By Patrick Beja
For a month, Malindi residents have seen a flurry of activities to honour their heroine, Mekatilili wa Menza.
They include construction of a shade whose completion is set to coincide with Mashujaa Day, celebrated for the first time today.
In the shade there will be a decorated statue of the Giriama leader at the Mekatilili wa Menza Garden launched last month in Malindi town.
It was formerly known as Uhuru Gardens. Besides renaming the landmark, Malindi Municipal Council named the street from Sir Ali Bin Salim School to Malindi District Hospital after the woman leader.
And for the sixth time, Malindi District Cultural Association staged the Mekatilili wa Menza Cultural Festival between August 12 and 15, to celebrate the life of the woman who led the community’s struggle against British rule.
The festival attracted attendance from many communities, local and international.
It brought together Mau Mau war veterans from the eight provinces and elders from other Kenyan communities.
Born Mnyazi Menza, Mekatilili organised the Giriama to oppose the British in what is known as the Giriama uprising of 1913 to 1914.
Mekatilili led her people to war on August 13, 1913 at Kwa Hawe Wanje, Chakama in Malindi.
“She is the first person to take part in Kenya’s independence struggle,” Mr Joseph Karisa Mwarandu.
She likened herself to a mother of chicks in defence of the villagers. Mekatilili opposed forced labour in British-owned rubber and sisal plantations, hut tax, evictions from the fertile Sabaki River Valley and restricted consumption of palm wine (mnazi).
“She is a heroine of her and our time also. She advocated freedom and basic human rights for all,” says Mr John Mitsanze, a research and documentation officer.
The climax was when Mekatilili opposed the recruitment of Giriama youth to serve as carrier corps during the First World War.
She was subsequently arrested together with Wanje wa Mwadorikola of Masindeni Garashi on December 18, 1913.
They were detained at Fort Hall in Kisii, a thousand kilometres away from home. However, community members believe she miraculously escaped and walked all the way back home to continue with the struggle.
“The British were amazed by the escape. It was unbelievable that she could have walked such a distance through the forest infested with dangerous wild animals,” says Mwarandu.
Mitsanze says more than 250 people were killed in the rebellion, 400 Giriama bomas were burnt and payment of 50 rupees fine by every adult from Bungale, Garashi, Chakama and Marekebuni villages.
“The war started at Chakama and by the end of it, Giriama rebels were impoverished,” he says.
The cultural association has organized the Mekatilili Festival since 2004. Then Minister for Tourism and Wildlife, the Late Karisa Maitha attended the inaugural festival, which was his last public appearance before his demise. He declared the festival a national event.
The celebrations kick off in Malindi town and go all the way to Ulaya Kwa Jele, Bungale in Magarini, districts where her grave and that of her husband Mulewa Dhuka are.
The Mau Mau War Veterans Association members began attending the event after recognizing the heroine as pioneer freedom fighter.
This year, the association Vice-chairman Kabiru M’Mburugu Marete led a strong delegation to the festival dressed in Mijikenda traditional attire.
They planted trees at Mekatilili wa Menza’s burial site as they showered the departed colleague with praises.
“The history of Kenya’s independence struggle has always been distorted. The impression created was that only the Mau Mau were involved in the freedom movement in 1950s,” argues Mwarandu, a lawyer at the Coast.
He says it is erroneous and the Mau Mau members have began correcting the misconception.
“Most communities were involved in the independence struggle,” he adds.
Admirers of Mekatilili argue she is indeed the first person to ignite the fire for Kenya’s independence struggle.
During the festival there was the installation of the Mekatilili shrine and her memorial statue (koma) beside her husband in a grass-thatched hut symbolising that although a heroine, Mekatilili lived a normal family life.
Mekatilili’s granddaughter from her last-born son, Sayo Kalama, 90, attended the festival. Sayo says the heroine later led a normal life after the rebellion and died in a grass-thatched hut during a severe famine.
“I know her. She used to wear a leso and succumbed to illness at the height of a severe drought at Bungale,” Sayo said.