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Elizabeth Wanjiru Matenjwa: Friends were few, relatives fearful

By | October 22nd 2011

By Lillian Aluanga

An excerpt from the book, The Other Side of Prison, documents a dying woman’s wish.

"Sister I am going. My illness is terminal and I will not live any longer, but one thing that I leave you with is our children. Please don’t leave my son to these people who are always following him." A week later that woman was dead.

The woman on her deathbed was mother to Wanyiri Kihoro, former Nyeri Town MP. The children she was talking about were her son, Kihoro, and daughter-in-law, Wanjiru, while the woman she was making the plea to was Elizabeth Wanjiru Matenjwa.

Elizabeth Wanjiru Matenjwa

"Wanyiri Kihoro is my son-in-law, but I have always considered him my son because he was married to my daughter and I promised his mother that I would take care of him," says Wanjiru.

That pledge was made sometime in the 1980s and little did Wanjiru know just how prophetic the dying woman’s words were. Today, Wanjiru, 74, is sickly and old but able to recollect events that led her to join a group of women at Uhuru Park’s Freedom Corner in 1992.

Although Kihoro had been released from prison in 1989 after serving a three-year sentence for allegedly being involved with Mwakenya activities, Wanjiru still chose to join the protesting mothers.

" I understood the women’s pain and wanted to support them. Some like Mirugi Kariuki’s mother, Gladys Kariuki (deceased) were old and weak and I felt sorry for them. But these mothers believed they had to stay at Freedom Corner if they were to achieve their goal," says Wanjiru.

Security agents

She speaks of the day women bared their nakedness to law officers. "The women had been pushed to the wall and it was the only weapon they had. The male officers backed off and female officers were brought in but they were even more brutal because they beat us," says Wanjiru.

In her view, the women had to shun fear and continue to fight for a liberated country so that their grandchildren could inherit freedom.

By 1982, Wanjiru had begun to feel the heat from Government security agents. A coup had swept over the land and security organs were jittery. Earlier in 1981, Kihoro had been held briefly, before leaving the following year for England with his wife and three children. But the cold weather affected the children who were asthmatic. By then the couple assumed the Government was no longer interested in Kihoro, and so returned to Kenya in 1986, and settled in Mombasa.

But in July that year the police came for Kihoro.

Wanjiru runs her hand through her greying hair as she recalls the events.

"My daughter called to inform us of his arrest. In those days no one wanted to associate with you if you were labelled ‘anti-government’. A neighbour was kind enough to offer her his telephone but once he knew the circumstances took the phone off the hook," says Wanjiru. Similar attitudes were extended to other family members living in Eldoret.

"Friends were few and even relatives kept their distance. People kept asking me what my son had done and I told them he had done nothing wrong because he had only expressed his opinion on political issues," she adds.

With Kihoro’s incarceration and her daughter, Wanjiru studying abroad, the elderly Wanjiru took care of the couple’s three children. She also had to visit Kihoro in prison but this wasn’t always easy.

New Constitution

At one point Wanjiru had to write to the then Police Commissioner Philip Kilonzo to allow her see Kihoro.

"It wasn’t easy. I endured countless sleepless nights wondering if he was okay. I was also afraid that if my daughter (now deceased) stayed in the country, the Government would come for her too and the children would be orphaned," says Wanjiru.

She recalls her first meeting with Nobel Laureate Prof Wangari Maathai when some of the women camping at Freedom Corner presented a petition to the then Attorney General, Amos Wako.

"Wangari was friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. We talked for hours into the night at the church and she told us not to give up because some day we would triumph," adds Wanjiru.

Her thoughts on the new Constitution? "It will change the way things are done. I like the fact that interviews for top positions are now being done publicly," she says.

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