Since 1901

By Lillian Aluanga

A black and white photo hanging on the wall of a home in Kiamumbi farm, off Thika Road, shows a group of happy people.

Two women are locked in an embrace with a bespectacled man who is smiling. Around them are more smiling faces. The photo is dated January 19, 1993, and the word ‘release’ is scrawled above the dateline.

"It was one of the happiest days of my life because my son had come back to me," says Milka Wanjiku.

Milka Wanjiku.

It had been months since Wanjiku and several other women left their homes for Uhuru Park’s Freedom Corner to press for the release of their sons detained over alleged subversive activities.

Treason charges

During those months Wanjiku, 84, had cried and prayed countless times. Initially, the group of 12 old, and frail women at Freedom Corner took nothing but water.

"How could I eat when I did not even know what condition my son was in?" she asks. While in detention, her son, Rumba Kinuthia, now a lawyer, was twice taken ill with high blood pressure and admitted to the Kenyatta National hospital.

Eventually the women were convinced to end their hunger strike so they could stay alive and see their sons upon their release.

Wanjiku recollects how news of the protesting mothers spread, drawing people to Uhuru Park and later the All Saints Cathedral carrying mattresses, blankets and huge pots of food for the women.

Wanjiku’s first brush with the law started in 1990 when her children, Rumba, Margaret, Mwaura and his wife Mary, were whisked from their homes by police for questioning.

"Those were dark days. I did not know whether my children were dead or alive. I did not know what they had done and we lived in constant fear of Special Branch officers who could storm the house anytime," she says. Her daughter Margaret and Mwaura’s wife were briefly detained for "failing to report treason". Rumba, a father of four, and his brother were charged with treason and held at Kamiti Maximum Prison.

Afterwards neighbours, friends and relatives shunned the home for fear that they, too, would be targeted by the State for associating with a "dangerous family".

It was then that Wanjiku heard of a woman called Prof Wangari Maathai who was helping mothers of political prisoners organise a demonstration.

"Mama Koigi, Mama Thung’u and I talked to Wangari about the issue and she advised us to go to Uhuru Park and stage a sit-in until our sons were released," she recalls.

Former Subukia MP Koigi Wamwere and Thung’u Wakaba were among those accused of having a hand in the attempted coup of 1982.

Wanjiku is happy that the country has a new Constitution, but she is cautious of obstacles that may lie ahead.

Made us stronger

"There are some people who would like things to remain the same because they would have more to gain," she says, as she drifts back to the 1990s.

"There is a lot of freedom now and people can speak their mind. When police descended on us with teargas and batons at the Park, it only made us stronger," she says, as she points to a scar on her leg.

"I fell as we ran away from the police but I consider it a small price to pay for the promise of seeing our sons walk out of prison," she says.

Wanjiku remembers the beating that Wangari got which landed her in hospital. But when she was discharged Wangari refused to go home. Still in a neck brace, she rejoined the women camping at the All Saints Cathedral Church.

As she talks about the Nobel Laureate, Wanjiku begins to cry.

"When I first heard news of Wangari’s death on radio I screamed because I could not believe it. My daughter, Margaret rushed into the house and I asked her which Wangari the news was referring to," she says. "We had walked a long road with this woman and somehow I always believed she would outlive us.

She recalls her last meeting with Wangari, a couple of months ago when she invited the mothers who had been at Freedom Corner and a host of other friends to a meal.

"We all met at the Nakumatt Junction, on Ngong Road. Wangari said she wanted us to eat together and there was a lot of laughter and relieving of old memories," says Wanjiku, of a group of otherwise unknown women who took a path few dared tread.

It was they, who though uncelebrated, remain heroines to the families they held together during those difficult times.