Mekatilili wa Menza: She Feared No Man


The East African (Nairobi)

Kenya: She Feared No Man


Nairobi — Every year, around August 9, the Giriama people go on a pilgrimage to Sabaki River to commemorate the life of their great heroine, Mekatilili wa Menza.

Were she alive today, she would have been delighted at the news last week of the recognition by Unesco of the kayas of the coast as World Heritage Sites.

Kayas are fortified settlements on hilltops that by the middle of the 19th century were used mostly for religious gatherings or ceremonies.

A potent symbol for the Giriama, she is also a reminder of the importance of their contribution to the fight for independence.

Born in Kaloleni in Kilifi district, her name means "daughter of Katilili." Historical documents describe her as having been elderly when she was arrested and detained on December 18, 1913 together with a companion of her lost husband — Wanje wa Mwadori, a member of the Kavuta Rika, the age set which was in power from 1870-1906.

As a girl, she began to learn to her horror that her people were being taken away in one form of slavery or another — by the Arabs, to foreign lands; or by the British, who needed strong labourers on their farms.

They were forced to pay heavy taxes which the British knew they could not afford, especially in times of famine — a ruse leaving them with no option but to obey the colonial masters.

She was driven by the prophecy of a famous Giriama woman seer known as Me Po Ho, who had foretold the coming of the white man — and a woman who would lead the resistance against them.

Me Po Ho had said that strangers would one day come bringing with them objects that flew above people’s heads and warned that when they landed in Giriamaland that would be the end of their traditions and the beginning of destruction.

At that time, kayas were important gathering places for the Mijikenda tribes.

Prior to 1912, the Mijikenda had not been affected by the pressure of the colonial administration; that year, however, a district officer was posted to Mwangea for the first time, a tax was imposed and the people were forced to provide labour both for private plantations and public works.

Mekatilili urged the people to reject the new ways and to return to their kayas to consult their own gods. She told the people they should not pay the exorbitant taxes, including the tax on huts where grain was stored.

"The problem is not that we have left the ways of our ancestors," she said. "It is the British who have left the way of their ancestors and need to be cut down!" (Mekatilili wa Menza: Woman Warrior by Elizabeth Mugi-Ndua, Sasa Sema Books 2000).

Elders performed the fisi (hyena) oath, which was the most dreaded because it was believed to kill anyone under its spell.

The oath forbade anyone from co-operating with the British in any way and threatened terrible things to any headmen who did so, including being exposed publicly as traitors to their people. The same kiraho (spell) was cast on those who wore European clothing or attended mission schools.

Syokimau, one of the greatest seers of the Ukambani foretold the coming of a long snake burrowing out of the great waters at the Coast, working its way across the land and disappearing into the big waters in the west — the railway.

Mekatilili feared no one. In a statement recorded by a chief, it is said that she "was ready to go even to ‘Bibi Queen’, the mother of the Europeans, to complain against the collection of taxes and the government demand to get the Giriama to provide labour."

In their wonderful book Kenya Women Heroes and their Mystical Power, Rebeka Njau and Gideon Mulaki (Risk Publications 1984 and probably now out of print) spoke to one Mzee Kalume of Jilore in Malindi district who says he knew Mekatilili and lived with her for a month when he was a boy.

"He describes her as a most active and agile woman who travelled long distances collecting men and women and getting them to gather at the kaya where ceremonies were held and oaths against the British sworn."

Mzee Kalume is sure that "if she were alive today, many people would vote her into parliament."

She was highly feared and respected and no-one dared turn down any of her requests, least of all the kaya elders for whom she was not a mere mouthpiece, having great strength and character of her own.

The British decided that Mekatilili was a witch and arrested her and her husband Wanje on the October 17, 1913. The Provincial Commissioner closed the kaya and forced everyone to move out, believing that without their leaders, the people would again submit to British rule.

The two were sentenced to five years of hard labour in Kisii Prison — a foreign country where Mekatilili could not get used to the cold, grey surroundings so different from the warmth of the coast.

However, five months later they escaped from prison. The British did not bother to chase them as they didn’t think such elderly people would survive trekking through animal-infested forests. They were alleged to have taken with them two blankets and a saucepan belonging to Mombasa and Kisii prisons respectively.

Though they knew no local languages, Kiswahili enabled them to communicate with others on their way and to be welcomed into strangers’ households.

Once they spotted their first baobab tree, they knew they were travelling in the right direction and would soon be home. The baobab is considered a sacred tree and only grows in the eastern areas of Kenya near the coast.

When they arrived home they found the British still collecting taxes and planning to invade the fertile land north of the Sabaki River to set up their own farms.

The British destroyed Kaya Giriama on August 4, 1914 using explosives and fire — a great insult to the people who had regarded it as the centre of their religion and way of life.

Although Mekatilili and Wanje were recaptured and sent back to Kisii, the momentum for an uprising was unstoppable.

Using poisoned arrows, the Giriama attacked in September 1914, using surprise and their superior knowledge of the terrain to give them the advantage. The British soldiers were caught off guard and gave up on these uncivilised, intransigent people.

Mekatilili and Wanje were released from prison in 1919 and immediately set about rebuilding the kaya, confident that they had got rid of their oppressors once and for all.

As always, a powerful woman is supposed to be the instrument of some man, but Wanje wa Mwadori insisted otherwise: "Mekatilili’s strength lies in her own energy and her power of oratory. She is not a witch and she did not consult me before calling her meetings." (Kenya Women Heroes and their Mystical Power).

The recent festival commemorating her life included musical performances at the Stardust Club in Malindi and cultural dances by a variety of local groups together with displays of local crafts and free plates of pilau for the wananchi on Saturday.

Relevant Links Kenya: She Feared No Man (Page 1 of 1)

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