Wangu wa Makeri

Never again had the fate of so many depended on the whims of one woman, when village idlers quaked at the mention of her name and able-bodied men avoided meeting her like the plague. Then, the most threatened species were the tax evaders who had to contend with the brutal power of her forces, as they were drugged whipped and incarcerated in solitary confinement.

Their humiliation was total. Every other day when the high and the mighty came calling, they rode on the backs of the able-bodied tax evaders, as the hoi polloi cheered. Along the way, the villagers dotted the pathway with calabashes of yams, sweet potatoes and arrowroots, proffered to a multitude of sidekicks for the consumption of the chief and her retinue, marching barefoot to her majesties service.

The compound that housed Wangu wa Makeri's office. Photo: Amos Kareithi/ Standard

And those who were irresistibly drawn to muratina, the potent locally brewed gin, a special treatment had been devised to sober them up. Their backs acted as her seat, as she lorded it over to both men and women, dispensing the white man’s decrees and collecting taxes.

It has been 102 years since the woman captured the imagination of generations, surrendered her post in Weithaga location in Murang’a under a cloud of controversy, but echoes of her power still reverberate all corners of the country.

How could an illiterate woman, whose biggest achievement was the simple post of assistant chief (headman), dominate minds, decades after she was forced out her job after a scandal? Echoes From the Past tries to demystify Wangu wa Makeri, a junior colonial administrator who was feted like a queen.

Parallels have been drawn between her and Queen Victoria, whose right to rule was God-given, and her orders unquestionable by mortals. According to historian Mary Wanyoike, Wangu was born around 1856 to Gatuika Macharia and Wakeru of Gitie village in Kangema division, Murang’a District.

Boasting of no formal education, it must have been her voice and endless energy as she worked in her parent’s land that drew Makeri wa Mbogo to her. Makeri, according to Wanyoike, in her book, Wangu wa Makeri, was of Ndorbo descent and was from Ethaga clan.

Troubled marriage

He was a quiet, reserved man of little ambition, described by 71-year-old Macharia Mwangi as a kimore, as he rarely spoke his mind on any issue or courted controversy. Makeri was however a rich man in his own right and enticed Wangu to be his first wife. Their union yielded children, although some people claim she was barren.

Wanyoike explains that Wangu’s children were Nyakimotho, Nyambura, Wanguru, Muchiri, Gatuiku and Mwangi, who were all born before she was appointed a colonial administrator. But Mwangi, a resident of Koimbi argues that Wangu did not have a child of her own but married other wives, who named their children as directed by the colonial ‘headman’. Traditionally, such arrangements existed and the “husband” decided who sired children with her wife.

Retired father Joachim Gitonga, author of The Paramount Chief Karuri wa Gakure, says that although he had extensively researched, he never heard that Wangu was barren. Wangu’s prominence started in 1901 when Karuri wa Gakure, the paramount chief started frequenting Makeri’s homestead on his way from Tuthu to Murang’a to consult the colonial district commissioner.

Traditions demanded that since Makeri and Karuri were age mates, whenever he stopped over for a night he be entertained by one of the host’s wife for the night. It was from this customary sanctioned wife sharing that Gakure and Wangu grew intimate, becoming inseparable lovers.

Makeri was helpless because although traditions frowned upon wife-snatching, questioning a paramount chief was too serious an issue to be handled by a village council of elders, that also judged youths for impregnating girls.

To calm the troubled marital waters at Makeri’s home, Karuri nominated his age mate to be a headman but the former declined. Determined to have his way and legitimise his sleepovers at Koimbi, he elevated his lover, Wangu in 1902.

“From then, life was never the same in Koimbi. Karuri frequented the area and usually slept at Wangu’s. Whenever he did this, his makanga’s (men who guarded him) raided homes for the fattest sheep to entertain the chief.” Kamau recalls.

The visits drained Koimbi’s resources because every time the Makanga’s went in search of a sheep, they impounded some for Makeri and others for themselves for feasting.

Kamau adds, “The coming of the chief was not a simple matter. Every village had to supply food, which they placed along the Tuthu Murang’a road and was collected by Karuri’s lackeys. Everybody had to line along the roads and cheer as the chief passed.”

The chief and his trusted lover were carried on men’s back from one stage to another until they reached Murang’a. The tours were a spectacle for the chief and his friends and a nightmare to tax evaders who were rounded up and locked by the headmen.

Seat of power intact

They were subjected to hard labour and acted as transport whenever Wangu wanted to visit a place within the expansive location. At Koimbi trading center, Wangu’s seat of power is still intact.

Her office, set aside from the main gate, remains with its stonewalls glinting from a coat of paint. Inside is a photocopy of a picture of the lover birds, prominently displaced with the captions, Chief Karuri wa Gakure, the great Agikuyu chief who introduced missionaries. On his left, Wangu is described as chief. The houses occupied by the guards who answered to the beck and call of Wangu still stand shielded from the elements by its roof of red bricks which were manufactured 12 years after Wangu’s birth.

The roofing tiles resting on rotting wood were manufactured in 1868 by A Alberquake and Sons, while its floor is made of quarry stones laid acting as the surface. The cell, which held the men later selected to act as Wangu and Karuri’s taxis is also intact although its door has been yanked out just as the safe which was used by Wangu to keep her valuables and secrets.

Tired of being treated harshly by the colonial chief who reminded them of two centuries ago when the Agikuyu were dominated by women who ruled their every aspect of life until the Iregi age group revolted, the men of Weithaga plotted and waited. Wanyoike recounts when Wangu’s dog was allegedly hit by a man who wanted to scare it away.

Community punished

The incidence resulted in the entire location being punished for the dog’s death.

Wangu imposed a penalty of Sh2 on every man in the location so that she could buy another one and according to the researcher, all had to oblige. When another inebriated man tried to disrupt an elders meeting at Koimbi, the consequences were drastic, as Muraya was made the laughing stock of Weithaga.

A Portrait of Wangu pasted inside the office she Occupied. Photo: Amos Kareithi/ Standard

The uncompromising administrator forced the drunk Muraya to kneel before the congregation of villagers and sat on his back as she addressed a public meeting.

Her downfall when it came was spectacular and sent shockwaves in the entire district. Records are not clear on the exact date that Wangu fell from glory, but Wanyoike writes of a meeting between June 2 and 4 1909, that sealed her fate and forced her to bow out.

Before the meeting, Wangu had committed the ultimate insult against tradition and her colonial office after she allegedly danced kibata, an exclusive adult male dance, naked. Various theories have been advanced explaining the circumstances that led to her dancing but all agree that she had challenged tradition when she joined the male warriors in a dance.

Some theorists claim that Karuri, an elder of repute with over 60 wives, disregarded etiquettes by joining the warriors who were engrossed in the dance prior to an important meeting.

Exposed nakedness

 On seeing her hero and lover dancing with youth and vigour, Wangu threw caution to the wind, discarded some of her clothing and exposed her breasts as she provocatively danced clutching Karuri. Mwangi offers another explanation: “Before she joined the dancers, some men adjusted her ceremonial sword tied to the waist alongside her muthuru.

 The sword cut the strings of her traditional skirt, which flopped to the ground as Wangu jumped ecstatically, exposing her nakedness”.

After the scandalous dance, Wangu became the subject of ridicule and during the meeting held in Koimbi between June 2 and 4 1909 was forced to resign, a move that Karuri accepted, ending her decade long reign of terror. In her place Ikai wa Gathimba was appointed and never again has a provincial administrator from Murang’a captured the imagination of an entire region like Wangu did.

One of her sons, Muchiri, became chief of Weithaga Location and the compound from where she asserted her colonial supremacy became a bastion of hope for 50 orphans for the last 34 years, when Murang’a County Council established a children’s home.

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Wangu wa Makeri muratina Murang