The fight for our self determination was an all-hands-on-deck affair that started almost immediately after the British arrived and at every corner of Kenya.

Mekatilili wa Menza (born circa 1860 – died in 1924) led the Giriama people between 1913-1914 in resisting British occupation and the disruption to their cultural heritage including worship. Through her eloquent arguments against colonial rule, she marshaled and organized the Giriama people to form a parallel government to the local colonial government.

She took issue with young Giriama men being forced to provide labor for the colonial government along the Kenyan coastal region which brought back memories of Arab slave traders who lured young men with promises of work only for the young men never to come back. Similarly, she brought to task Giriama headmen recruited by the British accusing them of receiving payments to encourage their people to work for the British. [1] These were just but a few of the grievances that led Mekatilili to take on the colonial government.

To galvanize her followers to the cause, she encouraged them to travel to their Kayas (Kayas are sacred dwellings among the Mijikenda in forests and are today designated as UNESCO heritage sites) as part of returning to their Giriama traditions and religion. Mekatilili had also installed Wanje wa Mwadori, a mediceneman, as the Chief Judge to lead the parallel government. Mwadori was on hand at the Kaya to hear people’s grievances and most importantly administer the mukushekushe (women) and fisi  (men) oaths resisting British occupation. (These oaths were taken very seriously by the Giriama people and the mere mention of them was enough to keep people on the straight-and-narrow path.)

For leading this resistance, she was exiled to Gusiiland by the colonialists. A famous account among her people says she escaped, freed her fellow detainees and walked all the way back to her home to continue the resistance.[2]

To discredit her, the British branded Mekatilili a ‘witch’ and a ‘mad woman’; they were especially befuddled by her performance of the “Kifudu” funeral dance which was her way of attracting large crowds to listen to her.[3] But judging the success of the resistance, one can only conclude that Mekatilili was a brilliant charismatic leader and strategist who united her people against the colonialists by appealing to what they valued most; their religion and traditional values. Wikipedia

Read More About Mekatilili wa Menza.

The Giriama and Colonial Resistance in Kenya, 1800-1920. Cynthia Brantley.  ISBN: 978-0520042162
Rethinking the Mau Mau in Colonial Kenya. 2007 By S. Alam.
Mekatilili wa Menza (c.1860-c.1925). The widow who beat the British through ecstatic dance. Read here.
Mekatili wa Menza Facebook tribute page.
Photocourtesy: Feature photo – Art by Zarina Patel. Read more about the artist.