Tea kettle that completes Dedan Kimathi's story - Daily Nation

Tea kettle that completes Dedan Kimathi's story

Wednesday August 29 2018

Priscilla Wangui, a retired nurse, who was a friend of Dedan Kimathi.

Priscilla Wangui, a retired nurse, who was a friend of Dedan Kimathi. PHOTO| WILLIAM RUTHI 

By WILLIAM RUTHI
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When writing his classic book Kaburi Bila Msalaba (grave without a cross) in the 1960s, author Peter Kareithi travelled to the home of Priscilla Wangui in Kahigaini, a village in Tetu, Nyeri County.

Kareithi had sought out Wangui, a retired nurse, for an item that had years before made quiet entry into history and which later on would come to simply be referred to as "the Kimathi tea kettle".

How much the kettle may have influenced the widely popular Kaburi Bila Msalaba — the first Kiswahili book about the Mau Mau insurgency and struggle for independence — is not apparent, but Kareithi, a historian and scholar, had a good reason to want to see the pot and touch it and later pack it in his bag.

Like the book’s compelling narrative — betrayal, loyalty, loss and measured victory — the story of the kettle and its owner, makes for an equally rich plot.

STEAMING POT

On October 21, 1956 Dedan Kimathi, the Mau Mau movement leader, lay under heavy guard at the Home Guard Post in Kahigaini.

Earlier that day, Kimathi, lonely and days on the lam had been shot in the leg by an officer in the Native Police Force and carted on a makeshift stretcher awaiting transfer to Nyeri town.

A police officer suggested that Kimathi be served some milk, but the prisoner declined, saying he would only drink tea and was specific about the cook: Priscilla Wangui.

He also asked that she bring along some Aspirin. Several minutes later Wangui, who ran a seven-bed maternity clinic in the area, arrived carrying a steaming pot of hard-boiled tea and the painkillers. Kimathi’s face perked up when he saw Wangui and according to witnesses, asked that his cup be refilled.

FELL IN LOVE

For many who knew Kimathi, a secretive and greatly distrustful man, it was no surprise that he would seek out Wangui at the time of his need.

Wangui and her husband Edward Ndirangu had been friends with the Mau Mau leader through all kinds of weather.

And now as Kimathi sipped from the cup, Wangui sitting by patiently, the pair hardly speaking to each other yet communicating, the years fell away, down into a warren of events that had led to this very moment: days of their youth before the guns sounded; years of risk and bravery, and finally what everyone knew was the bookend.

It couldn’t have been scripted better.

Priscilla Wangui and her husband Edward Ndirangu.

Priscilla Wangui and her husband Edward Ndirangu. PHOTO| WILLIAM RUTHI

Kimathi had first met Wangui in early 1940 at the Church of Scotland Mission Hospital at Tumutumu, Nyeri. Wangui was a trainee nurse and he a student at Mambere (an accelerated-age/senior level education system) in the area.

Around that time, Ndirangu, Kimathi's friend, who had also briefly been his teacher, was admitted at the hospital.

While recuperating at Tumutumu, Ndirangu had fallen irretrievably in love with the kindly nurse Wangui, listening out for the reassuring hum of the nurse’s tram as she wheeled dinner into the wards.

Soon Kimathi assumed the role of matchmaker, nudging Ndirangu on, telling him the nurse was the girl to marry. As it happened, Wangui also realised she was falling for the quiet young man.

After college, Wangui was posted to Subukia as resident nurse on a settler farm. Ndirangu, lovesick, would travel occasionally to visit, putting up at the spare quarters of Kimathi who incidentally had also found work in Subukia as a milk clerk.

The workers on the farm were paid in cash and every payday, Kimathi and the other workers would deposit some of their money in the nurse’s safekeeping.

“My mother was the banker, the unofficial banker. Kimathi and the other workers trusted her completely,” says Othniel Kinja, Ndirangu and Wangui’s son.

Over the ensuing years the friends kept in touch, albeit sporadically. Wangui and Ndirangu settled in marriage in their home village of Kahigaini while Kimathi took up teaching, before history came calling, thrusting him into the front line of the freedom movement.

Wangui, though herself a devout Christian who hadn’t taken the Mau Mau oath of allegiance and solidarity, sought a way to help the movement.

By then, Wangui, a pioneering young woman way ahead of her times operated a seven-bed maternity clinic in the village and every other day would hop onto her bicycle — one she had acquired in 1945 and ride to Tumutumu, about 21km outside Nyeri town to collect supplies for her health centre.

Priscilla Wangui (left) and Nyamuhiu Kamunya, Dedan Kimathi’s sister.

Priscilla Wangui and Nyamuhiu Kamunya, Dedan Kimathi’s sister. PHOTO| WILLIAM RUTHI

She would spirit some of the provisions: dressings and prized Aspirin and other medicines to Kimathi and his weary band of soldiers through an intermediary.

“She did it so discreetly that even my father wasn’t aware of what was going on,” says Kinja, 67, of his mother who died in 2014 at 93.

And now on that fateful October day in ’56, as Wangui refilled Kimathi’s cup, the tea pot eased its way into history.

QUIET FAREWELL

“The import of the tea was hardly what it must have seemed,” says Muriithi Kariuki, a former teacher and author of Karunaini Revisited — a magazine-length, semi-biographical piece on Kimathi and the events surrounding his capture and the book Agikuyu.

“This was a covenant, a reassurance that the White people would go and the land would return.”

And it was also about a quiet, unspoken farewell between friends. Long after Kimathi was hanged by the British, the kettle continued pouring tea into unsuspecting cups, no one outside the Ndirangu and Wangui household knowing the history it carried.

Later, a film crew documenting the freedom struggle would commit the pot to history, but that was about all until author Kareithi came calling.

In recent times as the Kimathi legend and the freedom movement has continued to draw attention and reinterpretation in popular culture, there has been increased interest in the Kimathi kettle, mostly from history lovers.

“We (family) didn’t think a lot about the kettle; it was part of the family cutlery and that’s it,” says Kinja.

From his last search, Kinja says he tracked the whereabouts of the missing pot to Kareithi’s house in Jamhuri estate in Nairobi, but by the time he sought them out, the Kareithi family had since moved.

Still the homecoming is imminent, says Kinja. “I am determined that we will find the pot,” he says. “In between our busy schedules we will find it.”

According to Kinja, answering to Kimathi’s request was nothing his mother would think twice about; she was simply doing what she always wanted to do — serve others. “She was his banker, remember,” Kinja says with a laugh.