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The Giriama woman who terrified Britons

Harrison Kivisu @kmbungu

There is always that first. And Mekatilili wa Menza, the “woman of war”, was one such.  She led the Giriama community against the British colonialists at a time women had little say in anything beyond the kitchen.

And what more, Mekatilili was a widow. But she cleverly used the lack of a patronising male as a stepping stone to daring public feats, opposing white occupation and forced labour on local youth.

In a stroke of pure political genius, she mobilised through a dance called kifudu.  Within weeks, the Giriama colonial system had all but shut down, which predictably, did not make the British colonial supervisor, Arthur Champion happy.

There is a legend of the two meeting in which Mekatilili laid a mother hen before the Briton and dared him to pick one of the chicks. He did, and the mother hen pecked the heck out of him.

“See,” said Mekatilili? “This is what will happen if you take Giriama men for your war.” In response, Champion took out his gun and shot the mother hen.

The British then arrested Mekatilili and locked her up 600 kilometres away in Kisii prison. She escaped and did what the Brits thought impossible, walked back to the Coast.

Once more, she galvanised the Giriama against the foreign rulers and in return, they captured her and   locked her up at Kismayu, in present-day Somalia. But again, she ran back to her home in Bungale, where she died in 1914.

It is the story that reads like a movie which heightened my eagerness as I travelled to Giriamaland, 70km from Mombasa town to the remote village of Ulaya Kwa Jele in Bungale location, Magarini district.

And after a two-hour drive on a bumpy road from Magarini market, I finally arrived at Bungale. At a local market popularly known as Ulaya, I link up with Mekatilili’s great grandchild Safari Kea, aged 24.  He offers to lead us to the mausoleum where the remains of Mekatilii were interred.

We walk down a narrow path lined by thorny bushes to the Shujaa Mekatilili wa Menza Community Cultural Centre.

It is in a forest, on a eight-acre piece of land owned by Mekatilili descendants. It is a serene setting. The compound is full of vegetation. From a distance some grass thatched traditional Giriama huts tower above the vegetation. The roofs are almost falling apart.

Deep inside the forest lies Mekatilili’s grave. Inside a hut, the grave is exposed to rain and direct sun rays.  “This is the grave where she was buried many years ago. It is now a sacred place but the status of the mausoleum is wanting,” says Kea.

“Local elders have turned it to a shrine. No one is allowed inside without the consent of elders. It is also a requirement that you enter the mausoleum half-naked,” Kadzo Mwanyele, 78, old explains. The mausoleum is almost covered by forest.

“Whoever goes inside takes off their shoes, and every other clothes. Then you are given a kikoi a traditional Giriama attire to wrap around the waist,” said Mwanyele.

Visitors should drop some money offering in form of coins onto the tomb. The cash is treated as gifts to appease the gods.

“This place has been abandoned. As you can see it is getting bushy. Houses are falling apart. People are now going to forget her contribution if things continue like this,” says Kea.

Every August the local community came together in hundreds for a festival in memory of the hero. Kea recalls Giriama drumbeats rent the air in a lively, robust and vibrant celebration.vBut for the past few years the commemoration has not taken place.

Magarini Cultural Center director Tsuma Nzai a key player in the protection of the Mijikenya traditions blames local leadership and disconnect between the Mijikenya Kaya elders for the collapse of the cultural celebrations.

“We want to be involved if there are activities involving the Mijikenya community. What we want is our generations to get Mekatilili’s history,” he said.

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