From spies to field marshals: Celebrating brave women of Kenya’s independence struggle

Wambui Otieno, Muthoni Kirima, Mekatilili wa Menza

From left: Wambui Otieno, Muthoni Kirima, Mekatilili wa Menza and Mukami Kimathi.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Between 1888 and 1963 Kenya was a British colony. During this time, the country experienced a protracted independence struggle as the people fought the colonialists to take back their country.

Majority of those involved in the war were men as the women remained behind running the homes raising their children and working on farms and marketplaces.

Under colonial rule, women increasingly became unimportant to the economic system, and their powers and influence soon faded from the public sphere.

Despite their fading influence during this period, however, a number of women stood their ground and played a huge role in Kenya’s independence journey.

They, among others, composed and sang songs that ridiculed the colonial government and encouraged freedom fighters in the struggle. Others acted as spies for the Mau Mau freedom fighters by providing them with key information that eventually helped them to defeat the colonialists.

Here are some of the women whose role in the struggle stood out.

Mekatilili wa Menza

She is a Kenyan female freedom fighter who led the coastal Giriama people to resist British colonial rule in the early 20th century.

She is believed to have been born in Kenya’s coastal county of Kilifi in the 1840s.

When the British colonial administration tried to impose their policies and ordinances on the Giriama people, Mekatilili boldly stood up against them.

She believed in her people’s traditions and didn’t want to see them tainted or abolished by the British.

After becoming a widow, she organised the Giriama people to rebel against the British who threatened their sovereignty and freedom with forced labour and taxation.

Menza travelled from village to village, performing kifudu to draw crowds before giving powerful speeches to mobilise public resistance.

Her leadership contributed to uprisings in 1913 and 1914, and despite multiple arrests and imprisonments, she was successful. What followed was the Giriama uprising which led to Mekatilili’s arrest. She was jailed in Mumias for five years.

The British ultimately relaxed control of the region, granting Menza and the Giriama people’s demands. Menza died in the 1920s of natural causes.

Muthoni Kirima

Mau Mau veteran Muthoni wa Kirima. 

Muthoni was part of the Mau Mau uprising and fought alongside men during the campaign for independence.

She is a retired top-ranking female fighter in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army of the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s.

Few Mau Mau women became active fighters, and Muthoni is the only woman to have attained the Mau Mau rank of field-marshal

At just 20 years old, Muthoni joined the Mau Mau as a spy. She also helped supply the fighters with food and water. At the start of the Mau Mau Uprising (1952-1960), she first worked as a spy, before joining the fighters in the forest.

Rising quickly through the ranks due to her innate talent as a military tactician, she quickly attained first the rank of General then Field Marshal. She was never captured during the independence struggle.

Despite already risking her life for the cause of freedom, Muthoni wished to do more and thus became a soldier for the Mau Mau. She proved her worth becoming the first and only female field marshal.

She had to contend with the extreme conditions that the Mau Mau who were living in the forest faced including harsh weather, danger of wild animals not to mention battling the colonialists.

She was the only female leader with the rank of Field Marshall during the liberation struggle since she actively participated in the fight. Other women were mostly assigned spy roles or to deliver food to the Mau Mau fighters.

The 93-year-old freedom fighter hit the headlines last year after she shaved her six-foot long dreadlocks in a ceremony that was witnessed by former first lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta.

The former First Lady was Muthoni’s friend during their stay in the forest and jail term at Kamiti Prison.

Muthoni had for 70 years donned her dreadlocks with pride as a testimony to her participation in the struggle for Kenya’s independence against the colonialists.

She spent seven years in the forest as a fighter on the frontline. A few years ago, a statue was unveiled at the former Uhuru Garden now Mekatilili wa Menza Garden in Malindi town in her honour.

Wambui Otieno

Former freedom fighter and controversial politician Virginia Wambui Otieno Mbugua. 

She was given the name Virginia Wambui Waiyaki when she was born. At 16, she ran away from home and joined the Mau Mau in Nairobi during the emergency period to work as a spy for them.

The escape from home at the tender age marked the beginning of her lifelong career as a fighter cum activist.

She crossed class and gender divides to join the movement despite not being the typical Mau Mau recruit who joined due to socio-economic grievances since she came from a privileged Christian family.

In the Mau Mau movement, Wambui served mainly as an intelligence agent by spying, scouting, liaising with the movement and helping with procurement of arms.

In 1952, when at secondary school, Wambui swore an oath of allegiance to Mau Mau. She was also involved in the campaign to eradicate the "colour bar" in Nairobi, which designated separate areas in public spaces for Europeans, Asians and Africans.

She was briefly arrested several times for these activities and issued with orders excluding her from Nairobi, which she flouted.

Although her activities in Nairobi can be linked to records of her arrests there, Wambui's in previous media interviews claimed of a more active role in Mau Mau battles which she alleged were not supported by official records.

After Mau Mau forces had been effectively defeated, she became involved in trade union activities and worked closely with Tom Mboya and other trade unionists.

She was arrested in July 1960 for mobilizing women to strike and riot against British rule and was detained in a camp in Lamu until January 1961.

The freedom fighter was accused of getting arms for the fighters. Upon her arrest, she was taken to Lamu for imprisonment. She is the great granddaughter of Waiyaki wa Hinga.

In 1963, she got married to a prominent lawyer S.M. Otieno thus the title Otieno. Her husband however died in 1986.She died in August 2011.

Mukami Kimathi

Mukami Kimathi

Mukami Kimathi.

Photo credit: File | Nation media Group

Mukami who passed on last month, was the wife of the late freedom fighter Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi. Apart from being the wife of the famous freedom fighter, she also participated actively in the struggle for the country’s independence.

Mukami was among the Mau Mau freedom fighters detained at the Kamiti Maximum Prison during the struggle for independence. She was instrumental in the push that helped Kenya gain its independence from the colonialists.

Mukami was a key figure in the fight for Kenya’s independence, offering unwavering support for her husband during his time as a Mau Mau guerrilla leader. She endured great hardships, including imprisonment and torture, but never wavered.