By CAROLINE WAHOME
Love is one of the best gifts that a mother gives to her children. A group of ordinary women that staged a hunger strike in order to press for the release of their incarcerated sons not only proved that, but also claimed a place in Kenya’s history of struggle.
They braved truncheons, guns and tear gas. For those who saw the bigger picture, this was not just a fight for release of their sons. It was a battle between David and Goliath for the sake of a more just society.
Those women will forever be remembered as gallant soldiers of reforms and good governance.
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By March 1992, the Kanu government was holding 52 people in prisons for politically instigated accusations.
In the weeks before the strike, the government had clamped down on people it considered dissidents, who were arrested and confined without trial. Police raided homes of people like Mirugi Kariuki, Rumba Kinuthia and Koigi Wamwere and paraded guns allegedly found in the homes of some of them.
Efforts to lobby Amos Wako, the then attorney general to review the cases and have them released, had not borne fruit. Others were serving jail terms. A leading light in this campaign was Wangari Maathai, the respected environmentalist who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Together with groups like Release Political Prisoners, a lobby that pushed against detention without trial, they decided to start a hunger strike at Uhuru Park, Nairobi.
For that, they were clobbered by police. Many were hospitalised for days. The attack on elderly, unarmed women was seen as one of the most despicable acts by a government against its own people.
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It was on Friday February 25, 1992 that the group of women made their way into the section of Uhuru Park christened Freedom Corner. In 1989, the government had planned to build the Kenya Times Media Complex at the park, a public utility reserved as a green space for recreational purposes. Maathai stood up against the project over environmental concerns. After weeks of a standoff between her and officials, the government backed down. A section of the park was named Freedom Corner to commemorate that incident.
This was seen as the best place to stage the mothers’ protest. Within days, the numbers began to swell as well wishers joined in. For the days they were at Uhuru Park, the women survived on water and glucose. It was difficult for them as some were as old as 70- years. The show of solidarity was unparalled. Friends brought paraffin in jerrycans, warm blankets and charcoal to help the women stay warm at night.
“I take pride in you, my mothers. You hewers of wood, drawers of water and beasts of burden that after all that, you are ready to die for freedom of our brothers and I will today be massacred with you,” said a sympathiser, Muriuki Kigia from Dandora.
Margaret Wambui, sister to detained lawyer Rumba Kinuthia, spoke of the solidarity.
“We’ve had many sympathisers who have been coming every night to keep as company and comfort us. There is one mzungu woman who has been coming every morning to weep with us,” she said.
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On the fifth day, the government did what few expected. Police carrying batons, guns and teargas invaded Freedom Corner to flush the women out.To protest the brutality, some women stripped naked in front of the police, many young enough to be their sons.
“One of the most powerful of African traditions concerns the relationship between a woman and a man who could be her son. Every woman old enough to be your mother is considered like your own mother and expects to be treated with considerable respect,” Maathai wrote in her autobiography, Unbowed: One Woman’s Story.
“As they bared their breasts, what the mothers were saying to the policemen in their anger and frustration as they were being beaten was ‘By showing you my nakedness, I curse you as I would my son for the way you are abusing me.’”
Maathai died in 2011, aged 71.
Fumes of teargas
It was reported that some officers carried sub-machineguns. In the afternoon, the situation worsened as the government issued a statement ordering the women to clear the area. Maathai was carried to hospital while still unconscious.
But by evening, the resilient women had returned to the site.
In the coming days, the city was a battlefield as more people joined in the protest, taunting police and burning several vehicles. Nairobi was thrown into chaos. What had started as a small protest by peaceful women had degenerated into ugly scenes, thanks to police action. Foreign missions and governments condemned the incident.
The government started rounding up the mothers forcefully taking them home. In the same year, the country had scrapped one-party rule to allow multi-party democracy. As the democratic space expanded, the prisoners were eventually free. Some of them were elected to parliament and named to the Cabinet after Narc came to power in 2002.