Today’s woman has been empowered to take on economic, political and social responsibilities. As a way of validating her efforts and celebrating her achievements, March 8 every year is marked as the International Women’s Day (IWD). This day is significant in that it primarily focuses on showing respect and love to women who have contributed positively to their communities.
Gone are the days when women would be excluded from decision making on sensitive issues pertaining to leadership. Women are no longer marginalized or segregated to play specific gender roles. There is a wave sweeping across the world where we see women ascending to the highest offices in their countries. Take for instance Liberia, Argentina, Bangladesh, Germany and Lithuania. All these countries are governed by women. This could be a small number compared to the number of countries in the world but seeing efforts made by the likes of Hillary Clinton, it is plain to see that women are positioning themselves to get involved in leadership like their male counterparts.
Kenya is an enterprising country and many women have made it in the corporate world. Sadly, women have shied away from Kenyan politics which has been characterized by corruption and poor governance. We have been looking at women and their contributions to Kenyan society in literature, media and generally in Kenyan society. Today we look at some other women who are also part of Kenya’s history.
Women’s participation during the British rule
Long before the concept of International Women’s Day was conceived; Kenyan women played a significant role in the liberation of Kenya from the cruel rule of the colonial government. They were subjected to afflictions they would rather remain mum about or discuss in hushed tones. From incessant sexual abuse from the brutal colonial soldiers to being subjected to hard labour in the full glare of the sun without pay to being separated from their young ones and getting locked up in the then cells, the Kenyan women went through it all. The harrowing experiences of the colonial era in Kenya will forever remain etched in the minds of the women who faced the wrath of the colonial administration.
We need to recognize some of these women’s key input in the struggle for independence. Were it not for their efforts to liberate Kenya from the hands of the colonial rulers, probably it would have taken longer to attain independence.
The women in the Mau Mau
a) Acted as spies for the MauMau fighters in the forests. Any information that was vital for the safety or striking of the soldiers was relayed by these women whenever they visited them in the forests.
b) Were the custodians of their homes after their husbands were arrested or left for the forest to fight the ‘mzungu’. They would prepare meals which were then sent to the fighters in the forest.
c) Ridiculed men who were cowards and urged them to go fight as their fellow counterparts.
d) Administered oaths to the people to ensure loyalty and bridge gaps so that their secrets would not leak to the colonial soldiers who were seen as enemies.
While some women were not actively involved in the fight, some actively participated in leadership roles where they spearheaded the rebellion against the British soldiers. This landed them in trouble as they were arrested and detained. Some of these women who notably contributed to the resistance of British rule are:
a) Mekatilili WA Menza– She came from the Giriama community. This fearless woman will always be remembered for marshalling the support of other women in her community to fiercely resist the British from 1912-1914. She was opposed to the British imposing hut tax on the Giriama, forced labour on lands owned by the British and forceful evictions from their ancestral lands.
b) Wangu wa Makeri – Coming from the small village of Wangu in Murang’a, this lady made her mark in colonial rule by getting appointed as the first female chief in colonial Kenya. She is reputed to have been a no-nonsense lady and was known to sit on the backs of rogue men and whip them whenever they were reported to her. Although not much is said about her in the fight for liberation, her leadership at a time women were supposed to be seen only and not heard, cannot be seen as a mean feat.
c) Mukami Kimathi – The wife to the MauMau hero, Dedan Kimathi. Born around 1930, she acted as an informer to the Mau Mau, spying on the movements of the colonial soldiers and giving this information to the fighters in the forest. The capture and eventual killing of her husband opened a painful chapter in her life. The gallant soldier had fallen and not accorded a send-off befitting him. For over fifty years, she has unsuccessfully sought to have the remains of her husband’s body for proper burial. Mukami, a conspicuous personality in most national celebrations nurses the hope that her wish will be granted.
d) Wambui Otieno -Waiyaki– This name may not ring a bell in many people’s minds but this is the same lady that stirred controversy in the country for marrying one Mbugua, young enough to be her son. She was actively involved during the colonial era. She mobilized women to riot against the British but this did not sit well with the then administration. She was arrested and detained at the coast. She later tried her hand in post colonial politics by vying for parliamentary seats in Kajiado North and Kamukunji constituencies only to end up disappointed.
e) Muthoni Kirima – She was honoured with the title of ‘field marshal’ for spending approximately eleven years fighting in the forest and coming out alive. Unlike other women who indirectly participated in the struggle by acting as informers and suppliers of food to the male fighters in the forest, Muthoni actively participated like the men. To get the title ‘field marshal’ meant that one had to actively participate in the liberation. Muthoni got that title alongside the other three men-Dedan Kimathi, Baimungi and Musa Mwariama. Muthoni blames the government for ‘betrayal’ for not taking care of the surviving fighters who liberated the country.
In the post-colonial era, many women have politically fought for the betterment of this country. Some of them will go down in history for having put their lives on the line for the sake of the country.
a) Wangari Maathai – The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate will be remembered for her fight for the environment. She fought to ensure that trees were not cut down in Karura and that Uhuru Park was left as a recreational facility in the heart of the city. Her ‘humming bird’ analogy of doing little things in little ways has been shared globally to inspire people to do what they can with what they have. She was also a well-learned professor whose grasp of the leadership concept caused jitters in the quarters of the people intending to loot Kenya of her resources.
Wangari Maathai: The Green Warrior
b) Grace Ogot– Although widely known for her literary contribution to the country, this writer was also involved in the leadership of the country. She was appointed to Parliament in 1983 and when a seat fell vacant in parliament, she vied and was elected in 1985. She served in this capacity until 1992. She will go down in history as the only lady to hold a cabinet-level post under the former president- Daniel Moi. She held her ministerial post until 1993.
c) Njoki Ndungu – Now serving as a Supreme court judge, this lady was actively involved in the political arena in modern Kenya. She spearheaded the implementation of the Sexual Offences Act when she was nominated to parliament. This Act stipulated punishment for sexual offenders especially rape which was rampant at the time.
d) You can never mention the contribution of Kenyan women in politics in Kenya and not note the input of women like Martha Karua, Linah Jebii Kilimo, Lorna Laboso, and Nyiva Mwendwa among others.
There was also Maendeleo ya Wanawake that was interested in promoting women’s issues. Kenya has many heroines we need to celebrate from the mama mboga working hard to feed the nation, to women doing business, to women in the political arena.
International Women’s Day: Celebrating Women’s Greatness