Harry Thuku, activist who fought for women’s rights

By Kenneth Kwama

Kenya: One of the least acknowledged freedom fighters in Kenya, Harry Thuku, was also a women’s rights activist and his arrest in 1922 by colonial authorities led to the first major demonstration in Nairobi.

Mr Thuku’s interest in the oppression of women had earned him popularity among women and he was able to involve a large number in an organisation called the Kikuyu Provincial Association, which he founded in 1935.

Thuku was arrested in connection with his political activities on March 14, 1922. Demonstrations to protest his arrest rocked Nairobi, especially around Central Police Station where he was held.

The first demonstration kicked off under the guise of a public prayer for the detainee on March 15, and it passed peacefully.

But the following day, a crowd estimated at close to 10,000, mainly women, gathered near the police station and demanded his release. The crowd grew agitated with every passing minute and colonial authorities began to fear they would be overwhelmed if the protest continued.

In a moment of what could have been described as pure madness, the first recorded police shooting of demonstrators in Kenya’s history happened after white police officers opened fire, killing at least 25 demonstrators. Some white settlers who were relaxing at the nearby Norfolk Hotel were reported to have joined in the shooting, killing some of the protesters.

 Legacy derailed

The road leading to the hotel through to where public broadcaster – Kenya Broadcasting Corporation – offices are located was named Harry Thuku Road in memory of this unfortunate event, which seemed to change Thuku’s relationship with the colonialists.

Events thereafter point to a man who became afraid and started working more as a collaborator than a colonial fighter.

Written material about the man who nearly lost his life in 1922 while fighting for the rights of Africans reveals why his legacy may have derailed from the path he had initially embarked on and only ended up as what one writer called a “footnote” in the freedom struggle history when he died in 1970.

Thuku remained active in politics and activism until 1944, but by this time he had also devoted himself to farming. The fact that he was allowed to plant coffee when few other native Kenyans had the privilege was seen as a reward for stopping his agitation for liberation.

Those, including founding President Jomo Kenyatta, who were then bitterly opposed to any co-operation with the colonialists may have seen Thuku’s move as collaboration with the oppressors.

Political scientist John Lonsdale writes that in 1959, Thuku was the first African board member of the Kenya Planters Coffee Union.

With those perks added to his clout, Thuku openly fell out with pro-independence leaders. He started to oppose the Mau Mau movement for what he referred to as its violent style.

On December 12, 1952, Thuku was given a slot to air his views on radio. Lonsdale recorded his words: “Today we, the Kikuyu, stand ashamed and looked upon as hopeless people in the eyes of other races and before the Government. Why? Because of the crimes perpetrated by Mau Mau and because the Kikuyu have made themselves Mau Mau.”