Muthoni Nyanjiru: Kenya’s Historical Light of Feminine Defiance
By Katlego Mereko
Towards the end of the 19th century, Britain, Germany, France and other European nations set about dividing and sharing Africa to their ominous tastes in the iconoclastic Berlin Conference. Britain, though their Imperial British East Africa Company had their sights firmly on a rich plain of land we now know as Kenya.
As had been the case in other extensions of their colonial enterprise, such as South Africa, the British flipped life in Kenya right on its head. In no less than three decades Nairobi had become a fast-growing city in demand of labour. The extortionate hut taxes in the villages were enough to impel people from different tribes in Kenya to seek employment in the city.
Harry Thuku touted as among the first men in Kenya to have a working knowledge of the English language and leader of Kenya’s first African political organisation, the East African Association, was arrested in 1922 March 14th for his growing political influence among the Kenyans. While in detention, members and sympathisers of the EAA staged a vigil-cum-protest outside Kingsway Police Station, demanding the release of their leader. For two days, the Africans did not report for work, with pickets out to make sure no one broke the strike.
The second night of Thuku’s arrest saw the beginning of a series of unprecedented events in Gikuyu history. Over 200 women took an oath binding them to execute a specific plan of action. Oath-taking was forbidden for Gikuyu women as they were considered mentally unfit and bodily unable to endure the ordeal, but on this night, they would change the course of history.
The following morning, 6 men, one of whom rumoured to be a young Jomo Kenyatta, were elected to negotiate the release of Thuku. When the men returned, it was clear that Thuku was not to be released, and the crowd, in the upwards of 6000 in number, grew even more recalcitrant and shook with exasperation.
Enter Muthoni Nyanjiru. Having had enough like much of the crowd, Muthoni went a step further in her frustration, got a hold of her calico dress, raised it over her shoulders and shouted:
“Take my dress and give me your trousers! You men are cowards! What are you waiting for? Our leader is in there! Let’s go get him!!”
What Muthoni had just performed was an old Gikuyu insult. Guturamira ng’ania was a rarely employed move only performed as a last resort when women could no longer recognise the authority of men when all went awry. It was the most powerful symbol of defiance a woman could use against a patriarchal system.
Africa's first female Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, along with her colleagues, was to use the same tactic some seventy years later at Freedom Corner.
This act inspired ululations as hundreds and possibly thousands of other women cheered in support of Muthoni. She led a push forward towards the police lines, immediately leading to about forty askaris raising their guns while standing between them and Thuku’s cell; the prisoner at the time a helpless onlooker from his prison cell window.
When a section of the crowd made a break for Thuku’s cell, the first shot was fired. This was followed by a hail of bullets relentlessly emptied into the crowd. Opposite the police station was Norfolk Hotel where white settlers wined and dined. Of this capricious bunch, those who were armed joined the police and began shooting at the crowd from behind.
When the dust had settled, at least 200 people laid dead, Muthoni among them. Even more were injured and suffered fatal injuries to which they would later succumb. The official government figure claimed only 21 fatalities and 28 injuries, but all lies have short legs and media propaganda could not, for too long, hide the truth about the morning of arguably the biggest pre-Mau Mau pogrom effected by British imperial forces in Kenya.