The challenge for the contemporary writer is how to tell our stories of old in a new way.
Kui Gitonga cracked this task in her recently launched book about women warriors. It’s a historical children’s book, and the colourful illustrations immerse the reader some more in the atmosphere of colonialist-occupied Kenya. It’s an atmosphere that’s heartbreaking in its truth, yet achingly beautiful. An atmosphere only our stories of resistance can evoke. Kui speaks to FLORENCE BETT-KINYATTI.
“I began to ask myself questions when I was 21. I was in university and out there in the world, a young adult, away from my mum and dad at home in South B, where I grew up. I’m the last in a family of four boys; my brothers had all left home to start their own families. I asked questions like, ‘Who am I?’ ‘Who are the women who came before me?’ ‘What are their stories?’ These questions drove me to my upcountry home in Thika, where my maternal grandmother told me stories about detention and the hard labour of colonial days.
Many of the stories told in the fight for independence were about men in the forefront — Dedan Kimathi, General China — yet the war was fought by both men and women. The stories in this book are about such women: Mekatilili, Hannah Kung’u, Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima, Wambui Waiyaka Otieno and Mukami Kimathi. All the stories are real. I’ve added some fictional elements to embellish the storytelling.
The book doesn’t have tribal balance because the fight against colonialism mostly happened in central Kenya. Not to say there aren’t women warrior from other regions who didn’t fight, it’s just that their stories weren’t told or recorded — not in the archives, biographies or scholars’ thesis. There are some Kisii and Luo women I’ve mentioned in the book but tragically, I couldn’t find their stories anywhere.
I didn’t like history when I was in school, I dropped it in my second year. I suppose it was how we were taught, we were cramming dates for things that’d happened in the past and seemed of no relevance to my future. I want my book to change such dislike for the younger generation.
The idea to write this book was spoken to me. I tell people this but they never believe me. I meditate a lot, it was June 2017 and my birthday. I heard a voice whisper to me, ‘Write a children’s book about women heroes’. I work fulltime in the aviation industry, been there 13 years. We launched the book on December 12, 2018, a significant date to the history of our country and to the women in the book.
FIGHT FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN
I don’t know who won this war, it’s a painful question to ask. I think it’s the ones who didn’t fight in it — the British who were left back home, and the Africans who didn’t go into the forest.
My audience for this book is children aged eight and above. Parents should read it and tell the stories to their children in a more palatable language.
I met Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima at her home in Nyeri. I went with my mum and aunt because I wanted someone to translate some of the Kikuyu I wouldn’t understand.
Field Marshall Muthoni has a spirit that draws people to want to listen to her when she speaks. And she’s strong; I remember she fought back tears as she spoke about what the home guards did to the woman that ran away from their homes to hide with her in the forest. Everyone in that room balanced tears. I’m even getting goose bumps just thinking about it. Plus, she’s funny, like laugh-out-loud funny. She kept dropping some one-liners that had us all burst out loud laughing.
I’m Christian but I’m not religious. I believe in God, I believe we’re all spiritual beings connected to each other and to a higher force. A religious person is told what to do regardless of what is right. A spiritual person does what is right regardless of what he’s told to do. The missionaries came long before the colonialists, they preached equality yet they killed Africans and stole our land. It was hypocritical.
Writing this book has made my voice stronger and taught me that you must stand up and fight — literally fight — for what you believe in.
As I listened to Muthoni speaking, and read extensively about the other women in the book, I sometimes wonder if I’d have done what they did if I were in their shoes. I think I’d have made a good spy. I know how to adapt to a situation, nobody will suspect me. In primary school, I was naughty with my classmates but the teachers knew me as a quiet girl.
This book is the first of a series I want to write about influential women. I want next to write about women in aviation, then women in sports.”