Muthoni wa Kirima, the only female leader with the rank of Field Marshall in the Mau Mau, and who died this week, has been celebrated as a true freedom fighter who stood for the liberation struggle long after independence.
The 92-year-old was born in Tetu, Nyeri County.
While other women were assigned spy roles or to deliver food to the Mau Mau fighters, Muthoni stayed on the frontline, taking on the British colonisers, thanks to her knowledge of the terrains and sharpshooter skill. She also led raids to procure food and livestock for fellow fighters in the forest.
She fought alongside other renowned Mau Mau veterans such as Dedan Kimathi and General Mathenge.
During the liberation struggle, Dedan Kimathi had nicknamed her “Nyoni ya Thonjo” to mean weaver bird because of her ability to weave brilliant strategies that guided the raids.
Unlike other freedom fighters who surrendered along the way, she remained relentless and vowed to remain in the forest until Kenya gained her independence, said Murang’a Museum curator Anthony Maina.
Mr Maina previously served in the Nyeri Museum.
History, he says, records that it actually took the intervention of and a lot of convincing from the First President Jomo Kenyatta to call her out of the forest and assure her that Kenya was indeed free from the British colony.
She asked to see the Kenyan flag to give the independence story some credence that saw her match out of the forest alongside other fighters, including her husband.
“President Mzee Kenyatta had to send for her to come out of the forest. She was a firm freedom fighter. She asked to see the Kenyan flag for her to believe that the country was finally free,” said Mr Maina, adding that Muthoni alongside her husband were the first people to enter the forest and the last to leave after Kenya gained her independence in 1963.
She was in the forest for seven years.
“Muthoni did not betray the freedom struggle. She stayed the course to the very end which was not common amongst other fighters. Many people surrendered but she did not,” Mr Maina added.
After independence, Mr Maina said, she approached the then President Kenyatta to allow her a permit to trade in elephant tusks, noting that she had witnessed the killing of many elephants through bombs hurled at the fighters by the British armies and they were still being hunted for food.
“It was a legal business and she was granted the permit to trade in ivory. She knew where the tusks were buried. The ivory trade ended when it was banned in 1976,” noted the curator.
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Having struggled in the forest for years, Mr Maina said Muthoni maintained fortitude though she had great expectations post-independence.
Most of the freedom fighters still agitate for land and compensation 60 years on.
“She was not bitter that even after leaving the forest; she did not receive anything for free from the government or grab anything that did not rightfully belong to her… she built her home from proceeds of her trades and loans that helped her build a home in Pangani,” noted Mr Maina.
Inside her home, there are dozens of framed images that were taken in the pre- and post-colonial era, showing grit and commitment to a course. Other photos tell of a devoted Christian and church member of the AIPCK church while others tell of her interactions with the who is who in government, including presidents.
“She devoted a large portion of her resources to building the church and its project. We have lost a devoted member who was committed to do the Lord’s work,” said Archbishop Josphat Mbogo of the Embu diocese.
After donning her dreadlocks for more than 70 years, a prideful testament to her participation in the country’s struggle for independence, Muthoni decided to shave them off last year in a ceremony that was graced by former First Lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta.
Sparking controversy, Muthoni was quick to correct the masses who thought she was coerced to cut her six-foot long dreadlocks. She said she had consented to the move because “my desires as a freedom fighter have been met by the government.” She, however, did not state what desires were met.
Mama Ngina performed the shaving ceremony in a closed-door meeting where those in attendance wore full Agikuyu regalia.
Last month, the County Government of Nyeri honoured her for her contribution to Kenya’s independence by naming a bus terminus constructed in partnership with World Bank after her.
In her leadership streak outside the forest, Muthoni served as a councillor in Nyeri Municipality.
Muthoni has been mourned as a heroine and a courageous, hardworking woman who loved people.
At the Pembe Tatu Estate in Kamakwa, Nyeri County, where she lived most of her life with her grandchildren, an eerie atmosphere hangs in the air as the jolly trailblazer is no longer home to welcome her visitors.
In fact, for the better part of the day, the gates remain closed as family members who lived with her travelled to Nairobi where she had passed on after being rushed to hospital for treatment.
Her relatives said that Muthoni had developed feverish symptoms coupled with copious sweating an hour before midnight, prompting them to seek medical attention. Muthoni was, however, reluctant to seek medical care.
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Her grandson Kariithi Nderitu told the Nation that the matriarch did not suffer from any ailment apart from muscle numbness that she attributed to the trauma she sustained from a bullet wound while in the battlefield, pre-independence.
“She did not have illnesses or non-communicable diseases that are associated with lifestyle or old age. She developed a fever and passed on peacefully on the way to hospital… she only had coughs which were normal to us and the numbness on her arm,” she said.
She will be buried in her rural home in Gitungi Village, Tetu Constituency.