry, rebellion & social protest in Africa. London: James Currey.
ii Iliffe, J. (1967). The organization of the Maji Maji rebellion. The Journal of African History, 8(3), 495-512.
iii Gold, A. E. (1978). The Nandi in transition: background to Nandi resistance to the British 1895-1906. Kenya Historical Review, 6(1-2), 84-104.
iv Brempong, A. (2000). The role of Nana Yaa Asantewaa in the 1900 Asante war of resistance. Ghana Studies, 3(1), 97-110.
v Mwarandu, J. (2013) “Role of Mekatilili wa Menza in the Independence Struggle in Kenya.”. Unpublished manuscript
vii Gatuna, P (2020). Leadership Lessons From Africa’s Great Leaders: Mekatilili Wa Menza. Available https://www.qazini.com/leadership-lessons-from-africas-great-leaders-mekatilili-wa-menza/
viii Carrier, N., & Nyamweru, C. (2016). Reinventing Africa’s national heroes: the case of Mekatilili, a Kenyan popular heroine. African Affairs, 115(461), 599-620
ix Mugi-Ndua, E. (2000). Mekatilili Wa Menza, woman warrior. . Nairobi: Sasa Sema Publications.
x Chin , S ( 2015). Badass Women Of History: Mekatilili Wa Menza. https://tuftsobserver.org/badass-women-of-history-mekatilili-wa-menza/
xii Otieno, Jeckonia (2012). “Woman warrior who feared no man.” The County Weekly: Kikwetu, 19 – 25 March.
xiii Kui, G (2019). Those That came Before Us: Women Warriors . DR publishing, Nairobi.
xiv See Rukwaro, M. (2019). Kifudu Funeral Dance In Giriama Community. Available at https://mercyrukwaro.home.blog/2019/07/09/kifudu-funeral-dance-in-giriama-community/
xvi Kui, G (2019). Those That came Before Us: Women Warriors . DR publishing, Nairobi.
xvii Interview with Abudala Saibu in Malindi in 2020
xix Kui, G (2019). Those That came Before Us: Women Warriors . DR publishing, Nairobi.
xxi MADCA (2009) Mekatilili wa Menza Cultural Festival 2009. Theme: Culture for peace harmony and conservation.
xxii Brantley, C. (1986). “Mekatalili and the role of women in Giriama resistance.” In D. Crummey (ed.) Banditry, rebellion & social protest in Africa. London: James Currey. Also, see MADCA (2009) Mekatilili wa Menza Cultural Festival 2009. Theme: Culture for peace harmony and conservation.
xxiii Carrier, N., & Nyamweru, C. (2016). Reinventing Africa’s national heroes: the case of Mekatilili, a Kenyan popular heroine. African Affairs, 115(461), 599-620.
xxv Kui, G (2019). Those That came Before Us: Women Warriors . DR publishing, Nairobi
xxvii Orchardson-Mazrui, E. (1999). The Adventures of Mekatilili. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.
xxviii Kui, G (2019). Those That came Before Us: Women Warriors . DR publishing, Nairobi
xxx Mugi-Ndua, E. (2000). Mekatilili Wa Menza, woman warrior. . Nairobi: Sasa Sema Publications
xxxi Nyagosia, B., Zachary, O., Ian Moywaywa, K., & Nyamwaka, E. (2017). Historical reflection of selected women’s involvement in the struggle for Kenya’s independence, 1920-1963.
xxxii Kui, G (2019). Those That came Before Us: Women Warriors . DR publishing, Nairobi
xxxiii Nyagosia, B., Zachary, O., Ian Moywaywa, K., & Nyamwaka, E. (2017). Historical reflection of selected women’s involvement in the struggle for Kenya’s independence, 1920-1963.
xxxiv Brown, L. (2021). Mekatilili Wa Menza And The Giriama War. http://www.historymatters.group.shef.ac.uk/mekatilili-wa-menza-giriama-war/
About the Author
Catheline Bosibori Nyabwengi
Catheline Bosibori Nyabwengi is 29 years old woman from Kenya and currently pursuing a PhD in African History at the university of Bayreuth, Germany. Her Ph.D. topic is ‘Women fighters in Kenya 1952-2019”. Catheline is also a Junior fellow at the Bayreuth International Graduate school for African studies (BIGSAS) in Germany. Catheline is the current project manager for Eastern Africa Youth Empowerment Forum on Peace and security (EAYEFPS) and a FemWise- Africa member. Catheline’s study and research interests are African history with a special focus on women, violence, security and terrorism in East Africa. More about Catheline’s research journey and experiences in the field of security can be accessed at https://bigsas.hypotheses.org/1384.