Mekatilili wa Menza may have been in the freedom struggle scene for a short time, but her contribution in raising the African consciousness among the Giriama people of the Coast was immense.
Mekatilili was one of the first women in Kenya to rise up against the British in 1913. Her bravery, oratorical power and charisma earned her a huge following and saw her mobilise the Giriama to take oaths and offer sacrifices to restore their sovereignty.
Initially, her concern was the breakdown of the Giriama culture amid British influence and she pushed for a return to the traditional Giriama governance system. By extension, it created resistance to the authority of the British and the appointed headmen, the latter whom she accused of betraying the Giriama for rewards.
Mekatilili was particularly against the issue of labour recruitment. At the time, the British were putting increasing economic pressure on the Giriama, through taxation, attempts to control trade in palm wine and ivory, and by the recruitment of young men to work on plantations and public works projects.
Mekatilili’s anguish was over the growing disintegration of the Giriama, so she called upon her people to save their sons and daughters from getting lost in the British ways.
While her rebellion lasted for only one year, from 1913 to 1914, it had considerable impact on the relations between the British and the locals.
The British won the war against the Giriama, who were forced into a stringent peace settlement.
But, in the long term, the British government removed land restrictions and lightened labour demands.
The Giriama achieved the main goals for which they had originally fought in the longer term, but the virtual withdrawal of the colonial administration from the Giriama hinterland may have contributed to its isolation and economic stagnation to date.
Born in the 1840s, Mekatilili was the only daughter in a poor family of five children. Historians attribute her strong feelings on the issue of labour to a personal tragedy, in that one of her brothers was captured in front of her eyes by Arab slave traders.
She married but was later widowed, which gave her more freedom to move around as a woman leader.
“We are not to fear the Europeans,” she thundered in many of her gatherings, which in most cases ended in taking of powerful oaths that effectively prevented all Giriama from co-operating with the colonial administration.
Colonial hut tax
Mekatilili opposed forced labour in British-owned rubber and sisal plantations, the colonial hut tax (forcing every family to give money to the British), land seizure evictions from the fertile Sabaki River Valley and restricted consumption of palm wine.
To attract the crowds to her meetings, she used to move from one village to another dancing Kifudu, a revered dance that was performed only during funeral ceremonies. The women would follow her, their men in tow.
Archival records show that Charles Hobley, who was the Coast provincial commissioner from 1912 to 1919, attributed most of the responsibility for Giriama resistance against colonial labour and taxation policies to “an old blind rascal named Ngonyo” who “instigated a half-mad woman named Katilili to tour the country preaching active opposition to Government.”
She was instrumental in the most important meeting held in Kaya Fungo, the ritual centre of the Giriama, in July and August 1913, where she “led the discussions and complained about labour demands and the jurisdiction of the traditional elders being undermined”.
She said the wages which headmen received gave the government the belief that they had a right to demand cheap labour.
But the British were not just sitting by. Mekatilili and a male leader of the Giriama resistance, Wanje wa Mwadorikola, were arrested in October 1913 and sentenced to five years detention.
The two were deported to the far west of Kenya, Mumias, but escaped a few months later and walked back home to continue with the resistance.
The British were mesmerised by how she could have walked such a distance through the forest infested with dangerous wild animals. She was again arrested, this time to be sent north to the Somalia border area. Again, she escaped.
Gospel of violence
Mekatilili was variously described by the British as a “witch” and a “prophetess who gave additional force to the oath in spreading the gospel of violence”.
But her powerful oaths were not to fight the colonialists, but to try to win back those Giriama who had transferred their loyalties to the British.
Despite her exploits, Mekatilili, who died in 1925 at the age of 70, was not recognised among Kenyan freedom fighters until October 20, 2010, the first Mashujaa Day, when her statue was unveiled at Uhuru Garden — renamed Mekatilili wa Menza Garden — in her honour.