Mukami Kimathi: Misused by some, elevated by others

Mukami Kimathi

The late Mukami Kimathi during the interview at her Njabini home on December 07, 2013.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Mukami fought back — not only for her recognition as a freedom fighter but also for the recognition of others who died in the struggle against white hegemony.
  • She got some land under Kenyatta, became totally forgotten by the Moi administration but was later used to sell single-party rule. She later got a government car under Kibaki.

Of all freedom fighters, Mukami Kimathi was not Mau Mau's face of neglect. But she fought not to be sidelined.

As various politicos and some historians closed ranks to depict Mau Mau as a Kikuyu civil war, Mukami fought back — not only for her recognition as a freedom fighter but also for the recognition of others who died in the struggle against white hegemony.

Interestingly, history has hardly looked at her as a revolutionary in her own right and has always linked her to the equally popular husband, Dedan Kimathi. History derides itself that without Kimathi, Mukami would be a footnote of history.

When she died on Thursday, an era ended. And one of the public faces of the Mau Mau struggle was gone.

She was a detainee at Kamiti Prison at some point. And Mukami always fought for her space and never grew tired of demanding that Mau Mau be celebrated as heroes of the freedom struggle. As a result, Mukami was both in the forest and in jail.

When the government opted to ignore the Mau Mau, she would appear at the national celebrations in a personal effort to have the government recognise efforts made by freedom fighters — either as revolutionaries or as moderates. Finally, she won.

In the early 1960s, Mukami emerged as a firebrand during Kanu rallies and worked up the crowds. Her only limitations were that she had no college education to warrant her entry into government positions. She was also one of the few Mau Mau veterans recognised in the elite circles of JM Kariuki, Achieng Oneko, and General China.

During the 1960s settlement of the landless, Mukami was one of the lucky Mau Mau veterans given land with a settler farmhouse.

Government archival records indicate that the land was for “free” though in her biography, she says that she paid for it.

Farmhouses were allocated to a select elite group, and most beneficiaries were senior government officials and MPs.

In her autobiography, Mukami says: “A colonial settler, Ivor Yorke-Davis, lived on the land that I had been allocated. I was allocated a small section of it, the one that had the house and stable for his horses.”

Interestingly, the same has not been extended to Muthoni Mathenge, wife of Stanley Mathenge, the Mau Mau leader who vanished into oblivion.

There were attempts to get her into leadership, and in August 1966, she was nominated to the Nyandarua County Council to represent women interests by the Ministry of Local Government.

She would later slowly vanish from the public as the debate on Mau Mau and its place within the freedom struggle turned to academic discourse.

In July 1990, when Nelson Mandela made his debut visit to Kenya, the government was embarrassed after he inquired into the whereabouts of Mukami Kimathi. Nobody had an idea. The Daniel Moi government had erased her from memory.

Mukami used Mandela’s reference to her husband to spring back and seek the reburial of her husband from Kamiti.

Mandela had regretted the fact that he was not in a position to pay homage to Kimathi’s window after he was told that Mukami was “out of town”.

But the family called a press conference and said their home in Njabini, South Kinangop, was “less than an hour’s drive from Nairobi”.

Years later, Mukami would meet Mandela at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport courtesy of activist Kang’ethe Mungai (he duped police that Mukami had an appointment) and Prof Anyang Nyong’o, who was waiting for Mandela and Graca Machel for a Nepad meeting.

Over the years, politicians have used Kimathi’s name in populist pushes while neglecting the bulk of the peasants who had caused tumult around Mt Kenya, parts of Central Rift Valley, and in Nairobi protesting the lethargy of the colonial regime in the 1950s pushback against the construction of a “white man’s country”. More so, they also ignored other liberation struggles that pre-dated Mau Mau.

In Mukami's lifetime, her struggle to have Dedan Kimathi’s remains exhumed from Kamiti kept the debate going. But no government has been willing to trace the grave despite modern technology.

In the 1960s, the Minister of State, Mbiyu Koinange, admitted in Parliament that the government knew where Kimathi was buried and promised to have the body exhumed and buried at another site.

However, that matter was soon forgotten with fear by some insiders that a Kimathi tomb would become a revolutionary shrine. Whether the current administration will try to honour Mukami’s wish remains to be seen.

Also, in her lifetime, Mukami sued the British government claiming damages for personal injury and consequential losses arising from torture, mistreatment, forced labour, and wrongful detention during the State of Emergency.

In the latter case, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had agreed to compensate 5,228 victims. In Mukami’s suit, she claimed over 8,000 other claimants had not received any offer. Her case was later dismissed on technical grounds.

Mukami had met Dedan Kimathi when he was teaching at Karuna-ini Primary School. The two were married in 1948.

In 1992, Kanu tried to use Mukami as bait to get Kikuyu votes. While addressing a meeting called by Kanu at Ruring’u Stadium in Nyeri, Mukami denounced Mwai Kibaki’s Democratic Party as a party of former home guards. She claimed that Kibaki had consistently opposed the government’s attempts to better the lives of freedom fighters.

The meeting, held on July 18, 1992, organised by Kanu Secretary-General JJ Kamotho, was held to counter DP’s strength in Nyeri District and denounce him for defecting from Kanu. She would also receive Kanu delegations to her Njabini home with promises to better her life.

Mukami had a long history with Kanu, and in 1963 she was photographed with Jomo Kenyatta, Achieng Oneko and JM Kariuki after successfully recruiting many people to Kanu.

That Mukami had stuck with Kanu during the clamour for pluralism was her interpretation of power and meanings attached to freedom. Perhaps she wanted to show that Kanu was still the party of the liberation struggle, naively unaware that it had been hijacked.

However, President Kibaki would rescue Mau Mau from its proscribed status and assign a government vehicle to Mukami. More so, he erected a statue along Kimathi Street in Nairobi in honour of the freedom fighter. President Kibaki also invited her to the opening of Dedan Kimathi University in Nyeri.

“Finally, my husband was depicted as a hero for all to see,” said Mukami in the book written by Wairimu Nderitu.

For many years, she stood as the face of struggle. So when Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi opened at the Kenya National Theatre, Mukami attended as a guest.

The thread of fighting spirit lived throughout her life. She was one Mau Mau veteran who demanded her rights and recognition. As a result, she was not boxed into oblivion by the government or history.