She retains the glint in the eye and the glow on the face which for many years earned her places as the face of many beauty products. And the years have been gentle on her. For despite her stoop betraying the weight of her 88-year-glorious years, she still stands tall and proud, exuding great coolness and composure.
The glow on her face, refreshing candour and healthy laughter tells only part of an eventful story of a woman comfortable not only in her skin but also her journey through life — though onerous.
She wears a remarkably well-adorned headscarf, which has become her trade mark as a woman with an untiring fighting spirit, unbowed and ready to soldier on despite the vagaries of age and the wear and tear of life in a country struggling to regain its footing.
But the gracious Muthoni Likimani has every reason to rule the castle.
She was not just the first Kenyan beauty queen. She holds a record of many firsts. The first African in Kenya to establish a public relations firm and one of the earliest female authors, publishing her first work in 1969.
The mother of three daughters has been listed as one of the most influential women of the 21st Century by the American Institute.
Her influential book, Passbook Number F.47927: Mau Mau and Women in Kenya, is one of the most authoritative works on the role of women in the war of independence and established Ms Likimani as a distinguished woman of letters.
Most post-independence literature downplays the role of women in the freedom struggle. Ms Likimani’s book sought to underline the suffering and instrumental place of women in the fight for Kenya’s independence.
It gives a voice to silent victims and heroines of the struggle through a candid portrayal of the callousness of the colonial elite who subjected hundreds of thousands of Africans to dehumanising conditions in detention camps.
Her other works include They Shall Be Chastised, her biography, Fighting without Ceasing, and a litany of children’s books.
A pioneer educator, Ms Likimani taught at Kahuhia Teachers’ Training College before going for further studies in Britain and Israel, which opened her career in broadcasting and public relations.
Many have bemoaned the fact that publishers shunned the matriarch of Kenya’s women liberation movement, leaving her to publish herself.
“Unfortunately, we publishers are seeing more and more of our authors pushing the literary frontier on their own, where we should have been at the forefront. Such events are a wake-up call that the passive author of days past is buried in history.
We either take care of the new author or we lose them to their new found freedom, emboldened by e-publishing, self publishing and the growing solidarity among the writers,” says Mr Musyoki Muli, the managing director of Longhorn Publishers.
“Muthoni Likimani belongs to a group of unsung heroines, more so because she penned her works from the heart, exuding a fighting spirit that epitomises her historical role as a freedom fighter and chronicler of a peoples’ culture and livelihood. Her natural smile radiates the warmth of the connection her fictional characters have with the audience. Indeed, as I read her works I see that radiance of a gallant personality to read more, hear more and see more.”
Publisher Barrack Muluka describes Likimani as a freedom fighter, true patriot, writer, mentor and an elder Christian girl.
“I knew her in the late 1960s. She used to present a children’s show on the Voice of Kenya TV, Shangazi na Watoto, which was very popular with us, who were then striplings. She told us stories on TV and encouraged us to read and to tell stories, too. Little wonder some of us would mature into story tellers of sorts.”
Mr Muluka regretted he never published her, despite many invaluable hours spent together formerly at her office on Koinange Street, in church and at her residence in Loresho.”
Ms Likimani mentors a group of women and she plans to publish an anthology of their stories.
But a woman for all seasons, Ms Likimani is also a community worker and an actress. She recalls the time in 1979 when she acted as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s first wife Mariam in the biographical film The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin.
One of the few earliest Kenyans to marry across the ethnic divide, Ms Likimani, who once walked out on her respected Maasai doctor husband, says she still can’t explain what men want in relationships.
The Saturday Nation interviewed her and below are the excerpts:
Q: You were brought up by missionaries but assisted freedom fighters. How did you reconcile that?
A: Yes my father, Rev Levi Gachanja, was one of the earliest Anglican missionaries in Kenya. I was not a Mau Mau but I supported their cause. Indeed, the whole notion that Christians didn’t support freedom fighters is mistaken. Christians supported the Mau Mau but only as far as their aspiration for fairness and equality of humanity went.
Q: While in London you also helped people like Mbiyu Koinange and Joseph Murumbi and even joined in the demonstrations at Hyde Park against the government that took you there for studies.
You know it was not overt as I was a student. However, I am not an activist, I just tell the truth and I don’t know whether I have told you this but I don’t clap even in the presidential dais if you have not convinced me in your speech. I am not the type that claps out of politeness.
Q: The British Government has finally regretted the atrocities and agreed to compensate victims of the Mau Mau suppression campaign. As a witness of this suffering during the darkest days of Kenya’s history, are you satisfied?
Sh200,000? That is too little. I think it can only bring about confusion as to who deserves and who does not. Perhaps the only valuable thing the money should be done is to invest in a trust or a monument.
Q: You were one of the earliest Kenyans to marry across the ethnic divide. How did you meet Dr Jason Clement Likimani?
I met my husband, the first ever African medical doctor, when he was the Medical Officer of Health at Fort Hall (now Murang’a) District General Hospital. He had been with my brother, Ngumba, at Makerere University College and he used to come home.
He was the only African medical practitioner allowed access to detention camps to treat detainees. And during our visits I was not allowed inside the camps. I would converse across the barbed wire and would sneak in and out letters to detainees’ relatives. That is how I became an unofficial letter carrier even though my husband did not know.
Q: At some point you walked out on him, packed and left for Murang’a. What went wrong?
I was just angry with him, I did not hate him. It had to do with his love for the bottle and a few women belonging to him. But he was the father of my children and I loved him. I even took care of him when he was sick and took him overseas for medication.
You know the first person you love and marry is not easy to leave. You are men and I tell you this. Women of pleasure fall for you when you are in power but when you fall they abandon you.
Q: So what does a man want?
A: Oh that book. I don’t know why I wrote What Does a Man Want? But it is about the vanity of Kenyans after independence during the boom years when they were mesmerised by the new power and were engaging in conspicuous consumption. These were the boom years of the coffee smuggling from Uganda through Chepkube.
Q: In the 1981 biographical film The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin you are the dictator’s first wife. How was the experience of playing that role in a film starring one of world’s most brutal dictators?
I was the first wife Mariam and I was the only one he could listen to. However at some point he broke my hand.
Q: Did you get your car back?
Oh yes, my lovely little mini car KGN 045. You see I was seated at the dais at Uhuru Gardens witnessing the Union Jack come down and the brand new Kenya flag going up. It was exhilarating and I forgot everything and leapt up in joy.
I even forgot I was there as a journalist. After the ceremony I could not find my car but it was nothing compared to what we had achieved. But yes I got it the next day.
Q: It has been suggested that there are no serious books coming out of Kenya any more. What is the quality of writing in Kenya?
A: People write from their observations and experience and if one is not travelled or otherwise exposed enough then his or her writings can be shallow. What is wrong with Kenya’s literary production is that people who can write are not exposed.
Q: It has been suggested that one cannot make a living out of writing in Kenya yet you have written unceasingly all these years. What keeps you going?
A: Writing does not pay, as such in Kenya. Even publishers refuse to publish books they are not sure they will sell. But I write to express myself. But with a bit of marketing writers can still earn a decent living out of their writings. I give talks all over the world and that is also where I get to sell my books. I also place my books in such places as Amazon.com and Oxford.
Q: What is the most transformative book you have ever written?
They Shall be Chastised, which I first published in 1974. It celebrates the role of the Church in the education and development of Kenya. But it is also a commentary on the conflict between Western Christianity and African culture.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: I am reading Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. I am a great admirer of the baroness.
Q: You are turning 88 in September and you are probably one of the oldest authors still engaged in literary production. How is your writing process, what time do you write?
A: I am not an employed lady so I have all the time to write. But I can’t sleep beyond 4am and begin writing then. As a Christian, though, I meditate first for some time before beginning to work. After sometime, I make coffee and then carry on up to about 9am.
Q: What do you consider your lowest moment in life?
It was when I lost my daughter who was living in Canada three years ago. I comforted myself that everybody goes through this one time or another.
Q: Looking back at the efforts you and the other pioneers put to uplift women’s lot in Kenya, what is your scorecard on their progress 50 years down the line?
A: I am very proud of their general progress now. I have always been very touchy to see women undermined. The bigger tragedy, though, is that even though women have long been emancipated, many seem afraid to come to the light. They are like ndurume — the fattened ram in Kikuyu culture which, despite the door being opened for it to come out after a long time in captivity, cannot take the chance because it fears the light.
Q: You are a pioneer journalist having worked for BBC and the national broadcaster through the years before going into public relations. What is your rating of the quality of journalism in Kenya?
A: I stay up late into the night watching news and I am concerned that there are two stations which are broadcasting really dirty, silly, stupid embarrassing stories and I think I will not watch them any more. When you tell us a man had sex with a cow in this or that place, what is the value of that journalism? I mean it could be the young man is mad or something and so the story has no value at all.
Q: If you were given a chance to meet two heroes in the world, who would they be?
That would be anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela. I met others already some of whom have died like the Israeli minister Golda Meir. But in Kenya my really number one heroine is Mekatilili wa Menza (the Giriama woman who led the anti-colonial struggle between 1913 and 194).
I have spent time in Malindi just meditating in the area and doing research there. She was a fearless and special woman. I am also an admirer of the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. She has transformed the image of Liberia in just a few years. But the cup goes to the African woman. After all she has gone through, she should be extinct by now — but against all odds she has survived. I wear my headscarf in her honour.
Q: You once met Emperor Haile Salassie. What was your impression of the revered leader?
He was a proud king who did not like speaking. He would just look at you as you spoke to him and insisted on the Amharic interpreter even if he understood English better than you. You knew this when he kept correcting the interpreter.
Q: What is the one thing you detest about Kenyans?
A: Their tribalism and corruption. This thing that money is the only thing worth working for.
Q: What is the one thing which you feel you have not achieved?
A: I would have wanted to further my education. I would have loved to do a lot more, say in the fields of psychology and law.
Q: At 88 you are strong and sharp. What is the secret?
God has been kind to me. African food has also helped me remain strong. I eat uji made from three different types of millet and I don’t drink.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: It is a politically explosive book whose working title is My Blood is not for Sale. It will capture all these sorry things happening now 50 years after our uhuru. It will feature human trafficking and other such crazy things happening now. Slavery was abolished many years ago, but why do we allow foreigners to abuse our girls like they did recently in Mombasa? Look at the case of (deported Nigerian businessman Antony) Chinedu, for instance. How many other people have we deported? Don’t you think what happened is very strange?
Note: Muthoni Likimani will on Saturday launch her book Fighting Without Ceasing at the Paa ya Paa Arts Gallery in Ridgeways, off Kiambu Road, beginning 2pm. The event has been organised by Prof Elizabeth Ochardson-Mazrui and Chief Justice Willy Mutunga will be the chief guest.