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Women conspicuously missing from history books

Try this. Can you name at least six women who made it into your primary or secondary school history textbooks? If you got as far as two you are not alone.

I assume the lucky ones are Mekatilili wa Menza and Wangu wa Makeri. I picked six because that’s the number for the detainees famously known as the Kapenguria Six, those arrested with Jomo Kenyatta and tried at Kapenguria. They were all men by the way. 

I recently embarked on a project to write a history book for Kenyan children, and I realised the voice of women is completely muted in our history textbooks. It is as if they did not exist, or history only affected the men.

And when women make an appearance in many books, it is a paragraph here, and a sentence there, and that’s it. They are never mentioned by name. Even when it is an issue that specifically affects women, they are completely absent.

One of the main reasons for the formation of African independent schools among the Kikuyu was because of the issue of female circumcision. The missionaries opposed the practice. The textbooks mention Kikuyu prominent figures like Mzee Kenyatta as instrumental in countering the missionaries.

I remember that one textbook didn’t even bother to mention women as a group. Not that the practice wasn’t popular among women then—it probably was. But it is just amazing that the textbook just says the Gikuyu opposed the practice.

Few women feature in the history books that are taught at the primary and secondary school level. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi constantly harps on ‘the danger of a single story.’

The reason, I focus on the primary and secondary school level is because of the impressionable age. How do we expect girls to grow on an equal footing with boys if they cannot find role models to identify with on the printed pages?

The Mau Mau resistance was mainly kept alive by women. Not only were they fighters in the forest, but the bulk of logistics was also handled by a network of women. Every general knows you cannot fight a war on an empty stomach.

True, the literature on the contribution of women is not as extensive as that for men, but it does exist. Way back in 1985, Muthoni Likimani wrote an aptly named book: Passbook Number F. 47927: Women and Mau Mau in Kenya

I began by trying to write the kind of history book that a young me would have enjoyed, but now I have come to realise that I should probably write one that the younger versions of my two sisters would have enjoyed. A book that Wangari Maathai, Wambui Otieno, Grace Ogot, Grace Onyango, Chelegat Mutahi, and Charity Ngilu are at the very least six names that you won’t forget. – Writer is a Political Science PhD student at Northern Illinois University, US—@janeksunga